Landscaping with Drought Tolerant Plants

    • Tree collards make a delicious winter vegetable. Set plants out now to give them time to grow before the winter chill that makes the leaves so sweet.
    • Trim grapevines to allow more sun to reach the fruit and sweeten the grapes, if they are being shaded heavily by the foliage.
    • Sow lettuce seeds now for a fall crop. Set out broccoli, kale and cabbage plants too.
    • Feed fuchsias, begonias, summer annuals and container plants to keep them green and blooming right up until frost.
    • Take care of your roses: feed, water, weed, mulch and remove faded blooms regularly. Spray if necessary at first sign of insect or disease problems.

Drought Tolerant Plants

What makes a plant drought tolerant? How soon after planting will it be able to survive on its own? In our dry California climate, understanding drought tolerance is an important part of designing a landscape, and never more important than now.

A drought-tolerant plant is a plant that can survive with little or no water other than available rainfall. Varying locations and soil types affect drought tolerance, and different plants vary in their ability to withstand drought. Whether a plant is in full sun or in some shade will often make a difference as to whether it will be able to withstand drought.

Drought-tolerant plants are able to cope with scarcity of water in various ways. Some plants, including many trees, survive dry conditions with the aid of large, deep root systems that tap water stored deep in the soil. Once they have sent their roots down deep and wide, they will need little or no artificial irrigation. Cedar trees, pineapple guava, olive, oaks and ornamental pistachio trees have deep root systems to survive in dry landscapes.

Many plants have developed leaves which resist drought conditions. Some have developed thick, leathery leaves that reduce water loss. Toyon, manzanita, madrone, wild lilac and oleander are some examples.

Others have succulent leaves that store water and are waxy to prevent water loss. These include Sedums and Sempervivums. Sedums come in many forms from groundcovers, like the blue-green-leaved ‘Cape Blanco’ and golden ‘Angelina’ to the tall ‘Autumn Joy,’ which blooms in late summer and fall. Sempervivums, or hens and chicks, are also extremely drought tolerant and have colorful flowers.

Some plants have hairy or fuzzy leaves. The fine hairs keep moisture trapped at the leaf surface, which reduces the evaporation. California fuchsia, lavenders, rockroses and santolina survive this way. So do perennials like lamb’s ear, coneflowers, pincushion flower, wooly thyme, snow-in-summer and many Artemisias.

Plants with fine lacy foliage, designed to reduce leaf surface, lose less water through surface evaporation. These include Russian sage, yarrow, some verbenas and coreopsis.

A few plants, which are the lowest water users, drop their leaves and go dormant for the summer. The California buckeye drops its leaves in July or August and the flowering currant will go dormant in the summer if not irrigated.

It is important to remember that most plants, even drought-tolerant ones, need water initially in order to become established. Generally, they will need to be watered through one growing season. But if you plant in the fall, they will need less water the next summer than if they are newly planted in the spring.

There are water-conserving ground covers, shrubs, flowering plants and shade trees available for most any situation. With proper planning, you can enjoy a beautiful landscape without using a lot of water.

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