Gardeners can’t take water for granted any more. Drought-resistant garden design and drought-tolerant plants are the wave of the future.
Southern California is leading the way with water-wise landscaping practices, but even if you live where you can count on a great deal more than their two inches of rainfall a year, water is getting to be an expensive resource. Garden designs that emphasize water-thrifty plants are appropriate everywhere.
Barbara Paul, a landscape designer in Long Beach, California, turns to plants from the Mediterranean region, with its bone-dry summers, for her colorful, drought-tolerant landscapes. Paul teaches classes on drought-tolerant plants and design for the water department in Long Beach, which offers financial incentives and a selection of free garden plans to encourage homeowners to eliminate thirsty lawns and replace them with water-wise landscapes. The program emphasizes front-yard gardens because the water department wants neighbors to see the results.
Removing a traditional lawn and replacing it with a different kind of landscaping doesn’t mean you have to grow cactus, Paul says. Her flower-bed designs place tough, drought-tolerant succulents right next to billowy plants like salvias, which she loves for their long period of bloom and because they attract hummingbirds and butterflies. She relies on freesia, crocosmia and other warm-season bulbs — many from dry areas of South Africa — to give her clients’ landscapes character and long-lasting color.
“I also like to talk about structure — about walkways, dry stream beds and patios,” Paul says. Structural design elements are crucial to defining a garden’s spaces, but they also never need water. A fence, an arbor, a line of steppingstones or a carefully placed bench can dramatically change the way you experience a garden. Suddenly, a swath of lawn seems less essential because there are so many other things going on. “When you work with this for long enough, turf-grass lawns look really boring,” Paul says. Some homeowners want a lawn for children or pets, “but I ask my clients to rethink how much lawn they really need.”
The Long Beach Water Department’s suggested landscaping plans for homeowners are full of great ideas for gardens anywhere. These are not sterile, dreary conversions of traditional landscapes, but inspiring designs that transform turf-heavy front yards into welcoming and interesting gardens. Iceberg roses, Mexican bush sage, penstemons and perennial geraniums all show up on these plans. Small shrubs, tough ornamental grasses, boxwoods and lavender all contribute structure, texture and fragrance to these refreshing and colorful gardens.
California is not alone. Botanical gardens across the country are offering sustainability workshops, developing lists of drought-tolerant plants and including low-water-use display areas to educate visitors and demonstrate that horticultural beauty and water conservation can go hand in hand. Some gardens, such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, emphasize native plants and naturalistic landscapes. Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, recently opened a delightfully unexpected gravel garden, densely planted with hardy, drought-tolerant plants, right at the entrance to the garden. On Olbrich’s 16-acre grounds, rain barrels, rain gardens and low-maintenance lawn alternatives show how a lush, first-class botanical garden can lead the way in water conservation.
For businesses that develop and introduce plants, drought tolerance is a big priority these days, says Jeff Gibson, landscape business manager for the Ball Horticultural Company, an international plant company that introduced the popular Wave series of prolific petunias. Gardeners, garden designers and landscape contractors all want environmentally friendly, low-maintenance gardens, he says. Even where the annual rainfall totals normally register well up in the double digits, prolonged dry spells put a lot of stress on plants and lead to high mortality, disappointing performance or high water bills.
To help professionals and gardeners choose wisely, Ball developed a sustainability index to highlight its most drought-tolerant offerings. Dozens of hard-working annual and perennial flowers are on the list, including lantanas, angelonias, coneflowers and vincas.
These durable plants are also tough enough to survive the widespread condition that Gibson calls “self-inflicted drought,” which occurs when plants are grown in exceptionally challenging sites, soils and temperatures. Plants growing along the street or driveway or under trees often suffer from unusually dry conditions, he says. Plants growing next to a driveway are exposed to tremendous amounts of reflected light and heat, so they tend to lose a lot more moisture to evaporation than you might expect. Mailbox gardens or the corners of a yard are often beyond the reach of sprinklers. And trees compete with flowers and shrubs not only for light, but for moisture and nutrients in the soil. Rain doesn’t solve these problems for long, but drought-tolerant plants do, Gibson says.
The best way to grow beautiful plants that need extra water is to use them sensibly, Gibson says. Thirsty plants will thrive in a big pot by the front door, for example, where they will have lots of impact, and where they can be watered relatively easily when necessary. Grouping plants that need extra moisture together, so they can all be watered at once, saves water and time, and it helps ensure that none are neglected. New plants that need water while they become established can be spot-watered with a watering can instead of a sprinkler. Spraying the whole garden when you really just need to water a new shrub is wasteful, and you miss something of the joy of gardening. “Hand-watering is fun,” says Barbara Paul, who admits she keeps a bucket in the bathtub and uses the shower water for her plants. They don’t need much.