Top 5: Drought Tolerant Perennials for Zone 3

Drought tolerant perennials are the ‘tough guys on the block’ in your garden.  After planting, once established, they will adapt and survive with little water.  Most of the hardiest, drought tolerant perennials that survive in our Zone 3 climate have descended from native prairie species.

The planting of drought tolerant perennials saves money on utility bills, fertilizer and soil amendments. They are used in areas with rocky soils, rock gardens, high winds and are the backbone of xeriscaped landscapes.  A well-designed xeriscape garden is a unique and beautiful garden in its own right.  And best of all reduces water use. 

It is important to understand that drought tolerant plants will not be drought tolerant until well established in your garden.  Drought tolerant plants should not be planted and then left to fend for themselves.  They have new roots that need to grow and anchor themselves in the garden before taking on the task of withstanding heat and lack of water. 

So, like every other plant in your yard, they will need regular watering to give them a boost in growing those roots.  For the first season, I would water your newly planted perennials two to three times a week for the first two weeks and then about 1 inch of water per week the rest of the season.  This, of course, depends on the weather.  If you are experiencing a lot of rain after planting then your plants will be fine.  Do check the soil around the plants as they may look wet on top but further down are dry.  Soil that is too wet will eventually kill your perennials.  Plants that are too wet or too dry share the same symptoms – wilting, drooping and yellow leaves with brown edges.  Always check the soil with your finger or dig down a bit with a trowel.  In the second season, deeply water your perennials as they emerge in spring.

Do not heavily amend the soil for drought tolerant plants.  Do keep the area free of weeds.  Weeds compete with perennials for any soil moisture that comes their way and usually win.

Luckily there are many drought tolerant perennials that do very well in Zone 3.  The following are my picks for the top five.  And 5 runners up at the end that I just could not leave out!

#5 Gaillardia (Blanket Flower) - Full Sun

Most of the two dozen species of Gaillardia are native to North America.  They are repeat bloomers from summer to late fall.  Gaillardia come in shades of red, yellow, orange and peach.  Some of the blooms are banded with red or orange and yellow.  Flowers may be single, semi-double or double.  Fanfare Gaillardia has tubular petals!

Gaillardia are mounded plants and grow to 12 – 18 inches in height and 12-24 inches wide.  Be sure to check the plant tag for each variety as sizes will vary.  They are not particular as to soil pH and like average well-drained soil.  Poor soils seem to encourage more flowering.  Do not fertilize.

Dead head Gaillardia to encourage more blooms and avoid self seeding. If you dead head they will bloom into the fall. 

Bonus:   Very few pest problems.  Excellent cut flower.  Deer and rabbit resistant.  Attract butterflies and bees. 

Popular Zone 3 varieties include Gaillardia ‘Arizona Sun’, ‘Burgundy’, ‘Fanfare’ and ‘Goblin’.    

#4 Sedum (Stonecrop) - Full Sun

Many of you will be familiar with the huge genus of plants called Sedum.  They generally fall into two categories – low-growing and upright.  The low growing varieties are used as groundcovers, in mass plantings, rock gardens and bordering pathways.  The taller varieties are best enjoyed in perennial borders of odd numbered groups that flower in fall and attract pollinators.  They are known for their star -shaped flowers and fleshy leaves that form unique textures in the landscape.  Flower colors are pink, red, white , yellow and bloom from summer into fall.

The best time to plant sedum is in spring.  They require a well drained, loamy, sandy soil.  The soil should not be overly rich.  Use a small amount of organic compost.  Too much synthetic fertilizer will cause floppiness and stretch the stems.  Once established sedum will require  little care and require very little water.  Propagation is usually by division in spring or fall. 

Be aware that not all sedums are drought tolerant.  Consult the plant information tag before purchasing. 

Bonus:  Upright varieties such as ‘Brilliant’, ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Autumn Fire’ produce large clusters of flowers and seed heads that provide winter interest and food for birds. 

Attracts butterflies and bees.    Cut flower and great for drying.

#3 Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) - Full Sun

Black-Eyed Susans are in the Sunflower Family.  There are more than two dozen wild species of this beautiful perennial and all are native to North America.  Once established, they are extremely heat and drought tolerant.

They come in various heights, have long rough leaves and brilliant yellow, orange or gold blooms.  The blooms appear from mid-summer into late fall and are food for bees and butterflies when other plants have long since finished blooming for the season.  If possible, deadhead for a continual display of sunshine!  Do leave some seed heads on in the late fall for the birds but be aware that they are prolific self seeders. 

Propagate Black-Eyed Susan by division.  This is best done in spring.  Use a very sharp knife and cut a large root ball into sections with each section having a few roots. 

Water at ground level as leaves are somewhat prone to powdery mildew.  When planting it is wise to allow some room between plants or plant in an open area to take advantage of the air flow.

Black-Eyed Susan is not fussy as to soil type and does not need fertilization.  Compost layered around each plant in early spring is more than adequate. 

When researching varieties on the net be aware that not all varieties are hardy to Zone 3.

Some varieties hardy to Zone 3 include ‘Goldsturm’, ‘Early Bird Gold’, ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Prairie Sun’. 

Bonus:  Many varieties are available for Zone 3 that range in height from 18 inches to 4-5 feet tall.   Very disease resistant but do watch out for powdery mildew.  These plants look amazing when paired with Liatris, Purple Coneflower, Catmint, Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass and Blue Oat Grass. 

#2 Globe Thistle (Echinops) - Full Sun

If you are looking for a unique drought tolerant perennial Globe Thistle is your plant!  The foliage is a grey-green-silver color and the globe-shaped spikey flowers come in blues and white.   The flowers are held high above the foliage and are one of the best at attracting bees and butterflies from mid to late summer.   Globe Thistle has a tap root which allows it to survive in extreme drought conditions. 

Echinops prefer a slightly acidic soil, good drainage and will do well in any area that is not too wet.  Again, once established, they are the perfect xeriscape perennial adding interest to the back of the bed. Water once a week for about a month after planting.  Once a month after that is lots.   Do dead-head to avoid self seeding and prolong bloom time.  Water at ground level to avoid powdery mildew.  Do not fertilize! 

I would also recommend wearing gloves when handling this plant.  While non-toxic to humans and animals, the spiny stems can cause skin irritation.

After about three years propagate by separating the new little plants from the base of the mother plant in spring with a sharp spade and replant.  Gloves are needed!  They also can be started from seed. 

Bonus:  Awesome in dried flower arrangements.   Fast growing.   Deer and rabbit resistant.   Add great textural interest to your landscape.  Echinops varieties range anywhere from 2-5 feet in height by 1-3 feet wide. 

Varieties hardy to Zone 3 include Veitch’s Blue, Star Frost and Blue Glow. 

#1 Catmint (Nepeta) - Sun to Part Sun

Perennial Plant of the Year 2021  -  Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ -  Zone 3-8  Deep indigo blue blooms.  14 inches in height by 20 inches in width.  Bloom time is late spring to early fall. 

Catmint is a ‘tough as nails’ perennial herb that has fuzzy leaves and slightly aromatic grey-green foliage.  It is in the same family as Catnip (Nepeta cataria) but not as attractive to cats.

Catmint can be found in colors of blue, pink, violet and white.  The flowers smother the stems of the plant and bloom from late spring right through into early fall.  Do deadhead to prolong bloom time. 

Nepeta is not fussy as to soil so long as it is well drained.  Do not overcrowd plants as they can be prone to powdery mildew.  Water regularly until well established.  This usually takes the first season after planting.  Fertilize once in early spring but consider using compost instead as a replacement for synthetic fertilizer each season. 

Bonus:  Rabbit and deer resistant.   Attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Comes in heights of 9 inches to 3 feet.  Easy to grow!   


Drought Tolerant Plants  -  5 Runner’s Up!

  1. Sea Holly  (Eryngium)
  2. Liatris
  3. Penstemon (Bearded Tongue)
  4. Opuntia Cacti
  5. Threadleaf Coreopsis  -  (Coreopsis verticillata)
  6.  Threadleaf Coreopsis 

Tell us your favourite in the comments below! 

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