Skip to main content

Eight Terrific Plants for a Water-wise Garden

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

If you’re like me, there are always holes to fill in the garden  --  a bare spot here that needs to be filled or a suffering plant that needs to be put out of its misery and replaced. In the past, I tended to pop in annuals for their cheerful bursts of color. This year, after seeing the impacts of a region coping with a long-term drought, my goals for my garden have changed. Instead of being seduced by  water-guzzling beauties, I am going to search for plants that give me water-wise beauty and sustainability.

plants at garden center

Here in the Midwest, we contend with hot, dry summers and frigid winters that may or may not produce snow cover. To be sustainable, a plant needs to be able to withstand a huge range of temperature and moisture level fluctuations. Native plants have evolved to thrive in their environment, so locally sourced natives are a sound choice for a water-wise garden. Locally sourced natives however, aren’t the only option; many of your commonly found perennials, grasses and shrubs, once established, will continue to perform well year after year, even under the driest conditions. . 


While there are dozens of plants that thrive in a water-wise garden, the experts at Embassy Landscape group have shared some of their favorites. These tried and true selections, in their experiences, will not only add beauty to your garden, but are also heat, cold and drought resistant.


Dan Nelson



         For Dan Nelson, Lead Designer, the choices are:




Purple Beardtongue  Penstemon cobaea

Purple Beardtongue

An almost perfect specimen, this native penstemon deserves a place of honor in the early summer garden. At home in hot, dry and sunny glades, this penstemon does not need to be pampered. It withstands drought conditions and will grow well in shallow, rocky soils. In fact, adding a touch of lime at planting is recommended.

Growing in clumps, penstemon plants typically stand 1 to 2 feet high and spread only 12 to 18 inches. Beginning in late May however, plants send up multitudes of sumptuous 16 to 24 inch stems covered in snapdragon-like blooms in shades of violet to deep purple. Prolific bloomers, one plant can send up as many as 15 to 20 bloom stalks.

A favorite of hummingbirds, bees and butterflies, penstemon cobea is a host plant for the Dotted Checkerspot butterfly. Deer and rabbits tend to avoid it because of the slightly hairy texture of the foliage. Few pests or diseases bother penstemon, but standing water will result in root rot.

Zones: 5 to 8 heat; to 4a cold



Blue Wild Indigo  Baptisia australis


Striking purple-blue blooms in May and June followed by unique seek pods later in the summer are the hallmark of this showy, easy to grow native perennial. False indigo prefers full sun, where it will grow 3 – 4 feet tall, but also tolerates some shade. It needs only average to poor soil, thriving in clay soil as well as thin, rocky soil, and remains strong in drought conditions. Rarely bothered by insects or diseases, the blooms are attractive to butterflies and the charcoal black seed pods are beautiful in dried flower arrangements.  A true winner!

Zones: 3 to 9 heat; 3 to 9 cold

Butterfly Milkweed  Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly Milkweed

Although it is best known as food for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for Monarch butterflies, Asclepias tuberosa is also a stunning addition to the summer garden. Brilliant yellow/orange blooms atop of graceful, arching branches emerge in mid-June and often last until August, inviting scores of bees, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden. The blooms eventually give way to interesting seed pods in the fall, often used in dried arrangements. 

 Butterfly milkweed needs a full sun location to bloom well and must have well-drained soil or it can become susceptible to crown rot. It does well in shallow, rocky soil of average fertility and even tolerates poor soil.  Butterfly milkweed grows in clumps that can reach 2 to 3 feet in height. It grows easily from seed, often self-seeding in the fall as the pods split open and release long, silky seeds to be carried away by the wind. Be patient with Butterfly milkweed, it's one of the last plants to emerge in the spring and may take several years to become established and to bloom. Because they have an extremely deep taproot, they do not transplant well so it’s best to leave them alone once established. 

Zones 3 to 9 heat; 4 to 9 cold

Jamie  For Jamison Wiley, Designer,  the choices are:


Blue Arrow Rush  Juncus inflexus ‘Blue Arrow Rush’

Blue Arrow Rush

If you need to add some grace and structure to your garden design, then Blue Arrow Rush could be your answer. At maturity, Blue Arrow can reach 3 to 4 feet tall. It’s soft blue coloring gives a sense of coolness to the garden, which can be welcome on hot summer days. Beginning in late May and lasting until mid summer, tiny, straw-colored flowers appear at the stem’s ends.  The blooms then become seed capsules.

Usually thought of as a wetland plant, Blue Arrow Rush also stands up well to periodic dry spells. It will tolerate a light shade location, but really does much better when planted in full sun. It tolerates heavy soils and can serve as a soil stabilizer where erosion is a problem.  In colder climates, it may die completely back to the ground, but will re-emerge when spring arrives.

Zones 4 to 9 heat; 6 to 10 cold


Dwarf Crape Myrtle   Lagerstroemia indica

Crape Myrtle

An old favorite that is gaining in popularity again, crepe myrtles offer luscious blooms and deep green foliage throughout the hot summer months, dramatic foliage color in the fall and interesting bark patterns for a winter display. Available in a variety of sizes, colors and forms, Crape Myrtle can have many uses in the garden -- from a towering specimen tree to a unique container planting. Dwarf varieties, usually reaching about 3 to 6 feet in height, are suitable for foundation plantings, as specimen plants or in mixed borders. 

While once thought of as a southern plant, breeders have worked to produce hardier varieties that do well in more northern climates. Their resistance to diseases such as powdery mildew has also been improved, making them more amenable to humid climates. 

Crape Myrtles will tolerate some shade, but they always bloom more profusely in full sun. They need an average to poor well-drained to dry soil. Planting them in overly rich soils actually produces more leaves and decreases flowering. Be careful not to plant a Crape Myrtle too deeply; they have shallow root systems and appreciate a layer of mulch when planted. Newly planted shrubs will need to be watered throughout the summer months, but once the plant is established, it will rarely need watering. 

Zones 5/6 to 9 heat; 5/6 to 9 cold



Sandy DeFoe For Sandy DeFoe, Art Director, the choices are:






Globe Thistle  Echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue

Globe Thistle

Perhaps the most beautiful blue addition to a water-wise garden, Veitch’s Blue Globe Thistle is truly a show-stopper. Standing 4 feet tall, the spiny dark green leaves form a unique, architectural backdrop to the early spring and  mid-summer border. Just when the view couldn't get any better, steel blue golf-ball sized flowers begin to crown the plants, attracting dozens of bees, butterflies and other important pollinators. A beautiful addition to cut and dried flower arrangements, when cut, this variety will flower again. 

Like all Globe Thistles, this variety prefers full sun but will tolerate a partial shade location. Very low maintenance, Veitch’s Blue thrives in dry, poor soil, as long as it is very well-drained. Avoid planting in rich, moist soil. It is rarely bothered by insects or diseases. 

Zones 1 to 11 heat; 3 to 9 cold


Liatris  Liatris scariosa Blazing Star ,Ks Gay Feather’

Blazing Star

True to its name, this native perennial will give you a long-lasting blaze of vibrant purple or pink color beginning in late July and continuing into September. Unlike most flowers, Prairie blazing star also known as Prairie gayfeather and Prairie liatris, features a spike of stalkless flower heads densely packed onto a tall stem which bloom from the top down. The flower spikes, which make excellent cut flowers, cover nearly half of the leafy 2 – 5 ft tall stems and may require some staking in the garden. 

Liatris is extremely heat and drought tolerant, but will stand moist conditions in summer, but cannot tolerate overly wet winter soils which can cause roots to rot. It thrives in full to partial sun and does well in thin or rocky soil. Butterflies flock to Liatris

Zones: 3 to 8  heat; 3 to 9 cold

Lavender  Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal’


All lavender species — whether English, French, or Spanish share some characteristics. They are full sun plants, loving six or more hours of sun a day for full bloom. They prefer a dry, well-drained soil with a lower fertility level than many garden plants and can withstand rocky, shallow soils as well. Depending on the variety, lavender’s fragrant blue blooms appear on airy spikes from June through August, drawing dozens of bees and butterflies. Lavender is deer and rabbit resistant and has few maintenance issues.

With all of these positives, it’s hard to imagine how lavender could be improved. The introduction of the variety named “Phenomenal” has accomplished it!. This new cultivar, introduced in 2012, enhances the already outstanding qualities of a familiar plant.Phenomenal boasts long-lasting luminescent purple blooms on top of supple silvery-green foliage. It forms a soft mounded shape that reaches just over 24 inches in height and can spread to a width of 4 feet at maturity. It is winter hardy, retaining its attractive foliage and interesting seed heads throughout the coldest months. Phenomenal rarely needs pruning, has low water requirements and grows in both neutral and alkaline soils. It is beautiful as a low hedge, a massed planting or a garden focal point.

 Zones: 4 to 9 heat; 5 to  9 cold (with protection, may survive in Zone 4)