Drought-Tolerant Garden Design

If you're not familiar with the resources available, however, you may not realize the range of plants that require little water.

Scope of the Problem

A 2003 study by Christina Milesi—then a graduate student at the University of Montana and now a senior research scientist with California State University Monterey Bay—estimated that lawns are the No. 1 irrigated "crop" in the United States with more than three times the planted acreage of the next biggest crop, corn. The EPA estimates that 15% of all residential water use goes to lawns and landscaping.

In 2015, California took several steps to help encourage homeowners to replace lawns with more water-saving landscaping. The legislature passed AB1164, which bars cities from enacting or enforcing laws that prohibit the installation of drought-tolerant landscaping solutions. Its 2015 Turf Replacement Initiative seeks to provide rebates to homeowners who replace thirsty turf with more water-wise solutions. The website contains links to the rebate form and information on drought-tolerant plants and resources.

Plant Resources
If you're not familiar with the resources available, however, you may not realize the range of plants that require little water. Succulents, of course, come immediately to mind but native grasses and shrubs can add a panoply of shapes and colors and textures to your dry palette.

"For some clients, only grass will do," says Eddie Chau, director of UC Berkeley Extension's Certificate Program in Landscape Architecture. "I then suggest some of the more drought-tolerant options, such as UC Verde® buffalograss, which was developed by California's public university system and mimics some of the qualities that many Americans prize for lawns."

UC Berkeley is dealing with similar issues on campus, as well. The prolonged dry spell is stressing tress and lawns, and the master gardeners are taking steps to remove thirsty grass. Here's a news article that details some recent efforts.

If you are local, the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden shelters a host of native plants, and offers classes and activities to help boost your repertoire of go-to plants that thrive in this environment. The California Native Plant Society is another educational resource.

For some clients, only grass will do.

Basic Design Tips
The principles of good garden design don't change when you are working with drought-tolerant plants or xeriscapes. You still want to create ongoing visual and sensory delight for that particular space.

A mix of plants, rocks and permeable paving can help add variety to your design. Play with architectural shapes of succulent plants and contrast with flowing native grasses or go straight minimalist with repeating patterns of similar shapes.

Rain Gardens and Water Catchment
Consider incorporating small swales in your design as a way to catch rainwater, to slow it down to increase infiltration. As always, of course, do your research, as an improperly constructed swale can contribute to flooding and debris. Even putting a small rain garden in your design, though, can help to preserve runoff.

Learn More
For more of a deep dive into water use in the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey provides a robust site that contains useful data.