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Tips for Low Water Gardens

As a landscape designer, I had a large library of reference gardening books, yet there were a few that I used over and over again.  When I moved my home to Wyoming, I pared down my gardening library, taking with me what I considered the best and most essential books.

If you are looking for a low water garden, here are some of the best reference books out there.  For a good guide to help you start planning your low water garden, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future  I also give you step-by-step instructions for a native lawn or meadow, edible low water plants, as well as tips on how to irrigate and zone for reduced watering.

Rock with succulents

Below are my top recommendations:

1.  Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region by East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD).  I might consider this book a good primer for those who are beginning gardeners or homeowners.  The oversized format has wonderful glossy photos and it is of course put out by the water district.

2.  The New Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch.  This book has been around for some time and is still considered the best book on the subject.  Salvias are such a great addition to one’s low water garden. There are ones for sun and shade, small and gigantic.  Clebsch has grown them all and gives you growing tips galore.

3. ¨Designing California Native Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.  Keator is considered one of the leading botanists in California, an expert on oaks and California natives. Need I say more.

4. Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden.  Drought Resistant Planting through the Year by Beth Chatto.  Although Chatto is from England and her gravel gardens were an experiment there, she is right on the mark for California. This is probably the book I used the most in designing low water attractive gardens.  You’ll droll at the photos and her wonderful plant combinations.  And gravel is the quintessential mulch to retain water.

5.  Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish.  If you are planning a succulent garden, this is one of the best reference books out there for the larger plants and how to use them in a design.

6. California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Burt O’Brien.  These are the top people in the plant world.  Bornstein was the horticulturist for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for 30 years.  Fross owns Native Sons nursery.  A must have to understand California natives and their culture.  Fross also wrote the comprehensive book Ceanothus, but that book is probably too horticulturally geeky for the average gardener.

7. Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach and Gardening the Mediterranean Way: How to Create a Waterwise Drought-Tolerant Garden both by Heidi Gildemeister.  Mediterranean is what we have in California climate.  You will get good tips and photos from these books.

8.  Native Treasure: Gardening with the Plants of California by M. Nevin Smith.  Smith is the Director of Horticulture at Suncrest Nursery in Northern California.  For years I coveted a hard-to-get in-house printing that described all of Suncrests plants and their culture, written by Smith.  Hard to find a person more experienced in plant material than this man.  Suncrest is one of the top nurseries in California, growing and introducing new plants all the time.

9. Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for every Garden by Joann Gardner and Karen Bussolini.  I include this book because all plants silver are low water plants.  Plus silver is a good foil and contrast against other plants in the garden.  Good photos and information.

Dry CA

More great, reliable plants for California landscapes

Here are a few more of my favorite plants, easy, reliable, and striking, and different than the usuals out there.

Tree Dahlia

Tree Dahlias grow 10′ tall in one season and bloom late in the fall.  Sometimes an October storm will knock off the blossoms.  But you don’t have to grow this Dahlia for the flowers.  The exotic tropical looking foliage will be a show stopper.  Cut to the ground in winter, it grows fast as soon as the earth begins to warm in the spring.  Comes in white, and rarely as a double flower.  Takes full sun and low water.  Forms a fantastically large tuber.

Heuchera 'Wendy'

My favorites of plants.  Heuchera ‘Wendy’ was pioneered by Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, a cross between our native Heuchera maxima and Heuchera sanguinea.  I feel that ‘Wendy’ is the most spectacular of the cultivars (there are several out there).  Flowers are light pink-peach, very tall, and bloom endlessly and profusely.  The plant is tough like our native Heuchera, taking low water, dappled shade.  Put this in one of your more difficult dry shade spots and let it sing.

Anthriscus Ravenswing

This plant is actually a Chervil.  A low plant for shade and average water, it provides striking contrast in your combinations.  Difficult to find but very easy to grow.


Wow, I love this plant.  Obviously drought tolerant, people will gawk.  Its large, bold leaves offset pinks and purples for contrast.  The thistle purple flowers in the late summer I feel take away from what I grow this for–the leaf structure.  If you let it, it will reseed generously and you will have these as long as you want.  Just transplant the seedlings where you want them and give away the extras to friends.

Crocosmia hybrids

Crocosmias are such underused bulbs.  They are heat loving, low water, summer blooming stunning flowers.  ‘Emily McKenzie’ is one of my favorites, with the double advantage of smoky foliage.  And they multiply, like bulbs do, easily.  They bloom late summer for a long time.

Epilobium californica and hybrids

These are still Zauschnerias to me, but the splitters long ago put them into the Genus Epilobium.  A wonderful California native, they bloom in the fall and are either no water or low water.  They come in different heights (6″ to 36″), some have grey foliage, and are a magnet for hummingbirds.  Can’t be beat.

Pollinators in trouble. What a city dweller can do.

I was disturbed to see yet more articles in the NY Times about bees and colony collapse.  I was a home beekeeper in CA since the mid-90’s.  When I moved to Wyoming, I gave that up in favor of not having lots of grizzlies in my yard. Being a horticulturist and amateur botanist, I was also interested in the general decline of pollinators and wrote an article in 1998 entitled Pollinators under Siege that I posted on my web page.

one of my hives

Honeybees are non-natives.  They are relied upon to pollinate our crops. Native bees and insects, in general, just can’t do as good a job on monocrops.  But honeybees also push out non-native bees.  They are up earlier and go out in mass.  When my honeybees were not doing  well due to mites, I’d always see more native bees move in to take up the space.

And although we need the honeybees, we also desperately need our native pollinators.  What many people don’t realize is that there are a myriad variety of insects that pollinate natives.  When I asked my botany teacher who specialized in California natives about their pollinators, he said that they don’t know what pollinates many California natives.  It’s very difficult to observe.

Death Valley flowering plant

One thing I learned in my profession is that the majority of people don’t even understand the basics of what pollination is.  Insects and flowering plants evolved together. Even some mammals and birds are important pollinators.  Entire ecosystems are built around these relationships.  Pollinators declining world wide means trouble for our planet’s health in ways just as impossible to calculate as climate change.

Frankly, it’s another overwhelming and make-one-feel-powerless problem, once you begin to dig into the complexity of the issue (see my article link or read The Forgotten Pollinators).  I’ve been passionate about this issue for a long time.   Here are my thoughts on what can be done individually and collectively.

1.  Rail against development!  Lack of community planning, lack of empty lots, and cookie cutter housing developments consumes habitat for native plant species and therefore specific pollinators.  Development should be:

a.  clustered

b.  planned so there are ‘hedgerows’ or a continuity of native species weaving in and around the development.  Lack of fencing allows for wildlife to wander about.  Lawns should be eliminated or kept to a minimum or replaced with native bunch grasses and native meadows.

Native Salvia

2.  Ban home vineyards!  I’m sorry, but this is so unnecessary.  Does everyone really need to have their own little home label.  People are cutting down native Oaks, clearing native trees and shrubs to put a monoculture in their backyard.

3.  Encourage large swaths of native trees and shrubs.  You can plant non-native gardens, but include natives.

4.  DO NOT use pesticides.  There is absolutely no need to use pesticides in the home garden.  This includes hiring a pest control service.  When you spray for spiders, you will be eliminating butterflies as well.  If you have a rat problem, encourage your neighborhood to use natural controls such as owl boxes and the old fashioned methods of traps.  Using a pesticide free method for controlling rodents helps the bobcat and mountain lion population as well.

5.  Put a bell on your cat or keep them indoors.  Too many birds are killed by cats yearly.  Hummingbirds are important pollinators.  Songbirds are dispersers of seeds.

6.  Realize that native pollinators cannot work in isolated ‘islands’ of plant communities.  How far can an insect travel to find another plant of the same species?  If plant communities are too spread out because of the concrete jungle, or suburbs full of pristine lawns and non-native species, these plants can’t be sufficiently pollinated to reproduce enough to continue the species.  We must have large enough habitat and/or corridors of habitat for plants and animals to travel through and sustain the ecosystem.  Work to protect large tracts of open space in your community for your own health and sanity, your children and their future enjoyment, and our ecosystems.  This open space should be undeveloped, not browsed by cattle nor full of lawns or athletic fields.

California poppies in bloom

What do the above recommendations have in common?  Working together as a community.  Its a good first step.

Natives and Noxiousness

I’ve been lax in writing, between the holidays and just returning from New York City.  Now I’m focused on getting back home to Wyoming, but first I have to install three jobs and the weather here isn’t cooperating.  I’m itching to get home, but storm after storm is dumping on Northern California, and the ground’s too wet to plant.

I have been shocked at the pervasiveness of invasive broom species in the hills of Marin County where I’m staying.

Broom edging a meadow

Marin County is unique in ratio of open space.  Since it gets 75% of its water directly from rainfall within the county, the watershed is protected, and Mt. Tamalpais contains 100’s of hiking trails.

Marin County. Gateway to lots of hiking, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods.

I’m staying in an area not far from the main reservoirs.  Koda and I take walks there daily, and in huge tracts of the hills, french broom has completely taken over.  In fact, I can safely say that the broom has become an understory monoculture, crowding out smaller delicates like our Coast Iris, Phacelias, Monkey Flowers, wildflowers, and ferns.

It would take a county work day of the entire population to clear the hills

I’ve hiked and encountered signage saying ‘This is a test area’ to see what works better on the broom–propane torching or vinegar applications.  In the past, volunteer work crews have gone out and using a special tool, pulled up the broom.  We’ve been doing this for years and years in Marin.  But the situation seems out of control to me now.  Marin would have to have a work crew of every man, woman, and child living here for a full weekend and that might not even do the job.

Like the problems with Sudden Oak Death, I have to wonder if our fire suppression policies over the last many years have exacerbated these problems with invasives.  Burning with reburns two to four years later for the sprouts have met with some success.  But given the density of housing in the hillsides, the long term drought, and the dangers of ‘controlled burns’ getting out of hand, fire control probably won’t happen.  And that is too bad, because, once again I’ll say it, the West is adapted to fire.

As a testimony to the wonderful adaptations of California plants to fire, look at this Madrone.  One way to simulate fire in native plants i.e. rejuvenate them if they are in your yard, is too cut them back severely.  Here is a Madrone tree that was cut to a stump by the CCC during their clearing of this hillside Madrone forest.

Arbutus, Madrone, resprouts after being cut to ground

You can do this with lots of natives.  For example, one way to rejuvenate woody Baccharis pilularis is to cut it very severely, thereby simulating a fire.  Native grasses enjoy this method as well.

I still feel that loss of natural, frequent, low fuel fires has compromised our landscapes.  Pathogens build up in the soil; invasives take hold more easily; soil depletion occurs due to lack of nitrogen fixing plant material which is first to regenerate after a fire; understory growth has built up providing massive amounts of fuel for hotter, more deadly fires.  Just compare the first photo of the monoculture of broom with the cleared Madrone forest photo.  I can’t be sure but I am guessing that forest was manually cleared because it sits on a ridgeline dividing the watershed open space and a residential section in the canyon below.  It probably serves as a firebreak.

Of course, all the open space can’t be hand cleared.  With the massive build up of fuel in the form of invasive broom, as well as other types of chaparrel that hasn’t burned in years, Californians are preparing for some big fires ahead.

California natives Part 3 Groundcovers…Manzanitas and Ceanothus

In this small series of posts on California natives for the garden, remember I’m trying to keep it simple and successful for the home gardener.  Most of the time when a homeowner asks for a low or no-water garden and I give them what they want, they always over water regardless.  Therefore, in general, unless you know what you’re doing, its better to incorporate natives that will tolerate or even thrive with occasional additional watering.

One of the main tips for growing any kind of native, and most Mediterranean plants in general, is good drainage. California natives are adapted to cool wet winters and dry summers.  When planting natives in general, especially Manzanitas and Ceanothus, the main thing you want to watch for is planting the crown of the plant too low.   A brilliant idea for helping drainage along is to plant that crown on a little hump, maybe 6″ high.  When the crown of these plants stays constantly damp, then rot sets in.  Planting on a slight mound insures some run-off.  Also, don’t put your drip emitter right on top of the crown, and move that emitter every year farther and farther out to encourage roots to grow outward.  Eventually, you may be able to eliminate watering once established.

Both Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.) and Ceanothus are sensitive to over watering, especially true with Ceanothus.  Many Manzanitas on the market have been cultivated to be more forgiving and accept landscape watering.  Two groundcovers I like are Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Woods Compact’ and Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Carmel Sur’.  From my personal experience, I have found that the uva-ursi sp., though touted to be more acceptable of hotter weather, are more sensitive than the edmundsii.  I find the Carmel Sur variety to be easy and forgiving.Arctostaphylos 'Woods Compact' right after install

This was an example of a small front yard right after installation.  I did very little soil amending on the thick clay soil.  Instead I brought in about 10 yards of no animal manures (these harbor fungus as they break down as well as heat) composted soil and planted directly in that.  Manzanitas are very susceptible to fungus dieback, and especially the groundcover varieties.  I don’t recommend over head watering for that reason in the summer.  I also don’t recommend a bark or natural mulch as any splashing water can cause fungus on the stems to grow.  So instead here I experimented with a decorative rock mulch.One year laterHere is the yard one year later.  Unfortunately, several years later, this Arctostaphylos ‘Woods Compact’ did experience some major fungal dieback, probably after an El Nino year, and needed some new plants to fill in.

Seeing that I was having more than usual dieback with uva-ursi plants, I switched to ‘Carmel Sur’ and have had more success, although these plants are about 10″ instead of 6″ high.  But the Carmel Sur can take a bit of shade as well as sun, and some summer watering if desired.

I think the larger Manzanitas are easier to grow with less problems than the ground covers. I have had occasional deaths with no warnings, but planted on a hillside, they can take sun or dappled shade with no problem.

Word to the wise:  Don’t forget Manzanitas are browsed by deer!

Ceanothus is the quintessential California native.  There are many beautiful Ceanothus, or California Lilacs, from tiny to tree-like, able to be grown as ground covers or espaliered against a wall.  In general, they are all sensitive to excessive water and crown rot.  Whole books have been written on Ceanothus and I couldn’t begin to cover them here.

Below is Ceanothus g. ‘Hearts Desire’, a gloriosus variety.  Planted 3′ on center, this low growing Ceanothus is deer proof and very attractive.  I’d used in on a small scale with success, but decided to take my chances on a very large hillside installation.  After two winters, the Ceanothus is filling in quickly and nicely.

See how large and steep is this hillside, yet poor drainage

See how large and steep this hillside yet poor drainage. Ceanothus filling in nicely

Below is Ceanothus Hearts Desire in a small yard

Here is another hillside example I used with mixed perennials.  This slope filled in quickly as well and is large scale.

Ceanothus 'Diamond Heights' is right of the fountain.  It has now covered the pebbles

Ceanothus Diamond Hts. right of fountain. Now it has covered pebbles

Below is an unusual newer Ceanothus horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’.  Use it for accent or in pots and not in the hottest of areas.  This area is irrigated with good drainage.  The Ceanothus is the yellow in front, although now it has filled in completely.

For more information on gardening with California natives, as well as a list of month-by-month native blooming plants, see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.  In it I cover what is a true native, planting natives, more types of reliable natives for gardens, and using mediterraneans in combination with natives.  Also tips on low water vegetable and fruit tree gardens, how to irrigate for low water use, and making the most of your microclimates.

California natives part 2- Ribes sp.

One of my favorite native flowering three season plant is Ribes or Gooseberry.  You may have read my post on White Blister Rust on our native white bark pines.  Ribes are a host for this European fungus.  Large scale attempts to eradicate western Ribes sp. in the early 20th century was the method of control, but luckily it failed.

Ribes sp. are very beautiful and diverse.  In general the berries are edible, although some species are better tasting than others.  Gooseberry fruits were extensively used by Native Americans.

There are three species of Ribes native to California that I use all the time.  The first is Ribes sanguineum.  There are many varieties out on the market, with colors ranging fro white to pink to red.  R. sanguineum needs a bit of water in the summer and does better in either a cool sunny location or, in hot areas, a little shade in the hottest time of the day.  Flowers in the spring, berries in the fall that the birds love, and beautiful fall color makes this plant have 3 season interest.  A shrub, it grows anywhere from 6′ to 10′, depending usually on the amount of water and the site.  Prune it after flowering.

When correctly sited, this plant is very tough and easy to grow.  One of my favorites in the garden.

Another Ribes rarely used is Ribes speciosum.  This unusual California native flowers in the dead of winter and goes dormant (leafless) in the summer, making it perfect for planting under oaks.  It likes shade or cool sun.  You can keep it green all year by watering it in the summer, but why bother.  One note is that it does have thorns so keep it away from walkways.  Many of my clients say this is one of their favorite plants because it flowers in the winter when there is little color.

Lastly is a Ribes that forms colonies and blooms yellow.

Ribes aureum is from the foothills of California.  It tends to sucker and form thickets, when happy.  It does best in shade with moderate water in the summer.

There are several other more obscure Ribes on the market, but these three are my favorites and all are reliable and attractive.  These are very easy native additions to your dry garden.

California natives. Part 1 Aesculus california, California Buckeye

Since I’m in Northern California for a few months, I thought I’d do a few posts on some of my favorite, most useful, and underused natives for the garden.

First, the debate about ‘What is a Native?’

I was asked to be in a garden tour a few years back centering around California natives.  The organizer asked me what natives were in my featured garden.  When I mentioned Prunus lyonii, Catalina Cherry, a shrub native to the Catalina Islands, she said “That’s not a native…to this area!”

True, it’s a native to the Catalina Islands off the coast of Southern California, but not to the bay area of northern California.  So where do we draw the line?  Is it the northern coast line, or the dry climate of the Western United States and those ‘natives’ that will grow in our climate zone?

Frankly, I feel that as long as the plant isn’t an invasive, it adapts to your Sunset zone, it doesn’t need additional water once established, and it is ‘native’ to the Western United States, it can be called a native.

The other misnomer is that all natives are drought tolerant.  California has a wide variety of climates, from Redwood forests receiving the equivalent of 100-150″ of rainfall a year in the form of fog drip, to deserts that receive less than a few inches.  When people say to me “I don’t want to water so plant natives”, they clearly don’t understand the diversity of natives we have.  Many of our natives need additional water, so choose carefully.

If I’m asked to design a drought tolerant yard, I use a mix of California natives and other Mediterraneans.  By definition, there are only five areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate, that is, mild wet winters and dry summers.  They are parts of Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and the Mediterranean.  On a world map it’s a very small area,  but there’s a wide diversity of plant material to choose from.  When sited and chosen properly, all these plants will mix happily together and require similar watering conditions.  In fact, since our deer eat natives (deer are taught what to eat by their mothers), growing plants from other Mediterranean zones many times escape being eaten.

With that introduction, my first underused plant in the series is the wonderful California Buckeye. 

Its a common sight here in the Bay Area.  It has a drought strategy of being the first tree to leaf out in the winter, and the first to loose its leaves, sometime around mid summer (August).  The long panicles of flowers are a sight, ranging in color from white to pinkish.  After its leaves fall, the large fruits hang on the tree ornamentally.

Here is the wonderful thing about the Buckeye:  with some water, the leaves can stay on till October.  At the Berkeley Botanic Native Garden, there’s a Buckeye planted in a lawn.  The tree keeps its leaves through fall and is one of the very few drought tolerant natives that responds well to watering; therefore you can mix it with your other plants with only more benefits.

This incredibly adaptable native is almost never used in garden designs.  It should be used more and will adapt to any of our changing water needs.  If you plant it in a lawn now, then change your mind about the lawn in years to come, the Buckeye will do just fine either way.