And other plant choices to reduce water use.
Originally published in the Davis Enterprise Nov. 22, 2007
'How can I convert my yard to use less water? Can I just stop watering my lawn? Which native plants can I plant?'
Consciousness about water use has waxed and waned over the years. The drought of the 1970's motivated many homeowners to consider planting 'water-wise' landscapes. Subsequent wet winters diminished that fervor. When water meters came along, some people began to consider the cost savings of reduced water use.
In most cases, simply watering correctly can reduce your water use substantially. Most homeowners water too often, and sprinklers send water where it isn't used or needed. Water slowly, deeply, and infrequently. Follow the weather and provide plants what they actually are using. Right now, for example, your sprinkler system should be turned off. Turn it on manually for a full cycle every 10–14 days if we don't get rain. Generally we don't need to water at all during December through February.
But the customer who asked the questions above wanted to go a step further. She wanted to make a long-term reduction in landscape water use, perhaps eliminate landscape watering entirely. When she mentioned that she was a renter, my first suggestion was to check with her landlord! But converting your landscape to reduce water use doesn't have to be an all-at-once project.
It may be necessary to modify the existing sprinkler system by converting it to drip irrigation or bubblers. If this sounds daunting, consult a nursery or landscape professional. It may be as simple as removing your sprinkler heads, screwing on an adapter, and attaching drip tubing and emitters. In any case, you will want to 'zone' your yard by water use. The area 2–3' around the lawn will be getting more water than most native plants prefer, but that would be a good area for some colorful flowering perennials.
Some of the current plants may need to be removed, although many common landscape plants are just fine with less frequent watering so long as they get a thorough soaking each time. Finally, you will have more plants to choose from if you broaden your selection from strictly California natives to include natives of our southwest, the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, and other regions with similar rainfall patterns to ours.
What happens if you just stop watering your lawn? During the drought of the 1970's, turf areas at the UC Davis horticulture department were allowed to go completely dry. Some grass species died, but others turned brown and went into a semi-dormant condition. These latter included the tall fescues, forebears of the dwarf fescue lawns that have become our most popular lawn types in recent years. The fescues can go much longer between waterings than bluegrass and ryegrass lawns. But they are 'clump' grasses, so your semi-dead lawn may take on a patchy appearance. It may be better to reduce your total turf area, if you have a need for a lawn area for kids and pets, and continue to water it appropriately (one inch of water, 2x a week). The most drought-tolerant grass locally is bermudagrass, but it has drawbacks (invasive growth, winter dormancy).
If the patchy appearance doesn't bother you, you can complement it with some of the larger ornamental grasses on the margin of the lawn: Pennisetum, Miscanthus, Stipa, and more. These would provide a more informal 'meadow' look, and many have showy late summer plumes. There are a few California native grasses to choose from as well, though they are shorter and less showy. If you don't need a lawn at all, consider a succulent ground cover such as Sedum, or use pathway bark.
As you choose the larger evergreen shrubs that form the backbone of the landscape, be aware that many natives are slow growers. In their native habitat they grow during the rainy season, and rest during the dry summer. Here are some evergreen native shrubs and small trees.
Medium-size shrubs that can be planted 3 – 6' apart include:
Bush anemone. A nice, clean-looking low shrub with white flowers in mid-spring.
Oregon grape. Foliage resembles holly. Yellow flowers in mid-winter, followed by blue berries popular with birds. Shade tolerant.
our native Salvias have fragrant grey foliage, are very tolerant of heat and drought, and have whorls of blue flowers in spring. Hummingbirds love them.
Larger shrubs or small trees to 6' or more; plant these 6–8' apart:
Dark foliage on a tough plant with interesting trailing clusters of flowers in mid-spring.
Toyon, aka Christmas berry. Aptly named for the bright red winter berries.
Catalina ironwood. Shiny, lustrous foliage and an iron-colored bark. Good substitute for redwoods, though uncommon in the nursery trade.
Coffeeberry. Bold foliage and showy winter berries.
Although it is deciduous, Cercis occidentalis, the Western redbud, is worth considering in the backbone of the yard: it is a shrub or small tree with vivid magenta flowers in spring, and attractive grey-green foliage through the growing season.
If you choose these slower-growing evergreens, you can inter-plant with a faster-growing type for more immediate gratification. Ceanothus, the Wild lilac, comes in dozens of forms, ranging from low ground covers to shrubs that are big enough to use as trees. Ceanothus are fast growers, have shiny, clean green foliage, and have fragrant blue flowers in spring. Great for wildlife and for drawing bees to the garden, but they tend to decline after 7–10 years. So plant them among the larger, slower plants (don't crowd them) and enjoy them for the first few years. Then they can gradually be removed as the others fill in.
Foreground areas can be planted with native perennials for seasonal color. In shady area, consider Columbines (Aquilegia) and Coral Bells (Heuchera). Native and garden hybrids of Penstemon can take full sun or light shade. The California fuchsia (Zauschneria, now Epilobium) has gaudy orange-red flowers in late summer and fall. All of these listed are popular with hummingbirds.
There are many non-native plants that are particularly drought-tolerant, including some of our best low-growing landscape shrubs. Artemisias, which include native and introduced species, have silver foliage that provides a perfect complement to green or red leaves, and these are tough plants! Cistus, the rockrose, has an informal growth habit, is very drought tolerant, and blooms in late spring with pink or white flowers which resemble single roses. The common kitchen rosemary is an excellent landscape plant, and some of the upright forms (Tuscan Blue, Spice Islands) get 4' or more tall. All have lovely blue flowers in winter. The introduced species and hybrids of Salvias come in a range of sizes and colors, with many blooming through the fall and into the winter.
For larger landscape shrubs, Xylosma congestum and Feijoa sellowiana (Pineapple guava) are well-adapted here, tolerant of regular watering or drought. These large evergreen shrubs are excellent background plants.
Finally, bare areas can be filled in winter and spring with flowers from California poppies and other wildflowers, which you can plant right now from seed. Or plant spring-flowering bulbs such as Daffodils, Grape hyacinth, and botanical tulips. Their growing season coincides with the winter rains, and then they are fully dormant through the summer and need no additional water. Unplanted areas can be lined with landscape fabric and 2 – 4 inches of mulch to prevent weeds and conserve water.
It's pretty easy to go native, with some patience and a little planning. Plant selection and proper watering are key.
Click here for a table of drought tolerant plants.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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