Although temperatures have cooled, let’s not forget that Seattle hit 108 degrees this summer, Portland reached 116 degrees and a third of the state of California remains in an “exceptional drought,” the most severe category possible.
Almost 98% of the land across 11 Western states is abnormally dry, and more than 90% is covered by some category of drought, the worst levels in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s 21-year history. Considering that California produces more food crops than any other state in the country, it’s crucial to protect and conserve water there. It’s important to conserve water in every state, really.
One solution for gardeners is to adopt xeriscaping, a style of landscaping designed to reduce water use. “Xeric,” or dry, doesn’t have to mean cactuses and succulents — it can mean using native grasses and other plants adapted to dryer regions, or hardscaping features such as boulders, pavers and gravel instead of thirsty lawns.
This type of gardening is more common in places where summers are hot and dry, but adopting a more water-efficient garden is prudent as climate change is likely to cause even the mild Pacific Northwest to see warmer, dryer summers.
Fuzzy or silver-leaved plants are usually already drought-tolerant (the silver hairs are an adaptation that reduces water loss), and any garden with a Mediterranean, rock garden, or Southwestern aesthetic will be a natural match for xeriscaping. Here are some of our favorite plant picks for growing a stunning garden with less water.
Groundcovers and grasses
With a little planning and the strategic use of grasses, border plants and ground covers, you can maintain a breezy elegance in your garden without running a sprinkler for hours at a time.
“Siskiyou Pink” gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) is a native of southern Oregon that has feathery, red-tinged leaves and delicate salmon-pink flowers that bloom from spring to fall. Once established, it forms a nice roundish shape up to 3 feet tall and wide.
Perfect for a Mediterranean garden is “Huntington Carpet” creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). It’s fragrant, edible and evergreen — and is also great in containers. “Fire Spinner” ice plant (Delosperma “P001S”) is also a heavy-hitter in a drought-tolerant garden: Its daisylike flowers come in a wide array of colors — Fire Spinner is a psychedelic orange and purple — and it’s so sturdy that it’s used to landscape California highways.
Water-saving gardening doesn’t mean you have to eschew grasses entirely. “Elijah Blue” fescue (Festuca glauca), a lovely clump-forming grass with long, bluish-gray leaves, thrives on neglect.
You can achieve a lush, tropical-oasis vibe without monsoon levels of water. These plants go the extra mile in the bloom department without daily watering. Most of these are best planted in containers, so you can bring them indoors during a colder-climate winter.
“Belgian Hybrid Orange” clivia (Clivia miniata) has strappy dark green foliage and bodacious clusters of vermilion blossoms that transform a back patio into a Hawaiian lanai.
“Berries Jubilee” woodbine honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is a cold-hardy climbing vine that produces copious cream-colored flowers — they explode with a heady honeysuckle fragrance in the evening — and glossy red berries attractive to birds.
“Sharon Wesley” bougainvillea (Bougainvillea) is a gorgeous climbing plant perfect for covering walls, arches, trellises and fences. Sharon Wesley is a breathtaking shade of fuchsia, but bougainvillea comes in white, pink, orange and purple, as well.
Finally, the fuzzy flowers on “Kanga Red” kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos) really do resemble little kangaroo paws. The florist favorite also comes in peach- and yellow-flowered varieties.
Nonthirsty shrubs and small trees
Add some visually interesting structure to your garden by including woody plants. These trees and shrubs don’t require much water once they’re established, but you may want to wait until late fall before planting to give them time to settle in over the winter and spring.
Slender, deciduous crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) trees range from just 4 feet to a lofty 25 feet tall, depending on the variety, and produce copious showy blooms in shades of red, purple, pink, orange or white.
“Moon Lagoon” dwarf eucalyptus (Eucalyptus “Moon Lagoon”) has fragrant, silvery-sage leaves that make it perfect for planting near windows; blue-gray cider gum (Eucalyptus gunnii) is more cold-hardy.
Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) may not be a true willow, but with its showy, speckled, rhododendron-like flowers, this water-wise shrub is a hit with hummingbirds.
Scarlet Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) is an Australia native that tolerates a range of terrible growing conditions: poor soil, high temperatures and low water. More important, it’s a cool-looking evergreen with brushy cerise flowers.
Cactuses and succulents
Any type of cactus, agave, yucca or aloe is a natural choice for a rock garden, and no, they’re not all covered with forbidding spines. Several species and varieties can even handle colder climates. For the most visual bang for your buck, grow these in containers that you can cluster together.
“Santa Rita” prickly pear (Opuntia violacea var. santa-rita) is a large cactus that sports exquisite matte lavender and periwinkle paddles, but beware: the splintery prickles make them not great for gardens with rangy kids or pets.
“Blue Flame” cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans f. cristata) is called the dinosaur-back plant for a reason. Its ruffly form is prized by succulent collectors, meaning it can run $40 to $60 for a 4-inch-tall plant.
“Ruffled Red” echeveria (Echeveria), another otherworldly succulent, has thick, undulating, mauve and seafoam-green leaves that resemble a bumpy cow’s tongue. It’s a perfect centerpiece for a container.
Hens and chicks can look kind of generic, but “Krebs Desert Bloom” hens and chicks (Sempervivum ‘Krebs 2’) has moody dark green, burgundy and grape-gray leaves that make it a stunning exception.