4 Steps for Planting a Drought-Tolerant Garden

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Some gardeners spend hours upon hours a week in the garden – enriching, pinching, pruning, planning. There is a therapeutic quality to getting your hands dirty. But if you are more results-oriented and less excited about the process, there is no shame in that either.
Experts say that if you spend a little time planning, preparing and establishing your garden, you can create a relaxing space that only looks high maintenance.


Creating a low-maintenance garden starts with planting the right plant in the right place so that it can thrive with as little intervention as possible.

“Before you do a thing, get to know every corner of your yard,” says Melinda Myers, a Wisconsin-based gardening expert, TV host, author and columnist. Take note of where you walk, socialize and relax. When inside, what parts of the yard do you see as you look out? These are ideal spots to plant.

Once you choose where to plant, take note of the conditions. How is the soil drainage? Is it sunny or shady? Also, take the time to test your soil.

Make a sketch of how you envision the bed. You don’t have to know what you will plant, but you should have an idea of the shape, size and purpose the plants will serve.  

Containers are a great addition to the landscape. “Containers are so much fun because they are versatile and you can change them easily,” says Kathy Quarles, assistant general manager of Stauffers of Kissel Hill garden center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Think beyond an annual container at the front door. Edibles and perennials work equally well and can be placed by the kitchen door or in a traditional bed to add interest. Perennials are a lower-maintenance choice as they don’t need planted every year.


Most likely, you will need to remove grass or weeds to create a new bed. To remove grass, use a shovel or edger to define the bed. Rent a sod cutter to remove the grass and use it to fill in patchy spots in the yard. If your soil is in good shape, mow the edged grass where the bed will be, cover with newspaper and add several inches of quality topsoil.

If your future garden is full of weeds, dig them out by the roots and dispose of them. A weed killer could be used, but it could be several weeks before the area can be planted.

Next, amend the soil. Proceed based on the results of your soil test. Didn’t get tested? Lay 2 inches of organic matter (compost, aged manure, mulched leaves) on your bed and work it into the top 12 inches of soil. This improves drainage in heavy soils, retains moisture in lighter soils and adds nutrients.

When it comes to successful container gardening, good soil is vital. Find a good potting mix, Quarles says. If it’s too heavy, it will hold too much moisture, and if it’s too light, it will dry out.


Research plants on the Internet, ask the staff at a garden center for recommendations, visit a local botanical garden or nature center to determine what will fill your needs and thrive in your garden. Native plants are a good place to start.

Take your list and sketch to a garden center with a knowledgeable staff. Aside from a helpful salesperson, tags are a great ally when choosing plants. Take note of plants’ mature size, light and moisture requirements. For a low-maintenance garden, they should be a perfect match. Tags often include information such as drought and disease resistance and wildlife attraction (or repellent), which may make a plant more desirable.

When selecting plants for containers, choose ones that are compatible for the amount of water and light needed. Get a container that is a minimum of 12 inches, but preferably at least 18 inches, Quarles says. “Otherwise, you will be watering twice a day in the heat of the summer.” Using non-porous containers will help the soil retain water.


At first, you may find yourself watering every other day, depending on the soil and weather, Myers says. Once established, if you have the right plant in the right spot, maintenance will be minimal.

Watering, once plants are established (a few weeks for annuals, a season for perennials and a couple years for shrubs and trees), can generally be limited to one soaking watering a week.

Mulch beds to help retain moisture, improve soil, keep weeds at bay and complete the look of a garden. It is up-front work that pays off with less watering and weeding down the road. 

Maintaining containers isn’t difficult, Quarles says. Since frequent watering is necessary, nutrients leach out of the soil quickly. To ensure healthy plants, fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer every other week. Quarles recommends topping off the top few inches of soil each year and switching soil completely every two to three years.

Once your garden is established, relax and enjoy! And if you find in a year that something doesn’t look good, move it. “Gardening is an adventure,” Myers says, “it isn’t meant to be static.”

Tags: garden, drought-tolderant