The Mountain Gardener: Learn about drought tolerant plants at faire
by Jan Nelson
Jun 20, 2013 | 4464 views | 0 0 comments | 139 139 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Drought-resistant plants for a green garden
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The Flannel Bush ( Fremontodendron ) is native to the foothills of the Sierra and does well here, too. Requires no water when established. Courtesy of Jan Nelson

Without a doubt, the most requested item I'm asked in the design process is to include low water-use plants and garden solutions that are low maintenance. We live in the west where rainfall occurs predominantly from late fall through late spring and the amount and duration vary tremendously. Whether you live in the shade or the sun, it's a smart idea to keep water costs down in the summer and to preserve this natural resource.

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people and conserve water while providing habitat and food for the rest of nature. A great place to learn more about the benefits of organic gardening, water conservation and sustainable healthy living is The Garden Faire from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday, June 22 at Scotts Valley's Skypark, 360 Kings Village Road.

In its eight year, The Garden Faire is a free-admission, educational event for the whole family. The day includes knowledgeable speakers, interactive demonstrations, food and drinks, live music, garden goods and plants for sale. This year The Faire will focus on the whole person, and will offer chair massage, Reiki and a tea house. This event is sponsored in part by both SLV and Scotts Valley water districts.

What can you do right now to save water in your landscape? First choose wisely what you plant in the garden and how you water. Start with a smart design by evaluating how the space will be used and what plants will thrive with a minimum of care and pruning. Select the best trees and place them to shade the south side of the house to reduce cooling costs. Supplement the soil by making soil health a priority. Examine your irrigation system and watering plan for efficiency and minimal waste.

A time saving strategy is to group plants with similar moisture needs. This may sound like a no-brainer but if you have just one Prima donna in a bed of more drought-tolerant plants, you'll be dragging the hose for one plant, or running the irrigation system longer to keep it happy.  If you find that some of your plants are not quite as low-water as you'd like, move those to their own spot. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. In general, plants with large leaves usually require more water and transpire faster, while drought-tolerant plants typically have deep taproots and leaves that are smaller, silver, fuzzy or succulent.


Have a plan

Your method of irrigation helps conserve water. Hand-watering where possible, especially new plantings, directs the water exactly where it’s needed. A soaker hose is another efficient option that reduces evaporation during the watering process. An automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor, weather-based controller or soil moisture sensors is the newest way to save water.


Plant dry climate plants like tea tree (leptospermum), lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and shade the soil with drought tolerant ground covers like ceanothus, manzanita, oregano and thyme to conserve moisture. Try Corsican hellebore for a tough, low water-use plant in a shady area. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible to keep the landscape looking green and also fire safe.

To improve soil structure, plant deep-rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. Using wood-based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too. To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, peas and lupine. To supply minerals, plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

California natives or plants from similar climates in the world are low maintenance, low irrigation plants and usually need less tending, fertilizer and pruning. Like all plants, they require a period of irrigation in order to become established. Even plants that require no irrigation after becoming established like Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron) will need some water for the first two summers, at least, and maybe even during the first winter if there is a long dry spell. The rule of thumb to determine if a plant is established and self sufficient — and therefore not requiring any more irrigation — is when it has grown two to three times the size it was when planted or after is has been growing for two summers.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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