No matter where you live, water is a precious resource. Some of us need to conserve more actively than others, but none of us would willingly waste water. So why not plant drought tolerant flowering annuals? In addition to saving on your water bill, you'll spend less time on garden maintenance -- and that's welcome news for every busy gardener. Here are five excellent annuals that thrive in dry growing conditions.
Spider flower, cleome (Cleome hassleriana)
Cleome is an excellent annual for the back of a sunny border or a wild flower meadow. In a few short months this annual can grow four or five feet tall and two feet wide. Stems branch without pinching and may need to be staked as they get larger. Cleomes are sun lovers and grow best with at least six hours of direct sun. Blooms may be white, pink, lavender, and magenta. In too moist soils foliage will turn yellow and the plants will not thrive.
Ice plant (Delosperma spp.)
Technically this succulent plant is a perennial (some species are winter hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 5 in soils with perfect drainage), but depending on your USDA hardiness zone, you may use it as an annual (like I do!). Daisy-shaped flowers come in yellow, white, and magenta; ice plant foliage is narrow, smooth, succulent, and grayish green. Some varieties spread to provide excellent ground cover, while others are more clumping. They grow best in sandy soils and full sun and do well both in containers and in the ground.
Licorice plant, curry plant (Helichrysum petiolare)
Licorice plant comes in several shapes and colors, and all of them are drought tolerant. Its leaves and stems are woolly; this is a common trait on drought tolerant plants, as the hairs on the plant slow the evaporation of water from leaf tissue. Licorice plant is usually grown for its foliage rather than its small, yellow flowers. Leaves may be gray-blue, chartreuse, or multi-colored. Licorice plant grows well in sandy to average soils. It is a sun lover and may get leggy if it doesn't receive enough light. Pinch the growing tips to encourage branching.
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Lantana gives so much and asks so little; four inch pots planted in May are the size of small shrubs by August. Lantana tolerates poor soils and blooms best in full sun. Its flowers are irresistible to butterflies. Flowers may be pastel (lavender, cream), vibrant (yellow, vermillion), or multicolored. This plant will bloom steadily and prolifically until frost whether you deadhead or not. Most lantanas are upright growers with stiff branching stems, but L. montevidensis has a weeping growth habit.
Moss rose, purslane, portulaca (Portulaca grandiflora)
Moss rose is a showy groundcover with flowers in orange, yellow, white, and magenta; blooms may be single or double. Its leaves and stems are fleshy and succulent. Purslane is an excellent choice for containers and the front of a sunny border. Full sun and sandy soils are best, but purslane will grow in any garden soil that's not heavy clay. Deadheading will tidy up the plant but is not necessary for continuous bloom.
Even drought tolerant plants need a little extra water when they're getting established, so don't just plant and run. Water well, once a week, while your annuals are settling in; then watch for signs of wilt as the summer progresses. Depending on where you live and how much rainfall you get, these annuals may need very little supplemental water for the rest of the season.
Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com), a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com. Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. She lectures at garden shows and events across the country.