19 min read
Some plants perform well with only occasional irrigation.

Learn key issues in planning and implementing a water-efficient landscape and know recommended drought-tolerant landscape plants.

A well-designed and managed landscape can reduce the amount of water needed for home landscape irrigation. This conservation of water becomes increasingly important as municipal governments impose broad watering bans in response to drought situations that create water shortages and strain water supplies. Overhead landscape irrigation is usually the target of these water conservation policies because it is viewed as noncritical consumption.

Thoughtfully planned, attractive landscapes are important because they provide environmental benefits and add value and beauty to homes. The environmental benefits include reducing soil erosion and stormwater runoff, providing wildlife habitats, removing carbon dioxide and pollutants from the atmosphere while adding oxygen, and keeping homes cooler in the summer and protecting them from cold winds in the winter.

Homeowners can ensure a sustainable landscape by planning for water conservation, choosing appropriate plants, improving the soil, establishing plants properly, mulching, fertilizing correctly, and watering efficiently.

Planning for Efficient Use of Water

Some plants perform well with only occasional irrigation.

Some plants perform well with only occasional irrigation.

It is important to plan a design for the landscape. The types of plants used and their location, the condition of the soil, and other factors all affect how much water must be used to maintain the landscape.

Hydrozoning is locating plants according to a landscape’s differing levels of shading, soil evaporation rates, and exposure to ambient weather conditions.

Early in the design process, divide the landscape into low, moderate, and high water-use areas, or hydrozones. Walk around the landscape and identify places where the soil stays moist longer; separate them from the areas fully exposed to the sun where the soil tends to dry quickly.

Low water-use hydrozones should comprise as much of the landscape as possible when water conservation is desired. Generally, low water-use hydrozones are located away from the most traveled areas of the landscape, but this is not a requirement. Moderate water-use hydrozones should include established plants that only require irrigation every 2 to 3 weeks in the absence of rainfall or when they show visible signs of stress, such as wilted foliage and off-green color. High water-use hydrozones should be limited and strategically located for high impact and easy access, such as areas around patios, decks, pools, or entryways.

As a starting point, zone 10 percent or less of the total landscape for high water use, 30 percent or less for moderate water use, and 60 percent or more for low water use.

Plants vary tremendously in drought tolerance. Many native plants, once established, require little supplemental water or maintenance, but don’t assume that all native plants are drought tolerant or suitable for home landscapes.

When available, incorporate native wooded areas into the landscape and blend these areas with the planted portions of the landscape. Remove weedy or undesirable understory plants to create more open areas. It may be necessary to remove some canopy trees to reduce competition and improve the health of remaining trees. Strategically place large canopy trees to keep the landscape cooler and reduce water loss while providing a comfortable living environment.

In planted areas, it may be tempting to position young plants close together to be more visually appealing. As plants approach maturity, however, drastic pruning likely will be needed, which increases water use and plant stress. Learn the expected mature size of the plants to be included and provide them with sufficient space.
Windbreaks help keep plants and soil from drying. Use trees, informal hedges, shrubs, or tall ornamental grasses as natural windbreaks.

Decide which plants should be watered first, second, and third, considering plant value, replacement costs, time to grow a comparable plant, and which ones are significant to you. One essential feature of a water- efficient landscape is the gardener’s judgment on when irrigation is needed as opposed to relying on an automated timer.

Soil Improvement

Preparing the soil thoroughly helps to ensure good root growth. A plant with deep, extensive roots can withstand periods of drought better than plants with shallow roots. Research has shown that digging a wide planting hole or tilling the soil deeply improves the structure of the soil and results in rapid plant establishment and better root growth.

Organic matter dramatically improves most of the different kinds of soils in Alabama. If the soil is fine clay, choose coarse-textured organic matter, such as aged pine bark, to increase aeration in the soil. This product is available at garden centers in bags, usually labeled as soil conditioner. If the soil is sandy, add fine-textured organic matter for water-holding capacity. Compost, humus, and topsoil are fine-textured products. Peat moss is another alternative that has a high water-holding capacity. It degrades slowly in the soil, but it is expensive. Peat moss is available in bags or compressed bales; compressed bales usually are the best deal. Composted animal manure is also available in bags. Animal manure decomposes rapidly in soil, but it provides plants with nutrients and is inexpensive.

Water-absorbing hydrophilic polymers are designed to be mixed with soil and act as artificial reservoirs that release water to plants as the soil dries. These polymers come in plastic containers and look like small, white crystals. Their soil uptake can be impeded by the addition of high rates of limestone or fertilizer, and the correct application rate and longevity of the polymer in the soil is debated. Considering this in addition to the high cost of polymers currently makes recommending these materials difficult.

The best time of year to prepare previously undisturbed soil is in the fall. This allows time during the winter for incorporated organic matter to decompose and for slowly available amendments, such as limestone, to release. To begin, have a soil test performed and add the recommended slowly available amendments. Do not add recommended water-soluble granular fertilizer until spring.

Soils, particularly clay, should be dry enough to till, but not too dry. To determine if the soil is dry enough, pick up a handful and squeeze. If the ball of soil falls apart when poked, the soil is dry enough. If it stays in a ball, the soil is too wet for tilling.

When planting in a large area, such as a bed or border, improve all the soil at one time. To begin, mark off the area to be tilled. Scoop up the existing vegetation to remove it. Apply a broad-spectrum post-emergent herbicide 7 to 10 days before tilling to make the process easier and to kill aggressive perennial weeds. Apply 4 to 6 inches of organic matter, broadcast soil amendments evenly over the area, and incorporate them uniformly to a 12-inch depth.

Start at one end of the planting area with the tiller and go across the soil, one row at a time, while removing rocks and other debris. If the tiller cannot penetrate deeply into the soil, use a shovel to turn over the soil. The goal is to turn over the soil to a shovel-length depth, not to break up the clumps; the tiller will do that. Next, till the soil in the direction perpendicular to the first direction and go across the soil as before. When the tilling is done, rake the soil smooth and apply a generous layer of mulch.


If you’re not planting in a large area all at once, but simply adding plants to an existing border or in turf, plant trees and shrubs in individual holes. Dig the hole two to three times wider than the root ball or container and about as deep as the height of the root ball. Roughen the sides and bottom of the hole with a pick or shovel so that roots can penetrate the soil. Water the plant well; it can be difficult to rewet a dry root ball once it is in the ground.

To remove the plant from the container, lay the plant on its side with the container end near the hole. Hit the bottom and sides of the container until the root ball loosens. If roots are growing in a circular pattern around the root ball, loosen them by hand or slice through the roots with a knife. This may appear harmful to the plant, but it encourages new growth while allowing water to move more freely into the root ball.

For root balls wrapped in burlap, remove the string or wire holding the burlap to the root crown. On large trees, it may not be practical to remove all the burlap, but
pull away the top one-third. Remove plastic wrapping completely from root balls. Place the root ball in the hole with the top of the root ball (where the roots end and the trunk begins) 1/2 to 1 inch above the surrounding soil. Lay a board across the planting hole to check the depth of the plant.

Plant bare-root plants in early spring after the coldest weather is over but before new growth starts. Whether purchased from a local nursery or by mail order, it is best to establish the plant in the landscape as soon as possible. To start, remove the packing material and soak the roots in tap water for 4 to 6 hours. Make a mound of soil in the middle of the hole and spread the plant’s roots out evenly over the mound. Do not set the plant too deeply.

Use the soil removed from the hole to backfill around the root ball. No amendments to the backfill are recommended when planting trees and shrubs in individual holes. When backfill soil is enriched with amendments, the roots of plants tend not to grow beyond the isolated environment of the planting hole into the native soils. This leads to weak and unstable roots. When filling in with soil around the roots, lightly tamp the soil to collapse air pockets or add water to help settle the soil.

Remember, the goal is to provide plants with a moist, well-drained, and well-aerated soil environment so that they develop an extensive root system capable of withstanding periods of drought.


Lessons in sustainable landscape practices often can be taken from what occurs in nature. Many forests in Alabama have the same dominant feature: an abundance of accumulated forest-floor litter that conserves soil moisture and recycles nutrients back to the plants.

Applying a 3-to-5–inch layer of an organic mulch to all non-turf planted areas in the landscape helps the soil retain water and reduce losses from evaporation by up to 70 percent when compared to bare soil.

In addition to water retention, mulches have benefits that create an improved soil environment for root growth that improves a plant’s drought tolerance. These benefits include impeding germination of aggressive weed seeds that compete with ornamental plants for water, keeping the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, preventing soil erosion and compaction, improving soil structure and fertility, encouraging microorganism and earthworm proliferation, and giving an attractive, neat appearance to the landscape. Mulches do absorb water from overhead irrigation, so when you water make sure the water penetrates through the mulch and reaches the soil.

Materials Used for Mulching

Probably the most widely used mulch for home landscaping in Alabama is pine straw and pine bark. These materials are available at garden centers and mass market stores in convenient-to-handle units. Obtaining large quantities may necessitate paying a delivery charge or hiring a trucking company.

An advantage of pine straw is that it looks good in the landscape, but it decomposes fairly quickly and may need reapplication annually. One bale of pine straw generally covers 50 square feet when applied to a 5-inch depth; however, pine straw bales are not always a consistent size in the marketplace. Fine-textured mulches, such as pine straw, retain more moisture than coarse mulches. On sloping sites, pine straw stays in place better than most other mulches and helps to control erosion.

Pine bark should be purchased in a coarse-mulch grade. Fine-grade pine bark does not suppress weeds very well and can float away during heavy rain. Pine bark looks good in the landscape and does not decompose as rapidly as pine straw, but it costs more. One cubic yard (fourteen 2-cubic-foot bags) of bark mulch covers 100 square feet to a 3-inch depth.

Shredded hardwood products are also good mulches because they mat together and are less likely than chips to float away. Occasionally, wood chips are available as a by-product of lumber operations.

Grain straw is the stem of grain crops, typically wheat, gathered and bailed after the grain is harvested; it has many of the same properties as pine straw. Be careful about purchasing bales of hay to use as mulch. Hay often contains grass and weed seed that could create a weed problem in the landscape.

Landscape fabrics can be used under mulch to conserve moisture, discourage weeds, and enhance erosion control. Be aware that all organic mulches decompose, shrink in volume, and need replenishing regularly.

Obtaining sufficient quantities of mulch can actually be an exercise in recycling if you are willing to do a little networking and have access to a pickup truck
for hauling. Instead of raking up autumn leaves and disposing of them, use the leaves to mulch non-turf planted beds and around trees in the turf. If leaves are still left over, consider starting a composting program.

Find organic leftovers from the agricultural community to use as mulch. These leftovers, such as peanut hulls, pecan hulls, or even animal bedding, are usually available at no or low cost.

Application of Mulch

Apply at least 3 inches of non-settling material, such as pine bark, or 6 inches of material that settles after a rain, such as pine or grain straw. In the case of a bed or border where all the soil is prepared at one time, cover the entire surface with mulch, except within 8 to 10 inches of the trunk of trees or shrubs. In the case of trees or shrubs located in turf, mulch under the entire canopy of the tree, extending well beyond the drip line, if possible, but do not pile mulch against the trunk or mulch within a few inches of the trunk. This space will allow for air circulation around the base of the plant and help to avoid disease or insect problems.

Efficient Watering

Numerous public awareness surveys have found that homeowners are unaware of the water needs of landscape plants and often overwater them. In addition, overhead sprinkler irrigation systems installed in home landscapes frequently have automated controllers that require little involvement on the part of the homeowner and encourage a set-it-and-forget-it approach. This wastes water, costs money, and may lead to surface water or groundwater contamination by fertilizers or pesticides.

The goal of water-efficient landscapes is to deliver an adequate amount of water to the root zone of plants just before they experience water stress. When irrigation is used, water should be applied efficiently and effectively to make every drop count.

At one extreme, gardeners apply too little water frequently, causing shallow root growth leading to more rapid plant stress under drought or hot conditions. At the other extreme, gardeners deliver water too rapidly or run irrigation for too long, resulting in water runoff and, depending on the soil type, waterlogged soil conditions.

Be careful when hand watering because water is often delivered too quickly for the soil to absorb, resulting in wasted water as excess runoff and shallow penetration into the soil. Hand watering is an efficient way to water when using a hose-end water breaker or a spray nozzle to deliver water slowly.

Efficient irrigation should deliver water no faster than the rate the soil can absorb it. Soil types and textures play an important role in how much water soil can hold and how quickly soil can be irrigated. For example, 1 inch of water applied to the surface of sandy soil may penetrate 10 inches deep but only penetrate 6 inches deep in a silt loam soil or 4 inches deep in clay loam soil.

Irrigating the entire root zone of plants growing in heavy soil takes longer than for plants growing in lighter soil. Sandy loams may absorb 0.5 to 3 inches of water per hour while clay loams may absorb only 0.1 to 0.5 inch of water in the same amount of time.

Table 1 shows the time required for irrigation water to infiltrate up to 6 inches deep in sandy loam and clay loam soils. Moderately moist clay loam soil requires twice as long to water as sandy loam soil, but when clay loam is severely dry it may require three to four times as long.

The important point is, before you water, dig down and determine if the soil is dry and to what extent. Don’t gauge water needs on soil surface appearance. Periodically check the progress of irrigation to determine when sufficient water has been applied.


Table 1. Time Required for Irrigation Water to Infiltrate Up to 6 Inches Deep in Sandy Loam or Clay Loam Soil

Inches (soil depth)Sandy Loam (hours)Clay Loam (hours)


Water Requirements for Plant Establishment

Container Transplant Requirements

No matter how drought tolerant a plant is reported to be, it will not be unless a sufficient root system develops. For this to occur, plants transplanted from containers require a period of establishment in which water is applied to both the container mix and the surrounding soil.

Roots grow in soil only where there is moisture. Unless both media are moist, the roots may never grow out of the original container mix. Container mixes also dry much faster than the surrounding soil. Both media must be adequately moistened to prevent newly installed plants from being injured or dying of drought. Be careful not to overwater, however; do not water if both soils are moist.

Many gardeners want to water by a timetable that fits their schedule rather than the needs of the plants. By checking soil moisture frequently, you can become in tune with the rate of soil drying and more accurately predict when a plant needs water.

Individual Planting Requirements

For plants installed in individual planting holes, construct a berm 4 to 6 inches high around the perimeter of the planting hole to help funnel water to the roots. Fill the berm with water several times to completely saturate the soil and establish good contact at the interface between the container mix and soil. Mulching newly established plants helps to prevent moisture loss. Check the moisture in both soil types at least once a week during the establishment period to see if water is required. When the soil is dry, watering slowly and deeply encourages a more extensive root system than frequent shallow watering.

Fall Planting Requirements

Fall-planted trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, and herbaceous perennials demonstrate a greater ability to survive moderately low moisture levels the following growing season compared to those transplanted in the spring or summer. Cool fall temperatures are less stressful to plants than the heat of late spring and summer because the foliage loses less water.

Plants established during fall require less frequent irrigation and are less likely to suffer heat-related stress than those planted in spring and summer. As winter approaches, aboveground portions of the plant stop growing and go dormant soon after planting. This results in less demand on the roots for water. Roots, on the other hand, do not go dormant and continue to grow all winter long. When spring arrives, a healthy, well- developed root system is in place to help the plant adapt better to summer stress.

Establishment Requirements for New Plantings of Shrubs and Trees

Trees and shrubs generally require 9 to 10 weeks of establishment care when planted in late fall or early winter, but those planted in the spring or summer need establishment care for the entire first growing season. There are exceptions, however. For example, camellias, mountain laurel, and many native azaleas are drought tolerant once established, but because their roots grow slowly, they need 2 years of establishment care to achieve drought tolerance. For this reason, they are not listed in the tables.

For those willing to make the extra effort to establish certain plants, options include Camellia japonica (Japanese camellia), Camellia sasanqua (Sasanqua camellia), Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel), Rhododendron alabamanse (Alabama azalea), Rhododendron austrinum (Florida flame azalea), Rhododendron canescens (Piedmont azalea), Rhododendron flammeum (Oconee azalea), Rhododendron periclymenoides (Pinxterbloom azalea), Rhododendron prunifolium (plumleaf azalea), and Rhododendron vaseyi (pinkshell azalea). After the establishment period, gradually reduce watering frequency during dry spells to acclimate plants to drought conditions.

Established Tree and Shrub Irrigation Considerations

Established trees and large shrubs generally have deeper, more extensive roots than other landscape plants and can extract soil moisture even when the soil surface appears dry. The majority of tree and shrub feeder roots (those that take up water and nutrients from the soil) are in the top 10 to 12 inches of soil and extend as much as one and a half to two times the canopy diameter. To be most effective, apply water in this area and to this depth. Trees partly or completely enclosed by large areas of surface concrete or asphalt have more limited access to soil moisture and should be watched closely for signs of water stress.

Very large, old trees are often more prone to loss due to drought because of age and accumulated stresses, but the impact of a drought may not be evident until the next growing season. Be more watchful for the watering needs of older trees.

Trees and large shrubs isolated in turf should be watered inside and just outside the drip line. They may require water only during periods of limited rainfall or when they show signs of stress. A temporary system, such as a soaker hose, may be all that is required for these plants. Individual lengths of soaker hose can be purchased with brass fittings that easily attach to any hose or hose bib. In foundations or borders, however, it is more convenient to water the entire area; therefore, an irrigation system is more efficient.

Bedding Plants, Herbaceous Perennials, and Ground Cover Requirements

Bedding plants, herbaceous perennials, and ground covers are usually small when planted and have small root systems to start with. These plants need 3 to 4 weeks of establishment watering and may have to be watered more often than trees and shrubs to ensure an adequate water supply.

Check the soil with a trowel or spade to the depth of the expected root zone. Moisten the entire root zone just before plants show signs of water stress. If plants are allowed to wilt severely a few times, growth can be stunted and flower production reduced. Be careful not to overwater because most bedding plants and herbaceous perennials do not well tolerate constantly wet soils. Porous wall hose or drip irrigation systems can provide adequate water more efficiently than sprinkler systems.

Drip Irrigation Systems

Using irrigation water efficiently requires proper selection of irrigation methods for the plants and for each hydro- zone of the landscape. Drought-tolerant plants should get no more water than they need to look good, and water should be prevented from splashing onto concrete walkways or other areas where it is not needed.

Drip irrigation systems allow slow water penetration into the root zone with minimal evaporation or surface wetting. Compared to sprinkler irrigation, these systems may use 30 to 50 percent less water.

Drip systems may be simple porous wall hoses that can be moved around the landscape or left in place hidden under mulch for small applications. More extensive systems can be installed using perforated flat tubing or emitters for larger areas. A variety of kits and parts to construct a system are readily available, or a system can be installed by a landscape irrigation company.

Drip irrigation applies water from flexible 3/8-to-3/4-inch– diameter polyethylene distribution pipes to emitters at the ends of microtubes (1/8 to 1/4 inch), flat perforated tubing, or round, porous wall hoses (soaker hose).

Several types of drip irrigation systems can be adapted to suit a variety of applications, from watering individual trees and shrubs to beds of annuals, herbaceous perennials, ground covers, or mixed borders. Because so many different types of drip irrigation components are available, choosing the best system for a particular application requires some planning. The best advice is to keep the system as simple as possible and try to wet only those areas where water can be taken up by the roots of desired plants.

Micro-Sprinkler Emitter Advantages

When planning drip irrigation for watering trees and large shrubs, consider using micro-sprinkler emitters that wet the soil over a larger area and provide more even watering. Simple drip emitters restrict the soil wetting pattern and are primarily suitable for small trees and shrubs in borders.

It is generally best to design a system with a few more emitters than you think necessary to allow insertion wherever water is needed. The appropriate number of emitters per plant and flow rate per emitter depends on the size and type of plant. Generally, the larger the plant, the more water and thus emitters it requires.

Drip Irrigation Installation

Drip irrigation systems are usually installed on top of the ground and concealed beneath mulch. This makes the system easy to install and protects the plastic components from ultraviolet light degradation when exposed to sunlight.

The distribution pipes also can be buried 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil surface with the microtubes protruding above the surface. Extend the microtubes at least 6 inches aboveground to allow easy inspection and to prevent dirt from back-siphoning into the emitters and clogging the system.

As a starting point, an emitter system may need to be run about three times per week for 4 hours each time during very dry weather to meet the water needs of the plants. Keep in mind that some species require more water than others. Consider this when planning emitter installation.

For watering annuals, perennials, and ground covers, it is usually necessary to irrigate a solid area. This can be accomplished by spacing emitters 12 to 18 inches apart to achieve a uniform wetting pattern or using perforated tubing or porous wall pipe at the same spacing.

In sandy soils, the lines need to be closer together than in fine-textured clay soils. In bedding plant beds, the drip lines can be laid aside for soil preparation and replaced afterward. Cover perforated tubing or porous pipe under mulch to prevent ultraviolet light degradation from exposure to sunlight.

Micro-Sprinklers Versus Emitters

An alternative method of watering uses small sprinkler heads called micro-sprinklers instead of emitters.

All other components are identical to drip irrigation, including the polyethylene distribution pipes.

Micro-sprinklers cover an area 3 to 12 feet wide and are used for trees and shrubs or beds requiring complete coverage. Do not combine micro-sprinklers with drip emitters in the same irrigation zone. Micro-sprinklers are not as efficient as drip emitters because some water evaporation occurs, but they do provide an economical method of achieving uniform watering.


One goal in a water-efficient landscape is to manage vegetative growth so that plants make reasonable progress toward maturity but grow very little at maturity.

At maturity, plants should be fertilized only enough to maintain plant health. The main concern is to avoid overfertilizing because it encourages rapid, soft growth that is more susceptible to drought. Most established, healthy trees and shrubs only need fertilizer once every 2 to 3 years, while most established herbaceous perennials perform well when fertilized every other year. The exceptions are annual flowers and many roses that require annual fertilization to grow and flower well.

Fertilizers with a high nitrogen percentage (first number in a fertilizer analysis) relative to phosphorus and potassium percentages (second and third numbers in a fertilizer analysis) tend to stimulate excessive vegetative growth. When shoot growth increases, root growth decreases, so the roots are less efficient at extracting moisture from the soil.

Look for a fertilizer with a nitrogen percentage equal to or slightly less than the phosphorus and potassium percentages and then apply it at a low rate. The rate information should be printed on the fertilizer container. Just choose the low end of the prescribed rate range. If the rate is not provided, a low rate would be 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. To calculate the application rate, divide the nitrogen percentage (the first number) in the analysis into 100. The application rate using a 12-12-12 garden fertilizer is calculated as follows: 100 ÷ 12 = 8.3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

The best time to fertilize plants in the landscape is late winter just before spring growth begins. Fall fertilization is not recommended because it may decrease winter hardiness, and high rainfalls during typical Alabama winters wash fertilizer out of the root zone. Lastly, do not fertilize plants during a drought period because fertilizers are composed of nutritive salts that can dehydrate and burn roots in the absence of adequate water.

Additional Tips

  • Water clay soil before the soil dries out. Once dry, clay soil is extremely difficult to rewet.
  • Remove weeds promptly because they compete for valuable water.
  • Avoid summer pruning except to remove dead, diseased, or damaged wood because it encourages new vegetative growth and inhibits root growth.
  • Prune plants when they wilt during severe drought stress to save them. Remove about one-third of the canopy to reduce the leaves’ demand for moisture.
  • Consider mature height growth range for both dwarf and full-size shrubs and trees when choosing varieties for your landscape to reduce/eliminate the need for pruning.
  • Maintain the irrigation system to prevent leaks that waste water.
  • Be conscious of the changing water needs of plants through the season and change irrigation practices accordingly.
  • Capture rainwater or recycle water when possible. Rain catchment systems are available.
  • Adjust irrigation practices according to sun exposure. North and east exposures need less water than south or west exposures.
  • Avoid large areas of light-colored gravel because it reflects heat and can create a microclimate resulting in greater water loss from surrounding plants.
  • Consider converting low-traffic turf areas to more drought-tolerant ground covers. Turfgrasses generally require more frequent watering and maintenance than most other landscape plants.
  • Terrace steep slopes to reduce runoff erosion and slow water movement so that the soil can absorb it.
  • Avoid using narrow strips of turf, hard-to-maintain corners, and isolated islands of grass that need special attention.

Drought Tolerance in Plants

Drought tolerance is a difficult plant characteristic to define because it depends not only on a plant’s inherent ability to conserve water internally during times of shortage, but also on how well the plant has established a root system and how well the plant can adapt to environmental stresses other than water availability. Stressors may include adverse soil conditions, high temperature, high light intensity, variable wind speed, and relative humidity.

Drought tolerance does not mean plants prefer hot, dry weather or that they will not be adversely affected by extended dry weather without some supplemental irrigation. Many plants are drought tolerant because they can shut down growth during extended drought; therefore, some decrease in growth and flowering can be expected during periods of limited moisture.

Severe drought can increase insect or disease incidence, decrease leaf size and number, and cause an overall decline in growth rate and plant vigor. High temperatures and wind, heat and light reflection from nearby hard surfaces, or high fertilization can increase the potentially damaging effects of low moisture on plant growth and survival.

Regional differences in drought tolerance in a plant are particularly evident because of varying adaptability to the largely north to south environmental gradient in Alabama. Plants listed in tables 2 to 10 perform well in the landscape with occasional irrigation (every 2 to 3 weeks during drought) or irrigation only during severe drought, but not regular irrigation.

Plants selected for inclusion in the tables are the consensus of horticultural professionals in the Department of Horticulture at Auburn University, curators of the Huntsville and Mobile Botanical Gardens, and select agents in the Alabama Cooperative Extension System from different regions of the state. Most of the plants in the tables are hardy over a wide portion of Alabama; however, plants are included that may only be hardy in the northern or southern one-quarter to one-half of the state.

When making plant selections, consider adaptability to your area of the state. Many of the species are also represented in the trade by numerous cultivars, which may vary in drought tolerance. These lists should not be construed as complete.


Table 2. Large Canopy Trees

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)

Scientific NameCommon NameNative*


Acer barbatum

Florida mapleY

Acer × freemanii

‘Autumn Blaze’N

Acer leucoderme

chalk mapleY

Carya glabra

pignut hickoryY

Carya illinoinensis


Castanea mollissima

Chinese chestnutN

Catalpa bignonioides


Celtis laevigata

sugar hackberry Y

Celtis occidentalis

common hackberryY
Diospyros virginianacommon persimmonY
Ginkgo bilobaginkgoN
Gleditsia triacanthoshoney locustY
Juglans nigrablack walnutY
Liriodendron tulipferatuliptreeY
Maclura pomiferaOsage orangeY
Nyssa sylvaticablack gumY
Quercus albawhite oakY
Quercus geminatasand oakY
Quercus lyrataovercup oakY
Quercus macrocarpabur oakY
Quercus marilandicablackjack oakY
Quercus muehlenbergiichinkapin oakY
Quercus nuttalliiNuttall oakY
Quercus prinuschestnut oakY
Quercus stellatapost oakY
Quercus velutinablack oakY
Sapindus saponaria var. drummondiisoapberryN
Styphnolobium japonicumJapanese pagodatreeN
Taxodium ascendensbald cypressY
Calocedrus decurrensincense cedarN
Cedrus deodaraDeodar cedarY
Cupressus arizonicaArizona cypressN
Cupressus sempervirensItalian cypressN
Magnolia grandiflorasouthern magnoliaY
Pinus clausasand pineY
Pinus elliottiislash pineY
Pinus glabraspruce pineY
Pinus palustrislongleaf pineY
Pinus taedaloblolly pineY
Pinus virginianaVirginia pineY
Quercus hemisphaericaDarlington oakY
Quercus laurifolialaurel oakY
Quercus virginianalive oakY
Thuja orientalisOriental arborvitaeN


Table 3. Noncanopy Trees

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)

Scientific NameCommon NameNative*
Acer buergerianumtrident mapleN
Acer truncatumShantung mapleN
Amelanchier spp. and cultivarsjuneberryY
Asimina trilobapawpawY
Cercis canadensiseastern redbudY
Chilopsis linearisdesert willowY
Clethra pringleiMexican sweetspireN
Cotinus coggygriacommon smoketreeN
Cotinus obovatusAmerican smoketreeY
Crataegus crus-gallicockspur hawthornY
Crataegus marshalliiparsley hawthornY
Crataegus mollisdowny hawthornY
Cydonia oblongafruiting quinceN
Erythrina × bidwilliihybrid fireman’s capN
Ilex verticillatawinterberryY
Lagerstroemia faurieiJapanese crapemyrtleN
Lagerstroemia indicacrapemyrtleN
Magnolia × soulangeanasaucer magnoliaN
Nyssa sylvaticablack gumY
Oxydendrum arboreumsourwoodY
Prunus americanaAmerican plumY
Prunus angustifoliaChickasaw plumY
Prunus ‘Okame’Okame cherryN
Prunus subhirtellahigan cherryN
Rhamnus carolinianaCarolina buckthornY
Rhus typhinastaghorn sumacY
Vitex agnus-castuslilac chastetreeN
Ziziphus jujubajujubeN
Caesalpinia spp.bird of paradise treesN
Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’Arizona cypressN
Eriobotrya japonicaloquatN
Ilex × attenuata‘Savannah’, ‘Foster’ hollyY
Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’Nellie R. Stevens hollyN
Ilex opacaAmerican hollyY
Ilex vomitoriayauponY
Lithocarpus henryiHenry tanbark oakN
Loropetalum chinenseChinese fringetreeN
Myrica ceriferasouthern wax myrtleY
Prunus carolinianaCarolina cherry laurelY


Table 4. Deciduous Shrubs

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)

Scientific NameCommon NameNative*
Aesculus parviflorabottlebrush buckeyeY

Aesculus pavia

red buckeyeY
Anisicanthus wrightii var. aureadesert honeysuckleN
Aronia arbutifoliared chokeberryY
Asimina parviflorasmallflower pawpawY
Callicarpa americanaAmerican beautyberryY
Calycanthus floridussweetshrubY
Caryopteris × clandonensisbluebeardN
Castanea pumilaAllegheny chinkapinY
Chaenomeles speciosaflowering quinceN
Deutzia gracilisslender deutziaN
Deutzia scabrafuzzy deutziaN
Diervilla rivularisGeorgia bush honeysuckleY
Diervilla sessilifoliasouthern bush honeysuckleY
Exochorda racemosacommon pearlbushN
Ficus caricafigN
Forsythia × intermediaborder forsythiaN
Fothergilla gardeniidwarf fothergillaY
Hamamelis vernalisvernal witchhazelY
Hamelia patenshummingbird bushN
Hibiscus syriacusshrub altheaN
Hydrangea quercifoliaoakleaf hydrangeaY
Ilex deciduapossumhawY
Jasminum floridumFlorida jasmineN
Jasminum mesnyiprimrose jasmineN
Jasminum nudiflorumwinter jasmineN
Kerria japonicaJapanese kerriaN
Leucothoe racemosasweetbells leucothoeY
Magnolia stellatastar magnoliaN
Phildelphus coronariussweet mock orangeN
Physocarpus opulifoliusninebarkN
Punica granatumpomegranateN
Rhus glabrasmooth sumacY
Rosa ‘Knockout’Knockout roseN
Rosa ‘Nearly Wild’Nearly Wild roseN
Russelia equisetiformiscoral fountain plantN
Spiraea × argutagarland spireaN
Spiraea × bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’Anthony Waterer spireaN
Spiraea cantoniensisReeves spireaN
Spiraea prunifoliabridalwreath spireaN
Spiraea thunbergiiThunberg’s spireaN
Spiraea × vanhoutteiVanhoutte spireaN
Symphoricarpos orbiculatuscoralberryY
Ungnadia speciosaMexican buckeyeN
Vaccinium arboreumsparkleberryY
Vaccinium asheirabbiteye blueberryY
Vaccinium elliottiiElliott’s blueberryY
Viburnum × burkwoodiiBurkwood viburnumN
Viburnum dentatumarrowwoodY
Viburnum prunifoliumblackhaw viburnumY
Viburnum rufidulumrusty blackhaw viburnumY


Table 5. Evergreen Shrubs

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)
Scientific NameCommon NameNative*

Abelia chinensis

Chinese abeliaN

Abelia × grandiflora

glossy abeliaN
Acca (Feijoa) sellowianapineapple guavaN
Agarista populifoliaFlorida leucothoeY
Aloysia virgataalmond verbenaY
Buxus microphylla var. japonicaJapanese boxwoodN
Buxus microphylla var. koreanaKorean boxwoodN
Buxus sempervirenscommon boxwoodN
Cassia corymbosaArgentine sennaN
Cassia splendidafall-blooming sennaN
Cephalotaxus harringtoniaJapanese plum yewN
Cotoneaster dammeribearberry cotoneasterN
Cotoneaster horizontalisrockspray cotoneasterN
Cotoneaster lacteusbrightbead cotoneasterN
Cotoneaster microphylluslittleleaf cotoneasterN
Ilex × aquipernyibrilliant hollyN
Ilex × attenuatamany cultivarsY
Ilex cornuta cvs.Chinese hollyN
Ilex crenata‘Compacta’ and ‘Convexa’ onlyN
Ilex glabrainkberry hollyY
Ilex × hybridsmany cultivarsN
Ilex latifolialusterleaf hollyN
Ilex opacaAmerican hollyY
Ilex vomitoriaYaupon hollyY
Illicium parviflorumsmall anise-treeN
Juniperus spp.many juniper species and cultivarsN & Y
Michelia figobanana shrubN
Nerium oleanderoleandarN
Osmanthus americanusdevilwoodY
Osmanthus × fortuneiFortune’s osmanthusN
Osmanthus fragranssweet oliveN
Osmanthus heterophyllusholly osmanthusN
Philadelphus coronariussweet mock orangeN
Pittosporum tobirapittosporumN
Podocarpus macrophyllusChinese podocarpusN
Pyracantha angustifolia ‘Yukon Belle’Yukon Belle firethornN
Pyracantha coccineascarlet firethornN
Pyracantha crenatoserrataChinese firethornN
Pyracantha koidzumiiFormosa firethornN
Rhaphiolepis indicaIndian hawthornN
Rhapidophyllum hystrixneedle palmY
Rhododendron indicumsouthern Indian azaleaN
Rhododendron obtusumKurume azaleaN
Sabal palmettopalmetto palmY
Serissa foetida ‘Kowloon’Kowloon serissaN
Sophora secundifloraTexas mountain laurelN
Trachycarpus fortuneiwindmill palmN
Viburnum awabukimirror leaf viburnumN
Viburnum luzonicumLuzon viburnumN
Viburnum obovatumWalter’s viburnum and ‘Densa’Y
Viburnum odoratissimumsweet viburnumN
Viburnum ‘Pragense’Prague viburnumN
Viburnum × rhytidophylloideslantanaphyllum viburnumN
Viburnum suspensumSandankwa viburnumN
Viburnum tinuslaurustinusN
Yucca aloifoliaSpanish bayonetN
Yucca filamentosaAdam’s needleY
Yucca gloriosamound lily yuccaY
Yucca recurvifoliasoft leaf yuccaY


Table 6. Vines and Ground Covers

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)
Scientific NameCommon NameNative*
Bauhinia yunnanensispink orchid vineN
Bignonia capreolatacrossvineY
Campsis radicanstrumpet creeperY
Campsis × tagliabuanahybrid trumpet creeperN
Clitoria marianabutterfly peaY
Clitoria ternateablue pea vineN
Gelsemium sempervirensCarolina jessamineY
Juniperus confertashore juniperN
Juniperus davuricaParson’s juniperN
Juniperus horizontaliscreeping juniperN
Juniperus procumbensJapanese garden juniperN
Lathyrus latifoliuseverlasting peaN
Lonicera × heckrottiigoldflame honeysuckleN
Lonicera sempervirenscoral honeysuckleY
Ophiopogon japonicusmondograssN
Parthenocissus quinquefoliaVirginia creeperY
Parthenocissus tricuspidataBoston ivyN
Passiflora incarnatamaypopY
Quisqualis indicaRangoon creeper vineN
Rosa banksiaeLady Banks roseN
Senecio confususMexican flame vineN
Smilax smalliiJackson vineY
Thunbergia alatablack-eyed Susan vineN
Trachelospermum asiaticumAsiatic jasmineN
Trachelospermum jasminoidesconfederate jasmineN
Vitis rotundifoliamuscadineY
Wisteria frutescensAmerican wisteriaY


Table 7. Annuals or Biennials

Scientific NameCommon Name

Angelonia angustifolia

summer snapdragon

Arctotis × hybrida

blue-eyed African daisy

Argemone grandiflora

showy pricklypoppy

Argemone mexicana

Mexican poppy

Asclepias curassavica


Begonia × semperflorens cultorum

wax begonia (not in full sun)

Berlandiera lyrata

chocolate daisy

Calandrinia umbellata

rock purslane

Carthamus tinctorius


Castilleja indivisa

Indian paintbrush

Catharanthus roseus

annual vinca

Celosia argentea var. plumosa or cristata

plumed or crested cock’s comb

Celosia spicata

wheat cock’s comb

Coreopsis tinctoria

Cosmos bipinnatustall cosmos
Cosmos sulphureussulphur cosmos
Dianthus barbatussweet william
Dracopis amplexicaulisclasping coneflower
Euphorbia marginatasnow-on-the-mountain
Eustoma grandiflorumlisianthus, prairie gentian
Gaillardia × grandiflorablanket flower
Gazania rigenstreasure flower
Gomphrena globosaglobe amaranth
Helianthus annuusannual sunflower
Helichrysum bracteatumstrawflower
Leonotis nepetifolialion’s ear
Limonium sinuatumannual statice
Melampodium divaricatummedallion flower
Mirabilis jalapafour o’clock flower
Nolana paradoxaChilean bellflower
Sanvitalia procumbensMexican creeping zinnia
Scaevola aemulafan flower
Senecio cinerariadusty miller
Verbascum bombyciferumnettle-leaved mullein
Zinnia angustifolianarrowleaf zinnia
Zinnia haageanaMexican zinnia
Zinnia marylandica‘Profusion’ series zinnia


Table 8. Herbaceous Perennials

Scientific NameCommon Name
Achillea × ‘Coronation Gold’Coronation Gold yarrow
Achillea filipenadulinafernleaf yarrow
Achillea × ‘Moonshine’Moonshine yarrow
Agapanthus africanusagapanthus
Alyssum montanumcreeping basket-of-gold
Amsonia tabernaemontanaeastern bluestar
Armeria maritimacommon thrift
Artemisia spp.wormwood
Asclepias tuberosabutterfly weed
Aspidistra elatiorcast-iron plant
Aster spp.fall asters (numerous)
Aurina saxatilisbasket-of-gold
Baptisia albawhite false indigo
Baptisia australisfalse blue indigo
Baptisia carolinafalse indigo
Baptisia tinctoriawild indigo
Belamcanda chinensisblackberry lily
Ceratostigma plumbaginoidesplumbago
Chrysopsis villosagolden aster
Coreopsis auriculata ‘Nana’mouse ear coreopsis
Coreopsis grandifloratickseed
Coreopsis lanceolatalance coreopsis
Crocosmia × crocosmiifloramontbretia
Cuphea llaveabat face cuphea
Delosperma ashtoniiAshton’s ice plant
Delosperma cooperihardy ice plant
Delosperma nubigenumorange-yellow hardy ice plant
Dianthus deltoidesmaiden pink
Dianthus gratianopolitanuscheddar pink
Dianthus plumariuscottage pink
Echinacea augustifoliaprairie coneflower
Echinacea paradoxayellow coneflower
Echinacea purpureapurple coneflower
Echinacea tennesseensisTennessee coneflower
Epimedium spp.epimedium
Erythrina herbaceacoralbean
Eupatorium havanensewhite mist flower
Guara lindheimeriguara
Heliopsis helianthoidesfalse sunflowers
Helleborus foetidusbear’s foot hellebore
Helleborus orientalisLenten rose
Hemerocallis spp.daylily
Iris cristatacrested iris
Iris hybridsbearded irises
Iris pallidadalmatian iris
Iris sibiriciaSiberian iris
Kniphofia hirsutadwarf red hot poker
Kniphofia uvariared hot poker
Lantana montevidensistrailing lantana
Liatris spicataspike blazing star
Linum spp.flax
Lychnis coronariarose campion
Oenothera fruiticosasundrop
Oenothera macrocarpaMissouri evening primrose
Opuntia compressaeastern pricklypear cactus
Perovskia atriplicifoliaRussian sage
Phlomis ‘Edward Bowles’hybrid Jerusalem sage
Phlomis fruticosaJerusalem sage
Phlomis russelianaJerusalem sage
Phlomis tuberosatuberous Jerusalem sage
Phlox subulatacreeping phlox
Pycnanthemum virginianummountain mint
Rudbeckia fulgidablack-eyed susan
Rudbeckia laciniatacutleaf coneflower
Rudbeckia maximagreat coneflower
Rudbeckia nitidashining coneflower
Ruellia brittonianaMexican petunia
Salvia greggiiTexas sage
Salvia guaraniticablue anise sage
Salvia leucanthaMexican sage
Salvia microphyllababy sage
Salvia reptanscobalt sage
Salvia texanablue Texas sage
Santolina chamaecyparissuslavender cotton
Santolina rosmarinifoliagreen santolina
Sedum spp.stonecrop
Silene carolinianawild pink
Solidago hybrids‘Cloth of Gold’, ‘Crown of Rays’ goldenrod
Solidago canadensisCanada goldenrod
Solidago rugosawrinkle-leaf goldenrod
Spigelia marilandicaIndian pink
Stachys byzantinalamb’s ears
Symphyotrichom georgianumGeorgia aster
Verbascum phoeniceumpurple mullein
Verbena canadensisrose verbena
Verbena rigidasandpaper verbena
Verbena tenuisectamoss verbena
Veronica altissimatall ironweed
Veronica prostrataprostrate speedwell
Veronica repenscreeping speedwell


Table 9. Herbs

*A = annual, P = perennial, or A/P = perennial treated as an annual depending on hardiness zone
Scientific NameCommon Name*
Agastache foeniculumanise hyssopP
Allium schoenoprasumchivesP
Allium tuberosumgarlic chivesP
Artemisia abrotanumsouthernwoodP
Borago officinalisborageA
Calamintha nepetacalamintP
Eucalyptus cineraesilver dollar treeA/P
Laurus nobilisbayA/P
Lavandula augustifoliaEnglish lavenderP
Lavandula stoechasSpanish lavenderP
Marrubium vulgarehorehoundP
Matricaria recutitafalse camomileA
Nepeta x faasseniicatmintP
Nepeta racemosaPersian catmintP
Origanum laevigatumornamental oreganoP
Origanum marjoranasweet marjoramA
Origanum onitespot oreganoP
Origanum vulgarewild oreganoP
Rosemarinus officinalisrosemaryP
Ruta graveolensrueP
Saponaria officinalissoapwortP
Satureja montanawinter savoryP
Tagetes lucidaMexican tarragonP
Tanacetum partheniumfeverfewP
Teucrium chamaedryswall germanderP
Thymus camphoratuscamphor thymeP
Thymus × citriodoruslemon thymeP
Thymus herba-baronacaraway-scented thymeP
Thymus praecox ssp. arcticusmother-of-thymeP
Thymus psuedolanuginosuswooly thymeP
Thymus vulgarisgarden thymeP
Tulbaghia violaceasociety garlicP


Table 10. Ornamental Grasses

* Native to Alabama: Y = yes or N = no (introduced)
Scientific NameCommon NameNative*
Andropogon gerardiibig bluestemY
Andropogon ternariussplitbeard bluestemY
Andropogon virginicusbroom sedgeY
Bouteloua gracilisblue gammagrassY
Briza mediaquaking grassN
Chasmanthium latifoliumupland sea oatsY
Cortaderia sellowianapampas grassN
Eragrostis elliottiiElliott’s love grassY
Eragrostis spectabilispurple love grassY
Hystrix patulabottlebrush grassY
Leymus arenariusblue lyme grassN
Muhlenbergia filipesgulf muhlyY
Muhlenbergia lindheimerimuhly grassY
Muhlenbergia rigensdeer grassY
Muhlenbergia capillarispink muhly grassY
Nassela tenuissimaMexican feather grassY
Panicum virgatumswitchgrassY
Saccharum ravennaeRavenna grassN
Schizachyrium scopariumlittle bluestemY
Stipa giganteagiant feather grassN


Peer Review markRevised by Kerry Smith, Outreach Programs Administrator, Home Grounds, Gardens, and Home Pests, and Andrea Ramey, Graduate Student, Horticulture, both with Auburn University. Originally written by J. Raymond Kessler, former Extension Specialist, Auburn University.

Revised June 2023, Drought-Tolerant Landscapes for Alabama, ANR-1336

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