Water-wise garden design guide
Everything you need to give the hose a rest, from unthirsty plant picks to inspiring gardens
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
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.”
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.”
Design: Rebecca Sweet, Los Altos, CA; harmonyinthegarden.com
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.
Design: Bosque Design, Pasadena; bosque-la.com
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.
Design: Zeterre Landscape Architecture, Los Altos, CA; zeterre.com
Design: Molly Wood Garden Design, Costa Mesa, CA; mollywoodgardendesign.com
Colin McCrate, from Seattle Urban Farm Company, demonstrates how to set up your own simple drip irrigation system