Can a drought-tolerant landscape be beautiful?

By Jennifer E. Beaver

I have a conflicted relationship with drought-tolerant gardens.
I understand the need to conserve water. But the garden-shaped space in my heart is full of thirsty English cottage flowers draped artfully over a bower. So when I got a letter from the Long Beach Water Department saying I was eligible for its program to replace lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes, I had mixed emotions. I was pleased, excited and somewhat trepidatious.



Too often, drought-tolerant gardens feature Dr. Seuss-on-steroids shapes popping up randomly. Many are huge plants that look great in the wild but out of place on a lawn. After a full-court press in spring, they go grey and dormant the rest of the year. My challenge– create a plan for a beautiful, low-water four-season landscape in 45 days so I can move on to the next stage of the city program.
Which is how I find myself in the Dana Branch Library sniffing a bunch of grey-green leaves. “That was the scent of southern California,” explains native plant enthusiast John Royce of the spicy-sweet odor of Artemisia (sagebrush), a once common plant that covered our region. President of the California Heights Association, Royce landscaped his home with natives. His pictures make me cautiously optimistic that an attractive low-water landscape is possible.
Royce explains the differences between natives and other drought-tolerant plants. As the name suggests, natives are indigenous. They need no water following winter rain and go dormant during the dry season. In fact, too much water will shorten their lifespan. Non-native drought-tolerant plants include those from the Mediterranean, Africa and Australia. Non-natives look better with summer water.
We come to a picture of the poster child for native plants: Ceanothus. Any day, I expect Stephen King to write a novel about a ceanothus that creeps into the house and smothers its occupants. This huge, brooding plant could easily take over my yard and keep on going. Royce, like many others, feels differently and admires its blue flowers and the way the leaves glisten in the sun. Fortunately for me, Sunset has introduced a smaller, less threatening variety.
Outside, as cars whiz by on Atlantic, we stroll through the library’s native plant garden. Royce tends the space and laments the loss of several plants due to an overactive drip watering system. He points out a dwarf coyote bush, which stays green year round; red-berried toyon, also known as Hollywood; spiky, swaying deer grass; and many others.
Please drop by, my soon-to-be-launched blog, as I visit nurseries, talk to designers, and search for the ultimate low-water landscape.

Jennifer E. Beaver, a Wrigley resident, is a master gardener and author of Container Gardening for California.

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