Handy tips for gardening in a semi-arid climate

While the rest of the country seems to be struggling with a little more rain than they’d like this spring, our corner of the world has the opposite problem. Here on the Southern High Plains we are having the driest spell to hit this region since 1925. It has been a real test for my xeric garden – though some plants are fairing well, some are clearly suffering. Fortunately, none have actually bitten the dust – yet.

On the whole, however, I am satisfied with how my garden is hunkering down in this drought, and so for the next few posts, I thought I’d pass along a report on some drought-busting techniques that I’ve learned through the years.

This first one may seem obvious – at least it does to me – but each year I am surprised at how many gardens I see here that ignore it:

1) Populate your garden with plants that are suited to your ecosystem. In other words, if you live in a climate with little rain, think twice about planting something that normally thrives in an ecosystem that sees a lot of it. Out here, that means that most things that grow well east of the 100th Meridian (the latitude line that runs roughly through the western edge of the state of Oklahoma) will not thrive here without extra care.

Now notice that I didn’t say you needed to restrict your planting palette to a strictly native species selection. While I do have many natives in my ornamental garden, such as this Blackfoot daisy (Melanpodium luecanthum) I have many more that are not, and they do just fine.

Do look for natives to add to your garden, especially since it will encourage other native species to visit your garden. But you can also plant many traditional ornamental garden favorites. Here are a few in my own garden that while not native to this particular prairie ecosystem, are virtually carefree:

  • Daylilies
  • Bearded irises
  • Santolina
  • Lavender
  • Lantana (invasive in wetter climes, but non-invasive here)
  • Artemesia

This is a very incomplete list of what will do well in a semi-arid climate, but it might give you some ideas.

Now you might think that the answer is to turn your garden into a complete mini-desert ecosystem, and that would be fine, if your ecosystem is truly arid. However, be aware that a semi-arid region receives, on average, more moisture than an arid one, and just as there are some moisture-loving plants that do not fair well without enough rainfall, there are dry-land plants that will suffer with too much water. In fact, many of my neighbors who try to grow some of the plants in the list above complain to me that they have little success with them. The first question I ask them is whether they are watering them. That plants on that particular list do best if left more or less alone. In fact, after they are fully established, most will seldom get any supplemental watering, and some, like the irises and santolina, don’t even get that.

Also, many shrubs do very well here, once they are well-established, including some surprising ones – like roses and Mahonia – so don’t necessarily count them out. Here is a bonus tip for finding out which ones will do well: Go to older, established neighborhoods and look for yards that appear somewhat neglected. The shrubs that are doing well there are tough and drought-ready.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some mulch ideas that will help you maximize any water that does happen to fall on your plants, whether it be from the sky or an irrigation system.

  1. says

    Great tips, Susan! I especially appreciate your point about watering. I think more plants die from being overwatered in semi-arid and arid gardens than die from drought. (Especially natives, many of which really, really don’t like having wet “feet,” especially in winter.)

    • Susan says

      Thanks, Susan. I’ll bet you have a pretty good list of drought tolerant plants for gardens west of the 100th meridian!

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