Everything you need to give the hose a rest, from unthirsty plant picks to inspiring gardens
Debra Lee Baldwin, Johanna Silver, and Kathleen N. Brenzel
1 of 18Thomas J. Story
Low water, big impact
Recently, on the heels of another dry spell in California, we surveyed a patch of brown grass in the backyard and wondered: What does climate change mean for gardeners? With experts warning that droughts will only get worse, should we bother planting anything at all?
Glancing at the red-flowered penstemons blooming lustily despite neglect, we realized: absolutely. Hundreds of plants not only tolerate drought, but do so beautifully. And of course the water-wise garden has practical benefits—namely, less maintenance and lower water bills.
Here we offer ideas to help you make the shift, and plenty of proof that unthirsty gardens can be as interesting as well-watered greenbelts—perhaps even more so.
Design for garden pictured: Arterra Landscape Architects
2 of 18Thomas J. Story
Case study: Striking & sculptural
Uses rainwater only, San Diego, CA
Southern California’s rare rains provide the only water that Chris and Margaret Sullivan’s front yard gets. Yet its barrel and columnar cactus, Mexican blue fan palms, and Yucca rostrata all thrive. Arranged among boulders in randomly spaced groups like pieces of art, the plants grow in a decomposed granite–cactus mix blend, top-dressed with 3/8-inch Palm Springs Gold gravel. “This garden is 100 times less work than a lawn,” says Chris, who hoses off the barrel cactus in summer only if they’re dusty, and uses long-handled tweezers to extract weeds. “Rabbits eat neighboring gardens, but they’ve shown no interest in ours.”
3 of 18Thomas J. Story
Case study: Wild & romantic
Cut water bill by 40%, Los Altos, CA
For years, Pam and Mark Goodman cringed at the sight of their struggling lawn from the living room windows. Dreaming of a thriving garden, Pam started clipping photos of plants. By the time the couple met with garden designer Rebecca Sweet, Pam “must have had a thousand photos,” says Sweet.
Thumbing through the pictures, Sweet could see the couple loved a lush, colorful look. So she suggested planting unthirsty perennials with bright flowers and long bloom times, as well as replacing the lawn with low-water silver-blue Dymondia margaretae, which can handle foot traffic.
Since then, the garden has come alive with the bees, birds, and butterflies that the flowers attract. Now it’s hard to walk through the living room without lingering by a window, says Pam. “It’s like a forever-changing painting.”
A winding flagstone path leads visitors through the garden. Its steppingstones are interplanted with dymondia and tiny sedums and edged with low, billowy Sedum rupestre (S.r. ‘Blue Spruce’ is pictured at bottom left).
5 of 18Bob Wigand
Idea to steal: Create a bird paradise
The fountain, plants, and nesting-ready trees have drawn all kinds of birds to the yard. Hummingbirds zoom in on the red blooms of dwarf bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis ‘Little John’).
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Idea to steal: Brighten borders
Lavender fringes the fountain with a patch of purple flowers. Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus, pictured) adds bursts of velvety orange flowers to the border; it’s deer-resistant and drought-tolerant.
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Idea to steal: Pick nonstop bloomers
Along the path to the seating area, yellow-and-orange blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Arizona Sun’) blooms constantly. “It’s so worth the $8 to buy it in a gallon,” says Sweet. Elsewhere in the yard, Coreopsis (C. verticillata ‘Moonbeam’, pictured), with pale yellow flowers, blossoms from summer to fall as long as spent flowers are clipped.
8 of 18Thomas J. Story
Idea to steal: Soften the edges
To create a sense of flow, Sweet used curving borders and plants that spill over the edges. Leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa, pictured), for example, creates little bursts of green foliage that blend the planting bed with the dymondia lawn.
9 of 18Thomas J. Story
Case study: Tailored & textured
Watered only once a week, San Marino, CA
Plants may be a new medium for interior designer Diane Lam, but she has years of experience with combining textures and colors. So when she and her husband, David Omori, decided to replace the grass and ivy in their front yard, her love of texture and color guided the design.
Working with landscape designer Darren Shirai and landscape architect Jeremy Taylor, Lam organized unthirsty groundcovers into bands that cross the yard like giant stripes on a rug. All told, the bands feature six kinds of succulents, three kinds of shrubs, and one kind of grass. “It’s a kaleidoscope of changing colors,” Lam says.
The plants get watered weekly using a drip-irrigation system and need little trimming. And Lam actually relishes the maintenance that comes with easy-to-propagate succulents. When one of the plants grows too big for a space, she pulls it out and restarts snippets elsewhere in the garden—or pots it up to give as a gift.
A permeable pathway made of broken concrete packed with sand allows rainwater to pass into the ground, where it's accessible to plant roots.
11 of 18Thomas J. Story
Idea to steal: Grow in rows
Planting in long bands, ranging from 16 inces to 5 feet wide, gives structure to Lam and Omori's garden. But the look isn't rigid. "Wind and light add complexity with shadows and movement," says Lam. "The garden is always changing."
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Idea to steal: Explore a spectrum
"We have every shade of green and blue, from chartreuse to forest green and silvery blue--all shades that work well together," says Lam. Crassula capitella thyrsiflora 'Campfire' (top row in photo) 'Elijah Blue' fescue (second row in photo), and silver blue Senecio are accented by a deep burgundy Caribbean copper plant.
13 of 18toon12345 / Getty Images
Idea to steal: Mark the seasons
An evergreen hedge of pine and pittosporum (pictured) grows at the back of the garden. To add to the color show, Shirai planted aloes that bloom in spring to the existing deciduous Japanese maple (with vibrant fall foliage) next to the front door.
14 of 18Jeffery Cross
Though plants in pots usually need more water than their counterparts in the ground, there are plenty of unthirsty options too. Click through to see garden designers' favorites, but first, here are some tips for pots:
Choose the right pot. Glazed ceramic (pictured), metals, and plastic prevent evaporation better than porous materials such as terra-cotta.
Mulch. Cover the bare soil surface in pots with 1 to 2 inches of bark, compost, gravel, or stones to slow evaporation.
Monitor moisture. Water when the soil is dry an inch or two beneath the surface. Or install a drip-irrigation kit designed for pots (available at most garden centers) and put it on a timer.
Repot as needed. Rootbound plants dry out more quickly than ones whose roots have some room to grow. Put them into containers that are about a size larger.
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Mood & attitude
“This is the It Plant of the moment,” says San Francisco nursery owner Flora Grubb of the icy blue powder-covered Echeveria cante, pictured at bottom left. “I’ve never seen a plant as iridescent as this one.” Here, the succulent shimmers against moody dark foliage—‘Cheryl’s Shadow’ geranium and ‘Black Adder’ phormium, which add structure in back. The 16-inch-wide container is made of lightweight plastic.
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A variegated Aloe arborescens with subtle stripes appears to explode above Sedum ‘Lemon Coral’ (provenwinners.com) in this 14-inch-high zinc container. “It’s the best sedum I’ve grown,” says Jarrod Baumann, who designed the planting. “It stays full and lush and doesn’t look ratty, even after it’s done blooming.”
Design: Zeterre Landscape Architecture, Los Altos, CA;zeterre.com
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Costa Mesa garden designer Molly Wood fills vintage metal chicken feeders with tiny succulents for a rustic centerpiece. Hen and chickens (Sempervivums), echeverias, and a dainty stonecrop grow in cactus mix in a 4 1/2-inch-deep trough. Find similar ones at flea markets or on mollywoodgardendesign.com or etsy.com.