Despite some spring downpours, California is facing a dire prognosis for water availability. In our third straight year of drought, residents are bracing themselves for water restrictions that are likely coming. Some of our clients have responded by abandoning sod lawns for synthetic alternatives, or replacing extensive planting beds with gravel or stone patios. I see more and more landscapes reminiscent of San Diego than San Francisco, featuring billowy grasses and untamed, brightly colored perennials. Succulents are there of course, and what are (not always lovingly) referred to as ‘freeway plants’- the toughest plants you can think of, that can survive in difficult conditions, without much attention, and without summer water.
But what if you just don’t like those plants??
I’ve heard this over the years from clients. Perhaps they grew up on the East Coast, in the Midwest, or abroad, in one of those mystical places that actually gets rain in summer. Or they prefer the style of a woodland or formal English garden. They’d like a garden with a more manicured style, or focusing on interesting foliage, and including varied textures and fragrant blooms- but without fearing that the water restrictions that are likely in our future will mean a garden of very sad (or very dead) plants.
From my own Oakland garden, which has heavy clay, areas of significant shade, and in which I intermittently spend all my free time or none of it, I’ve learned a lot about what drought tolerant actually means. I don’t have an irrigation system, so besides when plants are first put in the ground and an occasional watering by hand in summer, I rely on the weather to keep my plants going.
Of course there are the Sedums, the Yarrow, the Rosemary and Pheasant’s Tail Grass, that I’ve planted and ignored, and have thrived. These are expected to perform with little attention or water, and I love them for it. I have difficult conditions- lots of clay, compacted soil, and one bed directly beneath a mature Pittosporum, which are notoriously challenging to grow under. The Pitt not only blocks light, it blocks rainwater far more than my other beds. But over the last three years I’ve collected and inherited, and ended up with a hodgepodge of shade tolerant plants for that bed. And I’ve been amazed, year after year, at the plants that have thrived there, the bed furthest from my door, which gets the least attention.
Camellia Sasanqua Before moving to California, I thought that Camellias were thirsty plants. But in fact they’re jreally tough- once established, they can handle just about anything. It does take them some time to get acclimated to new surroundings, and they perform MUCH better in acidic soil, so adding prescribed fertilizers in fall and spring will really make them pop. But, once they’ve got a hold, they’re actually hard to discourage. Slow and steady, they can be a cornerstone in many gardens.
Oakleaf Hydrangea HUH? Hydrangeas need water, right? It’s true that they are more often found in gardens in locales with summer rain, or regular irrigation. But my Oakleaf Hydrangeas are powerhouses in my garden. They have plenty of room and live in part shade, in nutrient-depleted clay soil. I’m trying to use my garden water on edibles, so I haven’t watered my beds of shrubs and perennials (besides the new kids on the block) in about 2 years, and my Oakleaf Hydrangeas have thrived beautifully. Will they disappear or suffer if we continue to have drought conditions? We’ll see. It’s certainly possible. But if I’m betting on survival of the fittest for a woodland style garden, these plants are on my list.
Corsican Hellebore My other Hellebores aren’t as tough- but I like the look of this one better anyway. The blue-green shiny foliage mounds up to 3’, and the chartreuse blooms are a showstopper. I get tons of compliments on this plant, and it works with a lot of different garden styles.
Variegated Kirkii Coprosma I have one of these in my shade bed, planted from a gallon container three years ago, and one in full sun planted just last year. The one in sun is bigger, and grows more densely. BUT the one in dry shade brings a welcome brightness to a shady planting bed, and the foliage is a beautiful contrast to the other plantings. It’s a low spreader and has slowly filled a 3’ x 3’ area, and needs absolutely zero attention from me.
Flowering Maple Like the other plants on this list, the Abutilon needs water to get established. In cases like this, I actually think it’s better to start small, with 1 gallon plants. Sure they take longer to reach maturity, but their small root systems transplant more easily from the pots to their chosen new home. Coming in many colors, my white one (in the environmentally challenged bed) is the most vigorous and longest blooming!
Bulbs like Daffodils and Hyacinth Yes, the display is short lived. But they need absolutely no irrigation- I water them well when I dig them in, and then forget about them. And year after year, they alert me that spring is on the way. Also consider perennials with a similar root structure like Astilbe and even Bearded or Pacific Irises, which bloom for a short time but the foliage persists for many months, adding unique interest to any garden.
Some of these plants may grow more slowly than the same plants in other locations, but they are happy, and in my garden (to my surprise) disease and pest free. I water them, by hand, every few weeks in summer- and that’s it. Every year that goes by and I see my Daffodils pop up, the Camellia and Flowering Maple bloom (and in the Flowering Maple’s case, keep blooming and blooming and blooming), I get a boost. So don’t worry if your idea of a perfect garden isn’t Hens & Chicks, Yarrow and Lavender- you’ve got options.