A Guide to Easy Drought-Tolerant Landscaping in California

A Guide to Easy Drought-Tolerant Landscaping in California

By Oliver Jenkyns July 19, 2019

Rivers of gravel oscillate between the bunches of golden yarrow, tufts of drought-tolerant deer grass, and rigid stalks of desert agave as rosemary cascades over the edges of raised beds and California poppies brighten up every corner of the yard. While a plethora of succulents would do just fine, when it comes to drought-tolerant landscaping, the desert soils of Southern California welcome a host of festive plants that are similarly up for the challenge. 

Creating a cohesive outdoor space that complements your patio, takes advantage of the warm California temperatures, and features drought-resistant plants can prove to be more challenging than originally imagined. Deciding upon unique landscaping that includes native plants as well as drought-adapted plants for Southern California takes time due to the vast number of options available. From desert willows, to California sagebrush, to lavender, to manzanita, to California fan palms, there are endless possibilities for every color palette and style. 

Drought-tolerant plants such as cacti and succulents thrive with little to no watering, requiring little effort and saving homeowners money on their water bills.

Drought-Resistant Landscaping Basics

The most important factor when designing a drought-tolerant yard is choosing plants that are able to endure SoCal summer temperatures and little water for half of the year once they are planted. Not only does this allow the plants to thrive, but it also saves you a fortune on water bills compared to a traditional green, grassy lawn. 

You should also consider the amount of work you are willing to dedicate to the garden. While choosing solely drought-resistant plants may accomplish the primary goal, many grasses and shrubs require continual maintenance to avoid creating a jungle in the yard. If low-maintenance landscaping sounds more doable than intensive care gardens, avoid invasive species of native or drought-tolerant plants such as the popular pampas grass and the ultra-colorful periwinkle. 

However, if the amount of maintenance needed is not a determining factor for your landscape, consider choosing plants that are native to California or regions with Mediterranean climates. These types of plants will react positively with the external environment—from coping well with various soils to surviving on little water—and attract organisms such as bees and butterflies. Species like lavender and some varieties of lilies, for instance, are both drought tolerant and welcoming to hummingbirds and other local inhabitants that help to pollinate the flowers throughout the entire garden. 

Selecting drought-resistant plants and ground coverings is the first step in creating a garden that will tolerate the hot Southern California temperatures without a lot of water. 

Preparing the Drought-Tolerant Garden

Creating a drought-resistant landscape involves choosing drought-tolerant plants and ground coverings, protecting the natural soil by using compost and mulch so it regenerates, managing the irrigation system, and in some cases, even capturing rainwater to use in the garden. 

With all of these elements in mind, implementing hydro-zoning will drastically improve the odds that the landscape will survive, especially when mixing drought-tolerant plants and more tropical plants. Hydro-zoning describes planting groups of species together in areas of the garden based on their water needs. Citrus trees, for example, need a lot of water, while succulents require very little; so, they would each have different zones, irrigation systems, and watering schedules.

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When designing a yard with drought-resistant plants, it helps to separate different species based on their water needs and maintenance requirements. 

Designing a Drought-Tolerant Landscape

The first step in implementing your drought-tolerant garden is deciding where to put plants and where use rocks, gravel, pavers, furniture, and decorations to fill out the space. The deciding factor (aside from pure aesthetics) ought to be the amount of sunlight necessary to grow your chosen plants. While there are approximately 8,000 plants that would be appropriate for Southern California gardens, every species has varying requirements for exposure, significantly narrowing down the options for each area of the yard. 

Matilija poppies, Australian willows, wild buckwheat, sagebrush, and bougainvillea are popular choices that offer pops of color and plenty of variety—without sacrificing drought tolerance. When in doubt, look for the signature characteristics for Mediterranean-climate plants: thick foliage, trichomes (or tiny hairs on the leaves), and secreted oils that trap moisture. 

With so many drought-resistant plant options, the gardening possibilities are endless. The vibrant colors of the native and Mediterranean flowers are sure to please the eye and make you forget all about the brown, patchy lawn that once lived in their place.


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