A Beginner's Guide to Drought-Tolerant Landscaping in California

A Beginner's Guide to Drought-Tolerant Landscaping in California

By Rachael Medina May 06, 2020

As communities across the world and in California mitigate health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are shifting our content focus and will not encourage any travel or social activities during this time. We will, however, continue to shine a light on and celebrate the many beautiful aspects of our State with the intention of being a source of inspiration and joy during this difficult period. We will also be providing tips and resources specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic safety measures in the coming weeks. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

When it comes to drought-tolerant landscaping, the desert soils of Southern California, coastal ridges of the Central Coast, forested canopies of Northern California, and varied terrain in between welcome a host of unique and vibrant plant species that are up for the challenge posed by our state’s diverse ecosystem. Rivers of gravel can 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.

But creating a cohesive outdoor space that complements your patio, takes advantage of the moderate California temperatures, and features drought-resistant plants can prove to be more challenging than originally imagined. Plus, deciding upon unique landscaping that includes native plants as well as drought-adapted plants for 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-Resistant Landscaping Basics

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

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1. Choose Your Plants Wisely

The most important decision when designing a drought-tolerant yard is selecting plants that are able to endure California’s blistering summer temperatures and that require little water for half of the year once they are planted. This not only allows the plants to thrive, but also saves you a fortune on water bills compared to a traditional grassy lawn. 

2. Do Work

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. 

3. Opt for California-Grown Plants

If the amount of maintenance needed is not a determining factor for your landscape, consider picking 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. 

4. Just Add Water

While it’s easy to overlook drought–resistant species when planning a watering schedule, they often require additional care during their first year. After the plants have adapted to their surroundings, watering becomes less important and eventually may not be required at all.

Preparing A Drought-Tolerant Garden

Selecting drought-resistant plants and ground coverings is the first step in creating a garden that will tolerate the Southern California temps.

Creating a drought-resistant landscape is a multi-step process, so try not to get discouraged if the yard of your dreams takes a bit longer than you expected. While the different stages can take some time to accomplish (depending on how experienced you may be), take comfort in knowing that they are easily completed on a long enough timeline. The process of growing a drought-tolerant garden includes: 

  • Choosing drought-tolerant ground cover and plants
  • Laying compost and mulch in the garden to regenerate and protect your space’s natural soil
  • Managing the irrigation system
  • If possible, capturing rainwater to sustainably nourish the garden and lower your water bill

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 throughout your space. Hydro-zoning refers to planting groups of species together in certain 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.

Designing a Drought-Tolerant Landscape

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

After figuring out which plants you would like to use, the first step in implementing your drought-tolerant garden is deciding where to put plants and where to use rocks, gravel, pavers, furniture, and decorations to fill out the space. The deciding factor in your plant placement (aside from pure aesthetics) ought to be the amount of sunlight necessary to grow your chosen species. So, while there are approximately 8,000 plants that would be appropriate for a Southern California garden, every species has a different requirement for sun 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 during your plant search, look for the signature characteristics for Mediterranean-climate plants: thick foliage, trichomes (or tiny hairs on the leaves), and secreted oils that trap moisture. 

In addition to considering your yard’s sun patterns, it’s vital to consider the native species in your area to set yourself up for gardening success. Each region of the Golden State has its own unique characteristics—ranging from coastal bluffs, to arid deserts, to redwood forests. Species that do particularly well in California’s diverse regions include the following. 

San Diego Area Drought-Tolerant Plants 

  • Island Mountain Lilac 
  • Many–Flowered Bush Mallow
  • Manzanitas
  • Milkweeds
  • White Sage

Ideal Plants for the Los Angeles Area

  • Silver Bush Lupine
  • Sugar Bush
  • Toyon
  • White Sagebrush
  • Woolly Blue Curls

Central Coast Landscaping Plants

  • Big Leaf Maple
  • California Fuchsia
  • California Pitcher Sage
  • Climbing Penstemon
  • Common Snowberry

Drought-Resistant Plants for the Bay Area

  • California Fuchsia
  • Deer Grass
  • Sargent Cypress
  • Seaside Daisy
  • Western Redbud
Drought-tolerant landscapes with vibrant blooms and verdant succulents can be found throughout California.

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 patchy brown lawn that once lived in their place. 

If you need help creating the garden you’ve always wanted or caring for your new plant babies, check out the Bay Area’s best plant shops and our tips for maintaining a healthy garden

What drought–friendly landscaping plants are you loving right now? Let us know your favorites in the comments below.

Rachael Medina

WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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