Planting a Drought Tolerant Landscape

Drought conditions have been an annual occurrence here in Bradford County for the past several years. Many homeowners have tried in vain to keep a high maintenance landscape healthy during these dry spells. In many cases, it comes down to whether or not you can afford to water while water wells in the area are going dry.

One way to alleviate this type of situation is to design and plant the home landscape in such a way that will conserve water. This can be done by utilizing landscape plants that will tolerate drought. Some species have an inherent tolerance of drought because they have evolved in arid areas, regions with frequent drought, or regions with soils of low water holding capacity. Some species have anatomical or physiological characteristics that allow them to withstand drought or to acclimate to drought. All plants have a waxy coating on their leaves called "cuticle", but some species have developed exceptionally thick cuticles that reduce the amount of water lost by evaporation from the leaf surface. Leaf hairs, which reduce air movement at the leaf surface, are another means of reducing evaporation from the leaf. Since the amount of surface area exposed to the atmosphere affects evaporation, leaf size and thickness are other adaptations, with thicker leaves and smaller leaves being more resistant to water loss. Some species have evolved large surface root systems to quickly absorb rainfall, while other species grow deep root systems to tap deep water tables. Some plants avoid drought by dropping their leaves during droughts, and quickly regrowing new leaves when environmental conditions improve. Drought tolerant plants are also an important component of "xeriscapes", landscapes designed to conserve water, because drought tolerant plants typically use less water than other plants.

The University of Florida publication "Landscape Design for Water Conservation", and "Drought Tolerant Plants For Florida Landscapes", recommend landscape trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines which have been reported to tolerate drought stress better than most landscape plants. Although these plants are considered drought tolerant, new plantings will require regular irrigation for 6 weeks to 6 months before they become established well enough to be effectively drought tolerant.

Native plants are also a good choice for reducing water use. Natives are adapted to the climate and soil conditions of a given area and usually have fewer pest problems. For more information on native plants check out the publication "Native Plants for Home Landscapes" which is also available from the County Extension Office.

Other methods of conserving water in the landscape include grouping plants in the landscape according to water requirements, increasing the use of mulches, selecting drought tolerant plants, and using windbreaks.