Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: Water wise: Doing more with less

May/June 2009 California Country magazine

Plan a drought-tolerant landscape to save resources and discover new plants and techniques.

Californians probably didn’t need an executive order from Gov. Schwarzenegger last winter to remind us we’ve been in drought conditions. But knowing the governor has officially declared a water emergency and has asked us all to reduce our water use makes the proclamation very serious and very personal.

One of the best places we can save water is in our landscapes. And while Mother Nature offers a varied and beautiful repertoire of plants for the job, there are two key things to remember:

  • “Drought tolerant” doesn’t mean plant and walk away, especially for container-grown plants. They don’t have the extensive root system needed to be truly drought tolerant. They’ll need coddling to get established. Established drought-tolerant plants can take periods of drought without dying, but they won’t look pretty if deprived of water. If you want them to be attractive landscape plants, water sparingly, but regularly.
  • Emphasize foliage over flower. Silver and gray plants look cool even when the thermometer reads 109, so use them generously. Pastel colors aren’t strong enough to stand up to California’s summer sun, so plan for plenty of bold, bright colors that show up in the harsh light.

Switching to a drought-tolerant landscape is a wonderful way to save water and resources. And there will be delights throughout the year, whether it’s discovering amazing beneficial insects, unusual native flowers or the hummingbirds that hang around your chaparral currant plants at Christmas time.

Many water districts have drought-tolerant demonstration gardens open to the public. Other great resources include your county’s Master Gardener offices. Also, the University of California, Davis Arboretum lists 100 hot-weather, low-water-using plants on its Web site. Go to and click on “Valley-Wise Gardening.”

Pat Rubin is a long-time gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at

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