Save your garden in the California drought!


Use pavers in patterns to form a pathway in a useful area that needs no water in a California drought landscape.

How to grow a spectacular garden despite the California drought

Changing weather patterns are making headlines all over the country. While gripping cold and smothering snow and ice may grab the headlines, a quieter and more insidious weather phenomenon is making dangerous inroads on the West Coast: the California drought.

Three years ago the winter rainy season was stingy in California. Last year many spots broke records for lack of rainfall. This year the whole state is water-deprived and the open lands remain barren of green. Snow packs are severely low and life-giving water is not falling from the skies.  In the normally wettest month of the year there was no measurable precipitation.

Life can survive most extreme weather, but it can’t exist without water. As homeowners continue to spray lawns and gardens with automatic sprinkler systems, starving wildlife has begun invading houses and gardens in search of food and drink. And the ‘dry season’ hasn’t yet arrived.

The first impact will be seen on our gardens. Water restrictions are likely and supply prices will soar. Maintaining the average California garden will become expensive and difficult. So far we are being asked to voluntarily cut back on water usage 20%. This is not enough.

Even now, farmers are unable to plant their usual crops and due to escalating feed prices stock herds are being culled — meaning less meat supplies in the future. This will inevitably push up food costs across the board all over the country. Yet with the large population on the West Coast, drinking water must be a priority.

Californians will finally take this seriously when they see their water bills triple and are subject to rationing. No one wants to see their groomed front yards go brown or watch their landscapes die. But the gardens are going to be the first victims of a severe drought.

So with this dire outlook, what can we do?

Happily, this is the time to reinvent your landscaping – now, before the heat of spring and summer arrives. Your garden can look spectacular no matter what Mother Nature sends your way. Yes, cactus gardens are a good solution and can be designed to look great. But if that isn’t your style, there are other alternatives. Here are some approaches you can use to turn your outdoor space into something you’ll love that won’t drain the precious water supply – and will still look wonderful should the rains come.

Give up the lawn! Lawns were never native to California and there are many other options that will be ornamental and/or productive. Replace them with artistic patterns of colored gravel, brick, stone, decomposed granite or even tumbled glass. Or use artificial grass where you really want an area of lawn. Synthetic lawns are safer and more realistic than ever before. There are also ground cover plants like Dymondia and some of the eco-lawn seed mixtures that will be less thirsty for areas that must be green.

cactus landscape

Slab rocks and cactus plants gives a contemporary look to this Southern California garden that will easily survive the California drought.

Plant California drought-tolerant plants or plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate. Group plantings to create lush effects and surround them with non-living materials.

Build raised garden beds for edibles so the water is focused where you need it and not spilled away elsewhere. These beds can be defended from hungry wildlife with fencing and wire.

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy

Carve out useful spaces like entertainment patios, seating and dining areas, sport courts, outdoor rooms, child or pet play areas or decorative dry river beds. They use no water and expand living space.

Make your garden magical with art. Add sculptures, build colorful shade structures or pop in a small fountain of recycled water to calm the mind with the illusion of bountiful moisture (while using very little).

Provide deep watering for your trees since these are the hardest to replace if you lose living material in your landscape. Dig in deep tube feeders and line moats with slow-delivery soaker hoses.

‘Redesign’, ‘prioritize’, and ‘get creative’ are the catch-words that will help you create an artistic and low-water garden.

Saving water in a California drought will not only make your garden withstand dry years but it will save you maintenance labor and money. Using wisely chosen plants where they will have the greatest visual impact, surrounding them with non-living materials and adding interesting décor will make your property safer from wildfires and less dusty from winds while creating a three-dimensional artistic landscape.

This is the real point of “sustainable” gardening. The extreme drought gives us an excuse to try out real water-wise gardening and allows us to flex our creative thinking muscles. If even half of the California residential homes converted their gardens to this kind of redesign, even our severely reduced water supply would be a much smaller threat to the population. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, 50% of residential water use goes to outdoor landscapes. The percentage increases with the drier inland communities. We can make a difference in our personal lives and the welfare of the whole state during this extreme drought – and even after – by designing our gardens wisely.

So take a moment: what improvements can you make in your own garden for the California drought? How can you make your property more spectacular, less water-dependent, easier to care for, and more sustainable? Why not take the first steps now, while the temperatures are cool and comfortable so you will be ready to sit back and enjoy your smart but beautiful garden when the heat sets in? You can grow that, enjoy it and reap the benefits. As the gardens of your neighbors succumb to dry and heat, yours can remain beautiful and you can be the envy of the neighborhood!

Drought-Tolerant Plants of the Southern California Chaparral

Some of the extremely drought-tolerant plants in the California chaparral can be as showy as the fanciest imported garden plants when in flower. Here are some pictures of some of the lovely flowering displays the chaparral has to offer. Look for these plants to start blooming in early February with most of the stragglers to finish before June. There are some late-bloomers, but since the rainy season is in the winter and heat can start scalding within inland chaparral areas as early as May, most of these plants will want to flower and set seed so they are ready for their dry, summer dormancy well before the end of June. This schedule will vary depending on the micro-climate of the chaparral area since elevation, coastal humidity, soil type and other factors range widely throughout most of the California chaparral areas. All chaparral plants tolerate an extreme daily temperature range and are highly drought-tolerant. Still, it’s curious to think that when much of the country is still battling snow and ice, some of these beauties are unfurling their petals in the different, but still demanding, climate of the California chaparral.

These are just a small sample of the highly decorative Southern California chaparral drought-tolerant plants that are budding up in the winter months to paint the landscape with color in early spring.


Plant profiles: Drought-tolerant plants: Verbena rigida


Rigid vervain

Verbena rigida is perfect for the informal landscape (Photo by Jane Gates)

Verbena rigida (Rigid Verbena, Sandpaper Verbena or Tuberous Vervain)

This is a colorful groundcover plant that blooms in rich purple for a long flowering season. The leaves are coarse and tough with a sandy texture and the plant creeps and crawls with underground runners. Flowers are clustered in groups and grow from six to eighteen inches high. The color can be a vibrant violet. The Verbena rigida likes full sun and well-drained, lean soil, but it isn’t fussy about soil type. It thrives in high heat and is frost tolerant to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. This is an ideal plant to cover hills, slopes and open expanses. It has an informal habit of growth that will make it attractive in a natural garden. It can become invasive where happy and rambles too much to work well in a formal, controlled landscape design. In the right location, the Verbena rigida is an excellent choice for a water-wise garden, although it won’t mind if it gets regular water either.

Be warned that sometimes this Verbena takes a while to become established. Wait a year or two before replanting. It can suddenly take with extreme enthusiasm. It can also establish itself in places you never intended. This is another plant that spreads by both seed and underground runners. It’s ability to adapt to dry, stony soil allows it to spread easily once happy. If you have good soil and a fair amount of water, you may be wise to choose another variety of Verbena that is less invasive. But for tough, hot, dry spaces, it’s a colorful plant that is hard to beat.


Ground cover plants for Los Angeles gardens

Sun Drops are another ground cover plant great for Los Angeles gardens

Sun Drops are another ground cover plant great for Los Angeles gardens

Living ground cover is a catch-all phrase for a lot of low growing plants grown together to literally cover the ground. In most landscapes there are areas that need general soil coverage. You might want to replace a water-hungry lawn with another green alternative, maybe even one that can take a little foot-traffic. There are also areas that look best with low-growing plantings. And sometimes there is only room for low plants to grow. Whether you are looking to cover a large expanse of ground or just to fill in an odd spot, there is bound to be a ground cover plant that will work just right for your Los Angeles landscape needs.

Lawn is actually a ground cover since it (surprise!) covers ground. Even gravel, bark and pavers are technically ground covers and these non-living varieties are wise choices to fill in areas for beauty, usefulness and cleanliness on larger properties. But here is some information about the living ground covers that grow happily to fill in between regular garden denizens, the non-living, and open areas.

Ground covers need to be chosen for the right location. Moisture lovers will have a hard time living on hillsides as water tends to slip down the hill rather than penetrating. Good ground covers for hills should have tenacious roots and handle some drought. Although the beleaguered ice plant has lost its magic due to being overused, it is still a good choice for hillsides. By the way, if you’ve ever tried to walk on it – especially on a hill, you will know why it’s called ice plant! There are many varieties in many colors, though the usual purple-pink variety (Delosperma) is probably the toughest for more demanding locations. One way to create more excitement with ice plant is by planting it in patches along with another ground cover so it creates either a design, or natural looking flows rather than the big flat blanket style used so often. Another good plant for hillsides in Los Angeles city and county is the Myoporum parvifolium. It will give you a rich green low-growing cover tickled with small white flowers in the spring. This one handles areas that get light frosts and hot summer sun.  Vinca minor also offers a very low profile and blooms with more showy purple flowers. Although it prefers a little shade, it is occasionally seen doing perfectly well right out there in our hot sun. In the hottest locations it prefers a tad more water.

On the coast , or inland — If you do have some dappled shade –, there are some very colorful choices available for hillside or flat. Cerastium (Snow in Summer) has bluish green soft little leaves and riotously happy white flowers that create a light, cool gentle-looking carpet. Ceratostigma (Dwarf Plumbago) grows to about 10” in height with deep green leaves and shockingly blue flowers that echo the shape of real plumbago blooms (pictured above). This plant can be grown by itself in the garden or used as a larger ground cover. It spreads by runners and puts on a wonderful show from early spring ‘til autumn when the leaves turn a glowing autumnal red. Then it virtually vanishes for the winter, returning to do its cycle all over again in the springtime.

The old standby, creeping rosemary (rosmarinus o. prostrates) is a sure thing to fill in almost anyplace in full sun. R. ‘Collingswood’ is a variety that will give you brighter colored flowers. For one of the most intensely colorful prostrate varieties R. ‘Irene’ can’t be beat. Rosemaries are easy, low-maintenance ground covers for most any area, doing well even on difficult soils, however, they do draw bees, so you might want to think twice before using too much rosemary close to bathing areas. Another benefit of planting rosemary is that even the most decorative variety will serve well for cooking. And if you have wandering pets on your land, they just might return to you smelling wonderfully herbal after meandering around your property!

Verbena comes in not only a choice of colors, but a selection of varieties. There is the annual verbena that allows you to choose almost any color you want, but only for the short life span of any annual. Or there are perennial versions of reasonably drought-tolerant verbena usually seen in lavender colors. Verbena tenuisecta is a tougher variety, also in the lavender purple color range.  Verbena rigida, with its slightly taller and more course appearance is tougher still. This latter variety is very drought-tolerant and will do well in full sun, sometimes becoming mildly invasive with a little extra water. It runs with underground roots and pushes its rough-leaved shoots between other plants to show off its bright purple flowers over a long season. Verbenas are ideal for water conscious landscapes in the Los Angeles area.

You can always find the ubiquitous gazania daisy in affordable flats as a ground cover for large areas. The interior kalidescopic designs are fascinating and they do come in a wide assortment of colors.  Other ground covers may be less colorful, like using creeping red fescue to give a long shiny green-grass effect, particularly effective on hills. Flat areas can be seeded with mixed low-growing wildflowers to create meadows. Low growing succulents like some small sedums as well as the low mounding blue grass of the Festuca ovata glauca are drought tolerant and work wonderfully in Southwestern, Cactus or natural styled gardens. Some of the prostrate junipers will give you evergreen coverage that will require hardly any upkeep.

Ground covers can also be planted in pots and boxes. Using these creepers and trailers creates green and color to spill over the sides. This same concept can also be used to soften the top edge of a retaining wall.  The Calibrachoa (Million Bells) is a miniature perennial petunia that offers bright reds, purples and deep yellows. Bacopa dangles soft leafy green stems studded with little white or purple flowers. Ivy geraniums fill in bigger areas with reds, pinks and whites. They can ramble over hills and rough areas as well as dangling down from window boxes or overflowing pots. The Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron) is a delicate little daisy that will also work well for pots or protected areas.

Consider some of the low-growing thymes or the yellow-flowering dymondia to fill in between stepping stones or flagstones. You can plant drifts of different plants to cover large areas. And feel free to mix different sized plants to get a rolling feel to a design. You might want to use several different plants with various colored foliage, or different height plants that all bloom with similar colors. Some, like many achilleas (yarrows) and salvias tend to grow a little taller, and some, like ice plants and thymes are ground-huggers.

There are many more living ground cover plants available that can enhance a Los Angeles landscape. The style of your garden, your personal taste, your micro-climate, budget and the availability of material will all influence your choice.

A few Mediterranean plants for the drought-tolerant garden

Designing a Mediterranean garden
Mediterranean plants have become very popular for dry-summer areas in the past decade. There is a wonderful choice of varied growth habits, flowering and colors in these plants. The Mediterranean is a large area encompassing southern Europe, northern Africa and even parts of western Asia — we’re talking about lands that surround the Mediterranean Sea. This is an area known for having a mild climate and dry summers. Some parts experience a climate much like parts of Texas and California. But many of the plants that are happy in this kind of environment are also flexible to be used in gardens elsewhere.
Since these plants have evolved to thrive despite periods of no rain they provide a good source for material that will thrive drought-tolerant gardens. Lack of rain has been hitting the headlines in so many different geographical areas that these plants are finding welcome homes in gardens over a wide range of territory.
Some favorite plants that originated around the Mediterranean have also found their way into the kitchen serving double-duty in the garden. Look for sage, fennel, olive trees and rosemary to fit the bill. Showy flowering choices for landscapes are Oleanders, Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis — not a sage at all!), some geraniums (Pelargoniums) and  Wall Germander (Teucreum). The list grows if you want to grow Mediterranean-like plants — those that like similar conditions but are native to places like Australia, South Africa, parts of South America and more. Although there are thousands of choices available, some popular examples used in landscapes are Bottle Brush and Eucalyptus trees, Hardenbergia, Grevilleas and Swan River Daisy  from Australia and the Bird of Paradise (Strelizia), Clivia and Treasure Flower (Gazania) from South Africa.
There are too many wonderful water-wise plants for the landscape to list here. But don’t overlook the Mediterranean climates for some of the best choices.

Plant views: Salvias for drought-tolerant gardens

Salvia is the sage family. These are plants with pungent leaves and blooms that can be colorful and showy. There are salvias large and small that grow all over the world. There are some yellow salvias but most bloom in pinks, reds, whites, blues and purples. Some offer the rare color of true blue. There are many that are excellent to use in garden where soil is poor and water scarce. Most of them are adaptable for drought-tolerant gardens with a wide range of conditions. Here is just a sampling of some of the most drought-tolerant of these decorative sages.

You can see that the family of sages offers a wide selection. Don’t forget to plant the edible garden sage for cooking. Even this comes in an assortment of varieties offering lovely spikes of indigo blue flowers when in bloom and leaves from soft green to variegated with splashes or edgings of white, yellow, purple or pink — or combinations of these colors. Like the rest of the sage family, the edible sage also likes full sun and prefers lean soil and not too much water.

There are salvias that need it warm, some that handle hard frosts and a good number that can handle almost desert conditions. Some do well in shade although most prefer sunshine. There are so many cultivars that you should be able to find one for any location. Some are ideal to use as ground cover as they spread wide and low. A good hillside ground cover for dry-summer seasons is the S. ‘Terra Secca’ shown below. This one can go for months without water, but it will look richer and happier if it gets a little supplemental irrigation.

The most popular sage is the annual bedding flower that once came only in bright red, but now can be found in blues, purples, reds, pinks and whites. This sage only lasts for one season (being an annual), but will put on an impressive blooming show. It will do well in a regular garden bed with rich soil. Use it to fill in places that need to be colored up for the season.



Cleveland sage: Salvia clevelandii (CA native) Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gillman’

Bicolored salvia

This is a shot of a rare Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gillman’ blooming with both blue and white flowers. It is sometimes referred to as a Betsy Clebsch variety, but after several years it proved unstable and reverted to the usual all-blue blooms.





Salvia melifera‘Terra Secca’

groundcover sage

The Salvia ‘Terra Secca’ covers lots of ground with pebbled, lush-colored, evergreen leaves and sends up little white flower spikes in the spring.





Salvia‘Bee’s Bliss’

Groundcover sage

Salvia ‘Bees Bliss’ forms a handsome, low-growing mat of soft grey foliage and sends up purple-lavender blooms in spring.





Desert blue sage Salvia dorrii

Desert sage

The desert sage, Salvia dorrii, takes extreme hot and dry. In spring it blooms with rich, bright blue flowers.





Salvia canariensis (Canary Island Sage)

Canary sage

Salvia canariensis forms a 5′ x 5′ shrub thick with flowers.





Penstemon centranthafolius blooms between flows of Salvia ‘Bees Bliss’ and S. ‘Terra Seca’

Perennial red salvia

Penstemon centranthifolius (CA native) blazes out in red among lower growing salvias












Salvia chamadryoides

blue salvia

The small, neat-growing Salvia chamaedryoides offers pure sky-blue flowers for the garden that accent its soft silvery little leaves.













Salvia greggii

flowering sage

The Salvia greggii plants are bred in an assortment of colors. They are versatile and waterwise. Look for colors in reds, yellows, whites, pinks, and purples.





Salvia leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage or Velvet Sage)

Mexican sage

The Mexican sage or Salvia Leucantha has a purple and a purple and white variety. It grows up to 8′ in width and 4 – 5′ high — an eye-catcher when in bloom.