Hot and dry: Plants that thrive in garden hell

Garden bed of pink flowers

A never watered garden bed, Georgian Bay, ON, July, 2015.

“Every garden has a desert and a swamp,” he declared. OK. He had our attention.

Finding the right plants for those unlovely spots—that’s the challenge. So when someone comes along and offers a tried and true list of plants recommended for your personal garden hell, well, hello!

Mixed flower bed

A desert inspired front garden bed in Toronto, June, 2015.

At the recent Landscape Ontario Congress, a huge trade show and conference for the horticulture and green industry in Canada, that’s exactly what happened when Dan Heims, President of Terra Nova Nurseries gave a talk on getting the right plants in the right place to a large group of landscape pros, garden centre owners, and journalists. The man knows whereof he speaks, what with helming a company that’s been responsible for over 800 plant introductions and travelling to over 30 countries in search of new perennials. Dan had impressively long lists for all the classic garden hells: Hot and dry, dry shade, salt, and “swamps” (wet spots/clay soil). I’ll try to share all of his suggestions in upcoming posts.

His list for the desert in your garden had some familiar suggestions and some surprising ones. But two things really struck me after I had the entire list in my hands.

  1. You could use his plant list in its entirety as a recipe for a spectacular garden bed. As you read down through the plants listed below, picture a swath of gold and deep blue, broken up in places by some interesting textural foliage in cooling tones of silver and maybe a few hot red accents. (Keep in mind that some of these plants need loamy soil while others can thrive in poorer, gravelly soil but they all share a need for soil with really good drainage.)
  2. I was pleased to discover that this globe–hopping plantsman suggested several terrific plants native to major parts of North America.

A quick word about maintaining plants for hot and dry locations: When you find a plant at a garden nursery that is labelled drought tolerant or choose plants from a list like this one, you have to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • Most plants will do much better if they are watered regularly when first planted until well established—even the drought tolerant ones.
  • Plants generally do better if they get some water, if not often, then at least on a relatively regular basis. Plants such as succulents can store moisture. Other plants can reach way down into the ground with long taproots (see below) to access water. But even these plants can suffer if there is a really long drought. So keep an eye out for your hot/dry/drought–tolerant plants and if they look stressed, give them a drink!

Dan’s recommendations for HOT & DRY spots in your garden:

• Succulents and sedums: No brainers for containers, for sure, but both sedums and succulents are often overlooked as options any where else in the garden. But garden beds can benefit from these remarkable plants as both accent plants and as ground covers. Want to go all native? Surprisingly, you can if you’re in the right zone. Opuntia humifusa is Ontario’s only, honest–to–goodness native cactus, also called low prickly pear, Eastern prickly pear or Devil’s Tongue. Granted it’s rare, now found only on Pelee Island.

Royal Velvet euphorbia

Euphorbia bring lots of colour and textural interest to a garden even when they aren’t in flower. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

• Euphorbias: Dan pointed out that if a plant has white sap, then that’s a good hint that it’s drought tolerant. The milky fluid is latex, actually used by the plant as a way to protect itself from getting munched. Insects evidently don’t like it. There isn’t research yet to suggest that latex directly helps plants to be drought tolerant but the evidence is clear. Plants with white sap don’t have a problem with dry spells. Hey, just look at dandelions.

Playin The Blues salvia

‘Playin’ The Blues’ salvia keeps blooming through the hottest days of summer. Shot in August, 2014.

• Dandelions. Yes, this is an odd suggestion, especially coming from a pro plantsman, but when you think about it, these plants can be helpful in the garden and their nutritional value is becoming better known. So why not use them to fill some spots in the really tough parts of your garden desert? (Just be sure to lop them before they set seed!) If you plant any plant purposefully, with a clear design effect, then it doesn’t matter if they are weeds. But you will get extra points for irony.

Dwarf iris

This standard dwarf bearded iris is called Canadian Kisses. Photographed May, 2015.

• Bearded irises: The dwarf varieties are not only drought tolerant (once established), but their shorter habit means they’re also better at holding up to strong breezes.

• Salvias: No, not the hallucinogenic salvia that had the government in a twitch last summer. That’s Salvia divinorum. Dan was referring to all those nice plants that do nothing more than bloom their hearts out all summer long. I trialled ’Playin The Blues’ (Salvia longispicata x farinacea) and got hooked on this powerhouse plant. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) can make your next casserole more flavourful and make a lot of bees very happy.

Agastache: Also known as Giant hyssop, this is another native but this one grows pretty much throughout all of Canada, including the Northwest Territories. It’s from the mint family, which may give you some idea as to why it is so common and hardy. Bumble bees and honey bees love this plant.

Dusty Miller

The distinctive silver foliage of Dusty Miller ’Silver Cascade’® (Artemisia stelleriana) tells you it will do well in the heat. Photograph courtesy of Proven Winners.

Artemisia: Probably the best known of this family is Artemisia stelleriana, also known as Dusty Miller. Dan pointed out that silver leaves are also a good indication of heat tolerance. The natural colouring helps reflect the rays of the sun, protecting the leaves.

• Coreopsis and Helenium: Both these plants are native to parts of Canada. In fact, Coreopsis lanceolata and Coreopsis tinctoria are both native to Ontario. Commonly called Tickseed, this plant is very appealing to beneficial insects. Helenium, also called Sneezeweed, is a genus with a long list of species. Helenium autumnale is a bonafide native of Ontario. And, no, it doesn’t automatically give you allergy symptoms. The common name comes from the fact that its leaves were once used for making snuff. For a drift of golden wonderfulness, trying planting these two along with some goldenrod, another misunderstood native. The bees and butterflies will thank you.

Yucca in bloom

Yuccas are spectacular statement plants for Ontario gardens. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Eryngium: It’s Sea Holly’s long taproot (just like the dandelion’s) that is the secret to its being able to survive dry spells. I love the metallic blues of this plant.

• Tanacetum: Yup, you guessed it. You can find several species of Tansy growing wild over most of Canada and the U.S. Dan pointed out that this tough plant can be planted directly into gravel.

Yucca: Believe or not, this member of the Agave Family, is listed on the Ontario Wildflowers website. But Yucca filamentosa is not a native of this part of the world. It grows wild here because it’s an escapee meaning that the parent of the yucca you found growing in some wild patch of wilderness here was probably from a garden nearby. But, that said, the fact that some yuccas are quite happy to grow and bloom on their own without any help from well-meaning gardeners with watering cans and fertilizer indicates a pretty carefree plant for your garden. Another good plant to try for Ontario gardens is Yucca glauca, commonly called Small soapweed. Despite its unglamorous name, this plant can produce spikes four feet tall covered in lovely creamy white bell–shaped flowers.


4 thoughts on “Hot and dry: Plants that thrive in garden hell

    • There were a few plants that Dan mentioned that I raised my eyebrow over as well. But Dan mentioned that his list included plants that you might not consider for drier parts of your garden and that can tolerate dry spells. As it turns out, in the wild, Helenium can tolerate a wide range of soils (just not very dry soils) but, yes, they do prefer moist soil. Gets you thinking!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Super helpful post – we reconfigured our garden a couple of years ago, installing a pebble path along a shady stretch where grass always turned to moss, and then lining the path with hosta and ferns. So much less work, so much more visual pleasure. Salvia is one of my go-to’s for the sunny bits.
    As for the dandelion suggestion – well, getting extra points for irony would even be the main selling point for me.


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