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Low Stress and Low Maintenance Drought-Tolerant Gardening with Native Plants

Many avid gardeners are concerned with constantly needing to water plants in their garden. This concern is usually heightened during times of drought. According to the Illinois State Climatologist, as of June 22, 2023 over 80% of the state is experiencing a moderate drought, with over 30% experiencing a severe drought. Most of us living in the greater Chicagoland area have been part of the severe drought crowd, reference the picture below from the Climatologist website.

Illinois Drought June 2023, moderate, severe
Illinois Drought June 2023

According to the Short Term Multi-Indicator Drought Index, many areas near Chicago

are up to 100% drier than normal historical conditions! This is considered an exceptional drought and is the worst category for droughts! Reference the photo below taken from

Illinois Drought June 2023 Short-Term MIDI
Illinois Drought June 2023 Short-Term MIDI

The problem for gardeners who share this concern is with plant selection. If gardeners simply choose “drought tolerant” plants, they might be using plants from deserts which wouldn’t survive the wetter climate of Illinois long term. A personal pet peeve of mine is seeing Colorado Blue Spruce planted all over in Illinois – Colorado is a dry state with low humidity and low rainfall. Here is an article from arborist and forester Ryan Pankau of the University of Illinois for further reading. Even worse, gardeners might accidentally select plants from different continents that are considered invasive and destroy our local ecosystems! The simplest way for Chicagoans to select drought-tolerant plants is to choose plants that are already native to the greater Chicago area. These native plants lived here long before any European settlers arrived. Through successive generations, they have survived countless droughts – passing those drought-thriving genes onto their future offspring.

The hardest part about choosing native plants that are drought-tolerant is choosing them according to your style of gardening, and the site conditions. Plants that thrive in full shade conditions will not do well in an area that gets full sun (unless it tolerates both). Similarly, a plant that thrives in wet soil (think marshes, swamps, rivers), likely will not survive a drought well, unless it can also tolerate medium to dry soils. My personal gardening style is I do not want to have to water plants unless the area I’m living in is experiencing drought conditions. My technique when choosing plants is to find ones that can tolerate medium to dry soils.

I started introducing native plants to my garden last year in the beginning of 2022. The only plants that I have watered this year in 2023 are the ones I planted in late Fall 2022 or during this year, and some plants that I know prefer wetter soils - mostly the Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) and Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago). Admittedly, I probably lost my Queen of the Praire (Filipendula rubra) and Blue Vervains (Verbena hastata) due to my own lack of watering them. However, considering I planted about two hundred plants last year, I call losing less than a handful of newer plants during this drought with no watering a win. The cover photo was taken from our yard in the middle of June, as you can see the native plants are thriving even during our historical drought (pictured plants are Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, and Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Coreopsis lanceolata.

If you are looking for low stress, low maintenance drought-tolerant solutions for your garden, consider native plants! You will be rewarded with beautiful blooms that brighten your space, and provide a food source for local wildlife, reference our article on native plants as a food source. Another potential solution is installing a rain garden or water feature, for more information read our article on adding water features to your landscape. Rain gardens can be watered in droughts simply by putting the hose out and turning it on for a few minutes. Plants that love water will never need to be watered if you plant them in your waterfall or pond. Plus, you’ll get the additional benefit of watching the birds swarm to your yard for a drink or to take a bath.

Good Steward Ecoscapes offers landscaping installation or gardening services for those readers looking for additional help. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, we do offer consultation services as well! Call us or send us an email for more info! Please also read our other articles on the topics of native landscaping and water features. You can find our main blog page here.

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