Dealing With Drought By Native-scaping

May 2024

By Cameron McCauley

With the spring season wrapping up it’s time to start preparing for summer plantings, and plan on how we can best accommodate our native species for use in the landscape. While we had a decent amount of rainfall in April, we know after 2023 that the switch can flip at any moment and things can get very dry.

Last summer, Northern Illinois was 4 to 8 inches dryer than normal and experienced the most extensive and intense drought in the state in over 10 years. Over 58% of the state was considered in a ‘severe drought’ by the end of June. The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a warm, yet muggy summer with less than average rainfall for Illinois this coming summer.

How can we combat drought conditions by using native plants in our landscapes? We must think about which species we are planting and what we can do to retain moisture in the soil.

Here are several species that are fitting for the residential landscape, and also suitable for drought like conditions. Once established, these will thrive on those warm, sunny summer days.

Echinacea purpurea: Purple Coneflower is one of the top pollinator attractors in the landscape and boasts excellent drought tolerance and a stunning daisy-like flower that provides interest well into the fall. This native variety is perfect for dry soil and will continue to provide interest in the garden regardless of drought conditions.

Schizachyrium scoparium: Little Bluestem thrives in dry, sunny conditions and adds ornamental interest to landscapes with its blue-green unique grassy foliage. Schizachyrium flourishes in the fall with an orange brown hue and is an excellent addition to a drought tolerant native landscape.

Monarda fistulosa: Also known as Wild Bergamot, this perennial plant has aromatic leaves and clusters of lavender-pink flowers that bees love. It boasts the ability to tolerate a variety of soil types while also being a stunning addition to our line of drought tolerant plants.

Sporobolus heterolepis: Prairie Dropseed is well-adapted to drought conditions and adds a fine texture to the native landscapes. The plumes in the late summer give off a unique scent of buttered popcorn to your native landscape and attract pollinators and other wildlife to your garden.

Panicum virgatum: Better known as Switchgrass, this delicate native is a prairie clumping grass that is drought-tolerant once established. With attractive seed heads and an upright habit, Panicum virgatum will flourish with the seasons as it turns from a greenish-blue in the summer to a dazzling gold in the fall.

Amorpha canescens: A plant that was once believed to indicate the presence of lead, Lead Plant is a shrub-like perennial with silver-gray foliage and pea shaped purple flowers. It is well-suited to the dry, sandy soils that come with droughts and will attract butterflies and other pollinators.

Geum triflorum:  Prairie Smoke is a low-growing perennial with pinkish-purple flowers that mature into feathery seed heads that give it that ‘smoky’ look. It can attract pollinators and will tolerate dry, sandy soils.

Eryngium yuccifolium: Also known as Rattlesnake Master. This unique plant has spiky, almost thistle-like foliage and spherical white flower clusters. It is adapted to dry prairie habitats and is the perfect option for adding a coarse texture to your native landscape.

Opuntia humifusa: Did you know this Prickly Pear variety is native to the Midwest? Cacti love dry soils, so it’s no surprise that this variety can thrive in dry clay and sandy soils. It has edible fruits and flowers as well.

Additionally, to native plantings, be sure to use a natural mulch such as leaf mulch to help retain moisture in the dry summers. Further, the mulch will break down a provide organic material for the plants in your landscape.

As we expect warmer temps to come, we can also expect the drought tolerant natives in our landscape to thrive and flourish.

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