Drought-Tolerant Plants – our top plant choices

blue fescu

Choosing the best drought tolerant plants becomes overwhelming when you start to look around at all the different plant choices available to us in our San Diego County landscapes. There are so many different plants available, so where do you start? This short list will give you The Yard Fairy’s top choices to give you a quick start guide. 

Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca).

This is a mounding, semi-evergreen ornamental plant that holds its own at the edge of rock gardens or at the front of your flower bed. Blue fescu survives the mild winters of Southern California but does not do well with too much rain. More sun means a brighter blue hue for this drought-tolerant plant.

Propagate blue fescue by division every 2 or 3 years; an 8 inch clump can give you 10 or more plants. Requires full sun and well-drained soil.

Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens).

Also known as Texas Ranger, Texas Sage, and Silver Leaf, this rounded, evergreen shrub makes an attractive accent plant or border hedge. Texas ranger grows 4-8 feet tall and about as wide as it is high. It is blue-grey in color and soft/fuzzy to the touch, with lavendar flowers that bloom in response to rainfall.

Best growth occurs during spring, and plant will survive down to temperature in the teens. Requires full sun and moderate water, well drained soil.

We were not able to find a good, close-up photo of Texas Ranger in our Yard Fairy Image Gallery, but here is a nice one from the web.

Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’).

elfin thymeElfin thyme is an ornamental herb that makes a nice groundcover, growing to about 4-8 inches wide and 1-2 inches high. It has tiny, glossy green leaves and bears tiny, purple flowers. This plant is versatile, growing flat in places where it receives 5 or more hours of sunlight per day, and forming clumps in shadier spots.

Elfin thyme tends to creep and trail its way about, making it ideal for rock walls and stony areas. Requires full sun, grows best in well-drained soil.

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum).

hens and chicksThis is an aptly named, 4-inch succulent perennial featuring clusters of red and green, artichoke-like rosettes that quickly spread to about 4 feet wide. The large rosette is the “hen” which flowers and will later die off, leaving miniature baby “chicks” which later grow to hen-sized as well and the cycle continues. Hens and chicks propagate easily by cutting off and replanting.


Hens and chicks are perennial plants, ideal for rock gardens. Requires full sun to part shade, well drained soil.

Mexican sage (salvia leucantha).

aloe and Mexican sageA major food source for hummingbirds, this sun-loving plant matures to 2-4 feet tall and about as wide as it is high. Mexican sage grows in a spreading mound with lance-shaped leaves and white/purple flowers that bloom in late summer/early fall. The purple, velvety part of the flower is known as a “calyce” and from here sprouts lovely white blooms.

Mexian sage is easy to propagate from cuttings. Prefers full sun but can tolerate afternoon shade.

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis).

This is a dry-climate, succulent plant that grows 24-39 inches tall and features thick, gray-green leaves that are sometimes flecked with white. Aloe is used medicinally but it also serves its purpose well as an ornamental plant, as it grows unique looking flowers.

Aloe survives well in arid regions where there is low rainfall, and is also typically pest resistant. Requires full sun and well drained cactus and succulent mix type soil.

Aloe vera is pictured above, along with Mexican sage. Also check out this close-up shot on Wikipedia.


Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica).

bush anemoneNative to the Fresno foothills, bush anemone is an evergreen shrub that grows 6′ by 3′ high and bears beautiful, creamy fragrant flowers. This plant is versatile, growing equally well in decomposed granite, loam or adobe. Bush anemone is drought tolerant but may need extra waterings if the area where you live receives less than 20 inches of rain per year.

Bush anemone blooms in early to mid-summer and makes a perfect hedge for a narrow flower bed, even when not in bloom. Requires full sun to partial shade, well-drained soil.

For an idea of what bush anemone looks like in full bloom, click here.


Frosted Curls (Carex).

frosted curlsFrosted curls, or “frosty curls” is a low-maintenance, clumping ornamental grass that grows approximately 2 feet high and 1.5 feet wide. Foliage is silvery green, showy, and bears small green flower spikes in early to late summer.

Does well with part to full sun, moist to wet soil, loam to clay.



Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica)

baja fairy dusterThis colorful, evergreen accent plant is locally referred to as Tabardillo or Zapotillo. It features puffy, “firecracker”-like red blooms that can grow to as high as 4 feet. Baja fairy duster grows naturally in Baja California and can be found on gravelly slats and hillsides. Pruning is not necessary but if you do trim yours, follow the plant’s natural growth pattern and avoid cutting below 16″.

Propagate Baja fairy duster from woody stem cuttings. This plant is drought tolerant but benefits from regular watering.


Sages – silvia

sageThere are many varieties of sage and some Yard Fairy favorites include:

S. clevelandii, or Cleveland Sage which is an evergreen shrub with rounded arching growth to3-5ft tall, 5-8ft wide. Blooms early summer with pale lavender to violet-blue flowers

S. greggii, or Autumn sage, which is an evergreen or deciduous shrub. Rounded plant branching from base; typically grows 1-4ft high and wide. Blooms summer through fall. Colors range from deep purplish red through true red to various rose and pink shades to white. Prune in spring to shape plants and keep compact

S. leucantha, or Mexican Bush Sage is an evergreen shrub that matures to 3-4 feet tall and 3-6 feet wide; sprawls in bloom. Blooms fall through spring. Flowers are white with purple calyxes.

Sage comes in many different varieties, mostly needing full sun, regular water and good drainage.

Diane Downey - The Yard Fairy, low water, xeriscape and low maintenance landscape design Since 2003 Diane E Downey has owned The Yard Fairy, a North San Diego County based award winning landscape consultancy, design, installation and maintenance company creating low water, low maintenance landscapes that are as functional as they are pleasing to the eye. She continues to share her passion for landscaping, water conservation, water quality and carbon sequestration teaching many different classes across the county.