Plant Survival in harsh drought conditions

Well, its official, the weather service has announced that the majority of Southern Wisconsin, where Prairie Nursery is located, is in moderate drought conditions.  Many communities postponed fireworks for the 4th of July and a nearly statewide burning ban is in effect.  Although wildfires are devastating the dry western states; fortunately there have been no major fires in our state as yet.  We have not had any significant rainfall in over a month in some places in the south.

As I look out my office window onto a field of Rough Blazingstar-Liatris aspera, there is little evidence that these hearty drought tolerant species are affected by the drought.  Their stems are firm and needle-like leaves are perfectly adapted to sunny, hot desert-like/sandy conditions in which they are situated.  Native plants are amongst the most highly adapted and drought tolerant.

Butterflyweed & Prairie Dropseed

In my prairie gardens at home, the Lanceleaf Coreopsis-Coreopsis lanceolataButterflyweed-Asclepias tuberosaWild Petunia-Ruellia humilis and Pale Purple Coneflower-Echinacea pallida are blooming profusely seemingly unaffected by the drought in my sandy back yard.  Grasses including Little Bluestem-Schizachyrium scopariumPrairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepisBig Bluestem-Andropogon gerardi and Indiangrass-Sorghastrum nutans look good, and hanging in there, as their 3-5 foot deep roots are able to find water in the soil well below the surface.

Hoary Vervain-Verbena stricta

In my previous posting I discussed the importance of choosing plants for your soil condition on your site.  Selecting adaptable plants matching the soil in your yard is the first step to easy gardening.  The second most important step is to choose plants for their moisture tolerance.  We note this in all our plant descriptions in our catalog and website.

A plant such as Queen of the Prairie-Filipendula rubra or Marsh Phlox-Phlox glaberrima will be quite unhappy in my desert of a backyard, so although I love their colorful blooms I would choose Hoary Vervain-Verbena stricta and Downy Phlox-Phlox pilosa for their drought tolerance.

Downy Phlox-Phlox pilosa

The dire drought situation for many of us illustrates the importance of choosing plants that are adaptable to our soils.  In my own prairie gardens we have spent the last month or so removing plants that are not adaptable to my sandy soil, such as Ox Eye Sunflower-Helianthus helianthoides and Culver’s Root-Veronicastrum virginicum, and are replacing them with drought tolerant survivors.  I know this decision will make my prairie truly representative of the plants that have historically inhabited the dry prairies of our continent.


  1. Tony@ Gardening and Plants

    Hey There Sarie,
    Neat Post, I’ve read where the Delphinium Elatum does not have a great survival rate in Zone 9 (NY), byway of diseases, snails, mold and slugs tearing away at it. Does anyone know if there is anything you can do to extend the life of Delphinium elatum plant in zone 9?

    Also, does anyone know how to keep a disease free garden? I would prefer “home remedies,” because I am afraid to use harsh chemicals. If need be I would..
    Great Job!

    1. sarie (Post author)

      Hi Tony, Thank you for your comment. New York state falls in USDA Hardiness Zone 4 or 5. Delphiniums are short lived perennials, living 3-4 years on average. There is nothing you can do to extend the life of this plant. Plants have life cycles just like everything else in nature. You can take root cuttings and propagate plants, or collect the seed. Delphiniums typically do best in a well drained soil that has a soil ph range of 6.1-7.5. They do not tolerate heavy wet soils. If your plants are suffering from foliar or fungal disease you can use any commercial fungicide. I would suggest choosing the native Dephiniums-Delphinium exaltatum-Tall Blue Larkspur, a plant we offer in our catalog. Practice good cultural habits to reduce disease in your garden: water plants in the morning, don’t crowd plants together too closely, cut back and discard any evidence of foliar or fungal diseased leaves, and throw them away rather than in the compost pile.

      A Chemical free garden is definitely achievable! Plant more native plants! Native plants are remarkably resistant to plant diseases. Native plants do not need fertilizers or chemicals to grow, and most native do not suffer from diseases common in non-native plants. When choosing plants for your garden, please choose plants that will grow in your soil, soil moisture conditions. By choosing native plants you will automatically encourage populations of beneficial insects (which eat the bad insects), which begins the chain of life in any native landscape: beneficial insects, including bees, butterflies-hummingbirds-birds-small mammals and you! I hope this helps. Enjoy your time in your garden! Sarie

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