With the word ‘drought’ on everyone’s lips, maybe we should think of having gardens with more drought tolerant plants, with stones and gravel instead of lawn, adding statues or stone lanterns to create a garden with a zen garden feel.

Zen gardens convey simplicity and tranquillity, and are known as karesansui, translated as ‘dry-mountain-water’ - dry gardens contain minimal plants, but natural elements of carefully arranged rock or pebbles, with gravel or sand raked to look like water. With the raking of the sand being considered a relaxing, thoughtful practice, the sole purpose of the gardens was to offer monks a place to meditate on Buddha's teachings, a truly calming garden.

Strictly speaking, Zen Gardens have trees and mosses to represent islands in the raked sand, but here it is not always possible to replicate these, but we can use some of the following colourful drought tolerant plants to get a similar result. You could even add a water feature – a small one typically uses less water than a couple of toilet flushes a week.

Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii) also known as Christ plant, or weirdly, Siamese Lucky Plant, is a prolific bloomer requiring minimal care, and can be grown outdoors easily in frost-free areas. It produces colourful bracts around the mini flowers, similar to a poinsettia, and has a stem of wicked 2.5cm (1”) spines. New plant growth has a few narrow, green leaves, but the leaves reduce in numbers as the stem ages.

Money Tree/Plant (Crassula ovata), has many names, including Jade Plant. With glossy, oval-shaped, dark green leaves, it produces delicate star-shaped flowers that range from white to a delicate pink. It grows successfully outside in the garden in the warmer regions of Portugal, but doesn’t like the cold, so further north would be safer as an indoor plant.

Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi) or Purple Ice Plant, or Cooper’s Ice Plant. This is a great groundcover plant with fleshy needle-like leaves but has daisy-like purple flowers blooming all summer long and autumn. Growing about 3-4 inches tall, it spreads quickly in a sunny, well-drained dry area.

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ - resembling a rose, Echeveria 'Afterglow' is a pretty evergreen succulent with large rosettes of fleshy, powdery lavender-pink leaves adorned with delicate bright pink edges. This throws up rosy-red flowers in summer, which last several weeks.

Echeveria Elegans ‘Mexican Snowball’ - This is another echeveria, but has grey-green leaves with pink-reddish margins. The pink colour becomes more pronounced when the plant is ‘stressed’ or exposed to extreme temperatures and drought. It produces beautiful, bright pink-coral bell-shaped flowers that stay in bloom for weeks.

Aloe Vera (Aloe vera) Native to the Mediterranean and Africa, most people will be familiar with this plant’s purported medicinal qualities, but it is also a lovely ornamental succulent that grows in clumps of upright leaves. In late winter and on into spring, it sends up vibrant yellow spikes. The grey-green leaves add a nice spiky texture to the garden even when the plant is not in flower, and does well in containers or pots.

Super Red is another aloe that produces multiple candle-like flower heads. This large, tall stemming hybrid is also capable of branching and forming a shrub, and is suitable for landscape use or as a feature plant in any garden

Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria crinitais) Add this for its flowers and overall ball shape – although technically it is a cactus, it’s very easy to grow - even indoors, provided the plant has at least 4 hours of direct sunlight. But beware, this one has hooked spines, so handle carefully and keep it out of the reach of children and pets.

Lithops – also known as Living Stones or Pebble Plants, its name comes from Greek for ‘stone face’ - low growers being unique for their unusual shape. They come from 2 plump succulent leaves that are almost fused together. New leaves and flowers emerge from between the two leaves, causing them to split apart. The fat leaves can be in brown, grey, cream or green, and have a bumpy texture. When it flowers, it produces white or yellow flowers.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan