Tag Archives: drought tolerant native plants

On Living Within Our Means

Live within your means.  Stick to a budget.  Live sustainably.  Spend prudently.  So many catch phrases urging us to keep our consumption within the limits of our resources.   For Californians, to ‘live within our means’ requires adjusting our lifestyles to reflect the reality of water scarcity.


Water Conserving Beauty

Here in the Sacramento Valley, we just finished the driest year in recorded history. The source of virtually all of our water, the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains, contains a paltry  1/5 of the average amount of water.  In January, typically the wettest month of the year, we’ve seen no measurable precipitation.

We always have a tenuous relationship with precipitation here.  Our California standard of living depends on an ingenious water storage and delivery system of dams, reservoirs, and canals that has turned what would be a near-desert into an oasis.   In ‘normal’ rain years, it takes scrupulous planning and coordination to  balance human, industrial, agricultural, and environmental demands for water.  In drought years, there is simply not enough water to go around.

A profound change that we, as individuals, can make to move toward prudent spending of this precious resource, is to reject the landscape aesthetic of summer verdancy.   The English countryside, the source of our American lawn-based version of landscape ideal, is summer green because . . . it rains in summer.  The native California landscape is adapted to thrive with no rain from June through September.  It features a sequence of colors: the vibrant purples, yellows, and oranges of the spring wildflower show; the soft summer green of deer grass; the tawny tones of redbud in autumn, and winter’s flush of new green on the buckeye.  It is looser, maybe messier, than the mown tidiness of a lawn-based garden.

When we tweak our brains to accept this subtle native beauty as the ideal aesthetic for our own yards, we can move beyond contrivance of the lawn ideal.  And start living within our water means.




Urging Restraint

Winter is finally releasing its strangle-hold on the landscape, buds are bursting, the hillsides are glowing chartreuse, and I really feel like digging holes in my garden.  Which is fine, if I want to plant things that like to be watered.  Fruits, veggies, ‘normal’ landscape plants, stream-bank

Coffee berry is a Butte County native that can tolerate some summer water

plants, shade lovers . . . these guys all enjoy being released from the confines of their containers into real dirt when spring is springing.  I’ll water them during planting and keep doing so as they need it through spring, summer, and fall until the rains begin.


But . . . and I hate to say this because I don’t want to convey anything but complete enthusiasm for native gardening . . .  I’m trying not to plant super drought tolerant California native plants now. Excellent dryland plants such as Ceanothus, White Manzanita, Foothill Penstemon, and Canyon Live Oak deserve to be in the garden, but will reward you with their best vitality if you wait until fall to plant them.

Here’s why.  The natives that grow on hot, dry sites have evolved to thrive in our summers without supplemental water.  To do this, they require well developed root systems.  Their root systems do not like to be watered in the summers; the most drought tolerant species are actually prone to dying if they receive summer water.  So, the best way to ensure their health is to water them well at planting and then leave them alone.  No water, no fertilizer.

If I try to plant super drought tolerant natives now, with summer just around the corner, chances are much lower that they will be able to grow enough roots to allow them to survive unwatered until the rains come.  If I just can’t help myself and irrigate them, they might survive.

Foothill penstemon will do best without summer water

Or,  the combination of water and warm soil may cause them to develop  fungal root disease.


I’d prefer to wait until fall to plant these beauties.  If I get them in the ground in October or November, before the rains start in earnest, they will have all winter and spring to grow those essential roots.  By next summer, they’ll be ready for drought.  If it’s a dry spring, I’ll water them before the weather starts heating up to help them establish  and ‘charge’ the soil.  But, once it gets hot, I’ll turn the water off .  And the success rate will be much higher than it would have been if I’d given in to the temptation to plant right now, in this beautiful spring weather.  The beauty and satisfaction of using the most appropriate plants for our environment is worth waiting for the right planting time.

Plants should be the last thing to go into a landscape, whether they are our wonderful drought tolerant natives or not.  Next post, I’ll share ideas on sequencing the installation of a new landscape.