Planting Challenging Landscapes: High, Dry and Heavenly

Planting Challenging Landscapes: High, Dry and Heavenly
  • Posted April 28, 2015

There is a notion among gardeners that good growing conditions consist of fluffy, slightly moist, dark-colored soil. It is true that beds enriched year after year with compost support luxuriant growth in most species. But of course, in nature, such perfect conditions do not always exist — yet the plant world adapts, often creating strangely beautiful species in response.

For example, consider the dry, rocky slopes of the Southwest.

Scant rainfall, scorching sun and, at best, a thin layer of soil mixed with rocky scree are the austere realities that the plant kingdom has been forced to work with. The resulting cacti, succulents and wildflowers are among the most unique and enchanting plant communities in the world.

Interestingly, there are a number of commonalities among species that are adapted to high and dry places. They tend to have grey-blue or silvery-green foliage, very small leaf surfaces and a fleshy leaf texture that stores moisture when it is available so the plants can use it during the long dry spells.

The plants of arid lands are a race unto their own. They don't always combine well with the species that grow in rich, moist soils, but they have a way of always looking just right when combined with each other.

Whether you are gardening in an arid region or just trying to landscape a part of your property that happens to have dry, rocky soil, consider the following types of plants that hail from the deserts, canyon-lands and high mountain slopes of the world. Cacti, sedums and other succulents are the plants that most gardeners reach for in these situations, but here are few other options to widen your palette for this common landscaping challenge.

Yucca and Agave

Both have long sword-like blades rather than ordinary leaves. These large, spiky plants are known for their unusual foliage, but when they do send up a flower, it's real showstopper — some varieties have flowerstalks 4 inches thick and 20 feet tall covered in honey-scented white blossoms.


Salvia, Artemisia and other Aromatic Herbs

Hail from dry climates are a great choice to bring both color and fragrance to a planting of arid species. The salvias with small, felt-like, grey-green foliage tend to be the most drought-tolerant, of which there are dozens of varieties to choose from. Lavender, rosemary and many other herbs in the mint family also fit this description.


Olive, Chaste tree (Vitex), Elaeagnus, Smoke bush, Heaths and Heathers

Are a few of the woody species to consider. Though these plants originate from regions ranging from the cliffs of the Mediterranean to the rocky highlands of Iceland, they share physical traits that help them to conserve water, but also happen to make them look like they belong together when planted side by side.

Olive TreeChaste Tree (Vitex)Elaeagnus
Smoke bushHeaths (erica)Heathers (calluna)

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.

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Planting Challenging Landscapes: High, Dry and Heavenly