08.06.13Alan Harris

5 Reasons Why Your Drought Tolerant, Native Plants Died

Why did the drought tolerant, native plant die?It can be frustrating when your best water conservation efforts go awry and your newly installed drought tolerant, native plants die. Is it your fault? Maybe or possibly not.

Yeah! You made the effort to be green and you jumped on the conserve water, only use drought tolerant, native plants sustainability bandwagon and what happened? The plants died and you want to know WHY??? Here are 5 reasons why your drought tolerant, native plants died.

Fact: All plants need some water.

Yes, plants can be drought tolerant, but unless they are petroleum based (plastic), silk or preserved. They are going to need some water.

Fact: All plants need more water when they are first planted.

Often new plants are added to existing plantings. Ergo the problem. Established plants require less water than newly installed plants. Irrigation systems are often “dialed back” for established plants to conserve water and may not provide enough water for the new plants. But before you go and jack up the irrigation, check out the next reason plants die.

Fact: Too much water will kill a drought tolerant, native plant as fast as lack of water.

Most people overwater, especially when they see a plant wilting. But did you know a plant will “wilt” when overwatered? The difference is the leaf of a plant with insufficient water will be crispy while the leaf of a plant with too much water will be moist when squeezed in your hand. Here are some other ways to find out if you are watering your plants to death.

Fact: Not all native plants are meant to be planted anywhere.

As we say in the landscape biz, “Right Plant, Right Place.” What this means is before you plant a native plant wherever, check out where the plant is found in nature.  Start with does it like sun or shade? Some native plants prefer to be in moist conditions. Salt tolerance is important if you live near the coast or irrigate with reclaimed water (especially with drip irrigation). Soil type makes a difference too. Some plants like high organic content which may not exist in your landscape if you are on a site where the topsoil was removed during construction in the last 10 – 15 years.

Fact: Sometimes plants die, even drought tolerant, native plants

In the south we call it the “Up ‘n Died” disease. However, there is usually a root cause. To start, newly installed plants are going to have a higher mortality rate as a result of transplant shock, which is one reason why companies and nurseries provide a warranty.

Once the plant is established, Mother Nature takes over. Critters (insects, rodents, dogs, etc.) will suck, chew or urinate resulting in the death of the plant. Diseases require very specific conditions so they come and go, but when the micro climate is ripe a disease can wreak havoc. The good news is only specific species (technically genus) are victimized.

Some plants just die of old age. How many years do plants live, you ask? I can definitively say, with absolute certainty, “Depends”. How many years to people live? As a general rule, trees live longer than shrubs, which live longer than perennials and then there are annuals which are just for show or agriculture that last a single season.

Finally my favorite is, “E – All the Above”. Often a combination of reasons cause plants to die. Sometimes a 1 – 2 punch (or 3 or 4) weakens the plant to the point where it is susceptible to other forces.

More Drought Tolerant, Native Plant Resources

While researching we find relevant material which is usually included in the post in the form of hyperlinks. Here are more links about drought tolerant plants we found to be interesting, but not in regards to why they might die.

  • Why Plant California Native Plants
  • Highways New Strategies to Manage Roadsides as Habitat
  • Native Plants on Green Roof (thanks CBRE Greeen)
  • Be Inspired by the Native Meadow in New York City 

If you liked this post about drought tolerant plants, please leave a comment, share it with a friend, check out my previous posts , follow me on Twitter @h2oMatters  and

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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our Director of Sales Operations and Regional Sales Leader for our landscape maintenance division. In addition to his contributions to this blog, Alan keeps his hand in water management as a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.


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  1. Wednesday, 7:42 Brad Smith

    THANK YOU!!! I’ve been fighting this battle for 20 years as have many others, I assume. My campus President just banned BOXWOODS because they weren’t native… one of the best options we had for many applications!

    If you really want to blow some minds start talking about provenance issues! :-)

  2. Wednesday, 8:29 Alan Harris

    Brad – thanks for your comment about provenance. If you want to blow the campus President’s mind point out that both the Boxwood and the Honey Bee were introduced from Europe about the same time. Some adaptive species are good and some (i.e. Kudzu, African Bees, Zebra mussel etc.) are not so good.

  3. Wednesday, 11:57 mel bartholomew

    Good reasons Alan, we at Square Foot Gardening are most concerned with saving water by not wasting water like in single row gardening. I come from Utah where they irrigate ( actually flood the entire garden once a week to water all the plants) Our SFG take only 10 % of the row method watering because we hand water from a bucket of sun warmed water with a cup at only the root area. We call that nurturing our plants. Have you ever tried SFG for your vegetables? .

  4. Wednesday, 12:57 Alan Harris

    Mel – I appreciate you chiming in about other water saving techniques. Growing up one of my neighbors had a back yard garden that fed most of the neighborhood. He credited his high yields to raised beds, lots of compost (he would drive around the neighborhood and pick up the neighbor’s bagged leaves before the garbage man got them) and square foot gardening. For the readers not familiar with the concept here is a link to find out more;

  5. Thursday, 7:15 Matt Edmundson

    Great points! A couple of others I try and remind folks include the difference between “drought tolerant” and “drought resistant” and the importance of considering the soil type in which you are trying to establish a “native” or “drought tolerant” plant. Cactus would be drought resistant, IF planted in the right type of well draining, poor quality soil. Much of it is simple logic to consider. But just as people have a genetic variability in how they handle full sun conditions, so do plants! Drought tolerant plants in the Midwest tolerate a different type of drought than in Colorado for example. Keep up the good work!

  6. Thursday, 8:03 Alan Harris

    Matt: great example of Right Plant, Right Place. I am amazed when I see trees normally found along creeks or lakes used in small parking lot islands. The two soil and climate conditions are exact opposites. Of course the trees fail to thrive and eventually die. What amazes me even more is when the facility/property manager wants to use the same variety again and expects different results.

  7. Monday, 5:40 twitter_LiteracyandTech

    As usual your post was pleasant, informative reading! We’re taking care of your blogster buddy here in NC. Come on over/out/up to visit when convenient. We have a Valley Crest presence in Raleigh.

    • Wednesday, 6:05 Alan Harris

      LiteracyandTech: Thanks and give my blogster buddy a big hug from me next time you see her. Life (or at least the blog) is just not the same without her. I haven’t been to Raleigh in a few years, but next time I will be sure to say howdy.

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