Drought gardening

Violett cliff maids, also known as Lewisia cotyledon or Siskiyou lewisia, with white rim in spring on wild fields of Eifel. (Erfurt Rita/Dreamstime/TNS)

While the Pacific Northwest has gotten the most attention for its heat wave a quarter of the state of California remains in an “exceptional drought,” the most severe category possible. 

Almost 98% of the land across 11 Western states is abnormally dry, and more than 90% is covered by some category of drought, the worst levels in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s 21-year history. Considering that California produces more food crops than any other state in the country, it’s crucial to protect and conserve water there. It’s important to conserve water in every state, really.

One solution for gardeners is to adopt xeriscaping, a style of landscaping designed to reduce water use. "Xeric," or dry, doesn’t always mean cacti and succulents — it can mean using native grasses and other plants adapted to dryer regimes or hardscaping features such as boulders, pavers, and gravel instead of thirsty lawns. 

This type of gardening is more common in places where summers are hot and dry, but you don’t have to live in the Wild West to adopt water-saving gardening for your yard. Fuzzy or silver-leaved plants are usually already drought-tolerant (the silver hairs are an adaptation that reduces water loss), and any garden with a Mediterranean, rock garden, or Southwestern aesthetic will be a natural match for xeriscaping. Here are some of our favorite plant picks for growing a stunning garden with less water.

Groundcovers and Grasses

With a little planning and strategic use of grasses, border plants, and groundcovers, you can maintain a breezy elegance in your garden without running a sprinkler for hours at a time.

‘Siskiyou Pink’ gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) is a native of southern Oregon that has feathery, red-tinged leaves and delicate salmon-pink flowers that bloom from spring to fall. Once established, it forms a nice roundish shape up to 3 feet tall and wide. Perfect for a Mediterranean garden (but great in any water-wise country garden) is ‘Huntington Carpet’ creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). It’s fragrant, edible, and evergreen — and also great in containers. ‘Fire Spinner’ ice plant (Delosperma ‘P001S’) is also a heavy-hitter in a drought-tolerant garden: Its daisy-like flowers come in tons of colors — Fire Spinner is a psychedelic orange and purple — and it’s so sturdy that it’s used to landscape California highways.

Water-saving gardening doesn’t mean you have eschew grasses entirely either. ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue (Festuca glauca), a lovely clump-forming grass with long, bluish-gray leaves, thrives on neglect. 

Showy Flowers

Yes, you can achieve a lush tropical oasis vibe without monsoon levels of water. These plants go the extra mile in the bloom department without daily watering. Most of these are best planted in containers you can bring indoors during a colder-climate winter. 

‘Belgian Hybrid Orange’ clivia (Clivia miniata) has strappy dark green foliage and bodacious clusters of vermilion blossoms that magically transform a back patio into a Hawaiian lanai. ‘Berries Jubilee’ woodbine honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is a cold-hardy climbing vine that produces copious cream-colored flowers—they explode with a heady honeysuckle fragrance in the evening—and glossy red berries attractive to birds. ‘Sharon Wesley’ bougainvillea (Bougainvillea) is a gorgeous climbing plant perfect for covering walls, arches, trellises, and fences; Sharon Wesley is a breathtaking shade of fuchsia, but bougainvillea comes in white, pink, orange, and purple as well. Finally, a florist’s favorite, the fuzzy flowers on ‘Kanga Red’ kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos) really do resemble little kangaroo paws; they also come in peach- and yellow-flowered varieties.

Nonthirsty Shrubs and Small Trees

Add some visually interesting structure to your garden by including woody plants. These trees and shrubs don’t require much water once they’re established, but you may want to wait until late fall before planting to give them time to settle in over the winter and spring. 

Slender, deciduous crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) trees range from just 4 feet to a lofty 25 feet tall, depending on the variety, and produce copious showy blooms in shades of red, purple, pink, orange, and white. ‘Moon Lagoon’ dwarf eucalyptus (Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon’) has fragrant, silvery-sage leaves that make it perfect for planting near windows; blue-gray cider gum (Eucalyptus gunnii) is more cold-hardy.  Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) may not be a true willow, but with its showy, speckled, rhododendron-like flowers, this water-wise shrub is a hit with hummingbirds. Scarlet Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) is an Australia native that tolerates a range of terrible growing conditions: lean soils, high temperatures, and low water. More important, it’s a cool-looking evergreen with brushy cerise flowers. 

Cacti and Succulents 

Any type of cactus, agave, yucca, or aloe is a natural choice for a rock garden, and no, they’re not all covered with forbidding spines. Several species and varieties can even handle colder climates. For the most visual bang for your buck, grow these in containers you can cluster together. 

‘Santa Rita’ prickly pear (Opuntia violacea var. santa-rita) is a large cactus that sports exquisite matte lavender and periwinkle paddles, but beware: the splintery prickles make them not great for gardens with rangy kids or pets. ‘Blue Flame’ cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans f. cristata) is called the dinosaur back plant for a reason: Its ruffly form is prized by succulent collectors, meaning it can run $40 to $60 for a 4-inch-tall plant. ‘Ruffled Red’ echeveria (Echeveria), another otherworldly succulent, has thick, undulating mauve and seafoam-green leaves that resemble a bumpy cow’s tongue. It’s a perfect centerpiece for a container. Hens and chicks can look kind of generic, but ‘Krebs Desert Bloom’ hens and chicks (Sempervivum ‘Krebs 2’) has moody dark green, burgundy, and grape-gray leaves that make it a stunning exception.

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