9 Best Drought-Tolerant Vegetables

long green beans on a cutting board with cut green beans right next to them and a knife at the bottom of the cutting board

There’s nothing more satisfying than popping a flavorful homegrown tomato into your mouth at the peak of summer. But caring for a vegetable garden is often a high-water operation with many plant casualties, especially if you live in an area that doesn’t get reliable weekly rainfall. 

We’ve compiled a list of the nine top drought-tolerant vegetables to grow in your drought-prone yard or low-water xeriscape. These hardy growers stand up to hot, dry weather, so you can enjoy delicious, healthy veggies year-round.

Keep in mind that for most of the plants on our list, certain cultivars do better in arid climates than others. For example, not all zucchini varieties are drought-tolerant, but the Dark Star cultivar is. When you’re shopping for seed packets or young plants, choose varieties that have high heat tolerance and low water needs.

1. Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris)

A member of the beet family, Swiss chard certainly “beets” out the drought-tolerant competition. It’s a dark leafy green with attractive jewel-toned stems and deep roots that stand up to light frosts. Young, tender Swiss chard is perfect for salads, and mature, hearty leaves are delicious sauteed with garlic and peppers. 

You’ve heard of spinach and kale, but Swiss chard has its own nutritional superpowers. Rich in iron, potassium, and vitamins C, K, and A, it’s a heart-healthy hero, and its colorful stems seal the deal. They’re packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that fight cancer and lower blood pressure.

Swiss chard characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Leafy green
  • Hardiness zones: 6-10 as a biennial (can grow as an annual in zones 3-10)
  • Sun: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil: Rich and well-draining; slightly acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Biennial or annual (depending on your region)

Planting Swiss chard

Plant seeds 2 inches apart from each other in all directions. Topdress seeds with half an inch of fine soil or 1 inch of sandy soil. Once the plant has grown to 2 inches tall, thin out plants so they are 4 inches apart from each other. 

  • Water requirements: Swiss chard requires 1-1.5 inches of water each week, either from natural rainfall or irrigation.
  • Days to maturity after planting: 50-70 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Most cultivars of Swiss chard are drought-tolerant.

2. Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata)

If you time traveled 4,000 years into the past, you’d meet ancient Greeks and Romans chowing down on cowpeas just like we do today. Cowpeas, a species that includes black-eyed peas and purple-hull pink-eyed peas, are hearty, protein-rich legumes perfect for soups, rich sauces, and salads.

Not only are cowpeas tasty, but they’re great for you and your soil’s health. Recent studies show that cowpeas may help fight diabetes, cancer, inflammation, and high blood pressure. Cowpeas improve soil health by fixing nitrogen (which increases your soil’s organic matter content), reducing erosion, suppressing weeds, and attracting beneficial bacteria.

Cowpeas need consistent warm nights and soil temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit with no threat of frost, so they won’t thrive in the far North, but they’re perfect for warm, arid climates like the Southwest and California, as well as in the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard.

Cowpea characteristics 

  • Vegetable type: Legume
  • Hardiness zones: 7-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Sandy, well-draining; acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Annual

Planting cowpeas

Sow seeds by making a hole with your finger (1-2 inches deep) for each seed. Plant seeds 2 inches apart, with 3 feet between each row. 

Once seedlings have emerged (in about 10 to 12 days), thin them out so seedlings are 4 inches apart for bush-type cowpeas and 10 inches apart for vine-type cowpeas. 

  • Water requirements: 1 inch of water per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 60-90 days
  • Best cultivar for dry areas: Purple-hull pink-eyed

3. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)

With creamy yellow hibiscus-like blooms that grow 3 to 7 feet tall, okra gives your lawn lots of curb appeal — but it’s more than just a pretty face! Okra is a hearty, vitamin-rich pod vegetable that’s delicious roasted with tomatoes, fried southern-style, or mixed with seafood in gumbo.

Okra is drought-hardy and thrives in warm, sunny weather, which makes it perfect for planting in the South and mid-Atlantic. To prevent root rot, plant okra seeds in full sun after the soil has warmed to 65 degrees and the threat of frost has passed. Harvest okra when pods reach 2 to 3 inches. 

While fried okra may not exactly be heart-healthy (though it sure is delicious), okra itself is packed with vitamins and minerals. It’s rich in vitamins C and K and contains polyphenols — a unique antioxidant group that improves cognition and memory and protects your brain from symptoms of aging. 

Okra characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Pod-type
  • Hardiness zones: 6-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Well-draining, sandy loam with high organic matter; acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Annual

Planting okra

Gently scratch seeds (okra seeds have a very hard coat) with sandpaper and soak them in water for 12-24 hours before planting to improve germination. Use your finger to poke three-quarter-inch holes in the soil, with 9 to 12 inches between each hole. Plant seeds in rows with 3 to 4 feet between each row. 

If you plant multiple seeds in each hole, thin out extra okra as seedlings grow so that plants are 9 to 12 inches away from each other. 

  • Water requirements: 1 inch per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 50-60 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Gold Coast, Hill Country Heirloom Red, Jing Orange

4. Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)

Ready to add vertical appeal to your horizontal veggie garden? Build a pretty trellis and plant pole beans. These vine veggies climb up wooden trellises, bamboo teepees, and freestanding poles for a cozy dash of cottage whimsy. 

Pole beans will put you in green bean heaven: They produce twice as many beans as other subspecies like bush beans, and you can typically harvest them five times each summer. You can make all the green dishes your heart desires, and you won’t have to worry about all the beans maturing at the same time and going bad before you can use them.

Pole beans are delicious in casseroles, smoked with bacon and tomatoes, or roasted with garlic and parmesan. Need more inspiration? Check out the Food Network’s greatest green bean recipes.

Pole bean characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Bean
  • Hardiness zones: 3-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Well-draining; slightly acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Annual

Planting pole beans

Make 1-inch-deep holes with your fingers and sprinkle four to six seeds in each hole at the base of your pole. Seed holes should be 3 inches apart from each other. 

Do not start pole bean seeds indoors or soak seeds before planting them, as this can damage them. To ensure germination, wait until the soil temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit before planting. 

  • Water requirements: 1 inch per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 65-75 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Blue Coco, Garden of Eden Romano, Louisiana Purple Pod, McCaslan Snap, Rattlesnake, Selma Zesta, Selma Zebra 

5. Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo)

Zucchini bread, grilled zucchini, zucchini fritters, zucchini soup … It’s hard to imagine a culinary world without this sensational summer squash. With full sun and a dose of nutrient-rich compost, these fast-growing Italian beauties will stand up to drought and give you a delicious summer harvest.

What makes zucchinis drought-tolerant? Zucchinis have deep root systems and spreading surface roots that help the plant “root out” water in dry conditions. It’s still a good idea to give your plants supplemental water when a drought hits.

You can choose between vine-type and bush-type zucchinis: Vines are excellent for trellises and add vertical appeal to your garden, while bushes are more compact and fit well into small garden spaces. Harvest zucchini when they are 6 to 8 inches long and get cooking!

Zucchini characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Squash
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Rich, loamy, and well-draining
  • Duration: Annual

Planting zucchini 

Once soil temperatures reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sow your seeds in holes half an inch deep or plant 4 to 6 seeds together on mounds of soil (these little “hills” improve drainage and help the soil warm quickly in spring). Holes or hills should be 2 to 3 inches apart.

If you are planting vine-type zucchinis, space rows 2 to 3 feet apart to allow vines to spread. After seedlings sprout, thin them out so they grow 8 to 12 inches apart. Grow plants in pairs or groups of three to promote successful pollination.

  • Water requirements: 1-1.5 inches per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 60 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Cocozelle, Costata Romanesco, Cushaw Green-Striped, Dark Star, Iran, Jumbo Pink Banana, Lebanese Light Green 

6. Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)

Amaranth is one multi-talented veggie. As both a leafy green and a gluten-free ancient grain, this gorgeous shrub is a one-stop shop for refreshing salads and hearty grain bowls. Plus, its tassel-like burgundy and pink flowers are gorgeous additions to harvest bouquets. 

Growing 4 to 6 feet tall, amaranth will make your lawn the star of the neighborhood — and give you plenty of new recipe ideas. Creamy amaranth porridge, protein-rich grain patties, tabbouleh-style salad, and stir-fried greens expand your family’s palate and offer a treasure trove of health benefits. 

Amaranth leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support your immune system and reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Amaranth grains are packed with brain-healthy manganese (more than 100% of your daily needs), exercise-enhancing magnesium, and bone-strengthening phosphorus.  

Amaranth characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Leafy green and grain
  • Hardiness zones: 310
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Well-draining; slightly acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Annual

Planting amaranth

Plant amaranth once soil temperatures are 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the danger of frost has passed. You can broadcast seeds or make shallow, quarter-inch holes with your fingers and plant one to two seeds per hole. Place holes 4 inches apart. 

After you’ve planted amaranth once, you won’t need to spread seeds for the next growing season. Thanks to their plentiful seeds, plants will self-seed for spring success.

To harvest grains, wait until fall when the flowers have turned brown. Then, cut the flower stalks and let them dry in a bag for 2 weeks. Once your flowers are fully dry, shake the grains loose, rinse them, and enjoy.

  • Water requirements: 1 inch per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 25-40 days to harvest leaves; 90 days to harvest grains
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Mayo, Red Stripe Leaf, Tampala

7. Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)

When the going gets tough, the tomatoes get growing. Once established, dry-farmed tomatoes like Early Girl and Brandywine produce flavorful, firm fruit in severe drought conditions. 

In fact, insufficient water is key to successful dry farming: Without supplemental water, tomato roots dig deep into the soil and the plant focuses its energy on producing fruit, which means that the fruits are smaller, but each one packs a flavorful punch. In other words, the tomatoes don’t taste “watered down.”

If you’d rather have a larger harvest of milder tomatoes, you don’t have to dry-farm. You can stick with the old reliables: Cherokee Purple or Beefsteak are drought-tolerant varieties that require an inch of water per week.

Tomato characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Fruit 
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Clay or loam; slightly acidic
  • Duration: Annual

Planting tomatoes

Start your tomato seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost of spring. Once the soil has warmed to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the threat of frost has passed, harden off your seedlings by bringing them to a sheltered, shaded location in the daytime and taking them back indoors at night.

Slowly increase the amount of sunlight your seedlings receive each day. After 1-2 weeks, transplant them to your garden.

  • Water requirements: If there is no rain in the first month of planting, give dry-farmed plants 1 inch of water every 10 days. After the first month, no water is required for dry-farmed varieties. For traditionally grown tomatoes, water 1 inch per week. 
  • Days to maturity after planting: Approximately 80 days, depending on the variety
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: For dry farming, plant Early Girl, New Girl, Brandywine, Black Krim, or most varieties of cherry tomato. Otherwise, Cherokee Purple or Beefsteak are traditional drought-tolerant varieties.

8. Mustard greens (Brassica juncea)

For refreshing spring salads and fall sautees, mustard greens are your new best friend. These rapid growers love cool weather and will give you a continuous supply of tender greens before other veggies ripen.

With a slightly spicy, peppery taste, mustard greens are less bitter than kale and collard greens and taste similar to spinach when cooked. They’re especially popular in Chinese stir-fries, sauteed southern-style with smoked turkey, and cooked with Indian spices

Mustard greens characteristics

  • Vegetable type: Leafy green
  • Hardiness zones: 6-11
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Loamy, rich, and well-draining; slightly acidic to neutral
  • Duration: Annual

Planting mustard greens

Soak mustard seeds in cool water for four to six hours the night before planting. Make half-inch holes in the soil with your finger, spacing each hole an inch away from its neighbor. Drop mustard green seeds into each hole. Once they have sprouted and developed leaves, thin out your seedlings to 4 to 8 inches apart. 

Plant your mustard greens in spring, four to six weeks before the last frost in spring. For a continuous stream of greens, practice succession planting: Sow fresh seeds every two to three weeks.

If your lawn soil is particularly clay-heavy or sandy, you may want to plant mustard green seeds in raised beds to ensure successful germination and growth. 

  • Water requirements: 1-2 inches per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 35-70 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Southern Giant Curled

9. Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus L.)

Don’t be fooled by the name! Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, look and taste more like water chestnuts or potatoes than artichokes (but potato-choke doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). A member of the sunflower family, Jerusalem artichokes produce tall, lovely yellow flowers — but the delicious part of the artichoke grows beneath the soil. 

The sunchoke’s potato-like tubers are mildly sweet, nutty roots that are excellent roasted with herbs, tossed in a salad, or pureed for a hearty fall soup. Unlike potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes have a low glycemic index which makes them a safe alternative for people with diabetes. 

Packed with iron, potassium, and inulin, sunchokes help lower blood cholesterol levels, protect against heart disease, and keep your immune system strong.

  • Vegetable type: Tuber (root)
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Loamy and well-draining; slightly alkaline
  • Duration: Perennial

Planting Jerusalem artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes prefer cooler temperatures, so plant them in early spring (February to April) once the soil has warmed to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant tubers 2 to 4 inches deep with 15 to 24 inches between plants. Make sure the tubers’ “eyes” are facing upward (the “eye” is where the sprout will emerge). 

Grow tubers in raised beds to encourage a high yield and prevent artichokes from spreading and becoming weedy.

  • Water requirements: 1 inch per week
  • Days to maturity after planting: 90 days
  • Best cultivars for dry areas: Stampede, Red Fuseau, Clearwater

FAQ about drought-tolerant vegetables

1. What vegetables should I avoid for a drought-resistant garden?

Certain veggies require more water than others, and some shallow-rooted vegetables like lettuce and sweet corn are particularly thirsty. 

Other vegetables with high water needs include: 

Can’t bear to part with your beloved sweet corn or broccoli? Instead of avoiding thirsty plants, hydrozone your vegetable garden so that high-water and low-water plants are planted in different sections. You can water all the high-water plants together and leave the drought-tolerant plants alone, so you’re not wasting water. 

2. How else can I reduce my water usage?

To conserve soil moisture, a 1- to 3-inch layer of garden mulch (like compost or grass clippings) is always an excellent place to start. Mulch prevents weeds, insulates your garden soil, and gives roots a nutrient boost.

Consider ditching the hose and installing a drip irrigation system. Drip systems deliver water directly to your veggies’ roots to minimize wasteful evaporation.

If you’re serious about cutting your water bill and making your lawn more eco-friendly, design a drought-resistant xeriscape (a low-water landscape that thrives on your region’s natural rainfall). You may even qualify for a xeriscaping rebate if you live in a drought-prone area. 

3. We’re in for a hot, dry summer. How should I prepare my garden?

If a particularly dry summer is predicted, consider planting seedlings rather than sowing seeds from scratch. Plants that have germinated in a comfortable, indoor environment are more likely to survive than seeds that immediately face difficult outdoor growing conditions.

4. How much water do vegetable gardens normally need?

A vegetable garden typically requires one inch of water per week, either by natural precipitation or irrigation. That means that if your garden is 100 square feet, it will need 62 gallons of water each week.

Start your veggies strong

Eager to grow your own delicious drought-tolerant veggies? Start your seeds in spring so they’re ready for a summer or fall harvest. A pro tip? Apply fertilizer right before you sow, and spread a light layer of compost after sowing for a nutrient boost. Once you’ve watered, sit back and watch your juicy, nutrient-packed plants ripen. 

Planting a garden can be a fun family activity, but it also can be quite a sweaty endeavor. If you’d rather leave the planning and seeding to the experts, call a local lawn care pro to get your garden growing strong, so you can enjoy tasty tomatoes and sensational Swiss chard all summer long.

Main Photo Credit: congerdesign | Pixabay

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.