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Central California Life Magazine

Water-Wise Gardens

Jun 28, 2014 03:25PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Water-Wise Gardens

by Susan Stiltz

Color, sounds, scents and year-round interest define my water-wise garden. This morning, I see California poppies, knife acacia, daffodils, wild garlic, and flowering almond. I hear the wind rustling through the beefwood tree and smell rosemary, sage and sweet olive – delightful!

People often associate a water-wise garden with cactus and succulents. While these can be attractive and intriguing, they are not the only drought-tolerant plants from which we can choose. The Clovis Botanical Garden is a demonstration garden of water-wise plants from the Mediterranean regions with climates similar to ours – hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.

What is a water-wise plant? Plants that require moderate to low amounts of water and/or can survive periods of limited water are considered to be water-wise. Plants vary in their water needs from regular/ample water (e.g., hydrangeas, gardenias and azaleas) to those that require little/moderate water (manzanita, butterfly bush, lantana, heavenly bamboo). The “Sunset Western Garden Book” lists the water needs of each plant and is an invaluable resource.    

What about native plants? Our region originally consisted of grassland; in its natural state, trees and shrubs existed only along waterways. Being “native” to California doesn’t ensure that a plant is water-wise. Coastal redwoods come from the mountains of northern California, where they enjoy 100 inches of rain annually, along with cool, foggy summers. 

Still, there are many colorful and interesting plants from the surrounding foothills that do very well here with good drainage: think California lilac, sulfur flower, California fuchsia and yarrow.

Should I take out my lawn? The answer is more complex than, “Yes,” or “No,” but making a wise decision about what kind and how much of a lawn to have is important. In our area we see two general types: cool season (tall fescue) and warm season (Bermuda, buffalo grass). Tall fescue stays green through the winter, but it takes about 50 percent more water than a warm-season lawn. Bermuda and buffalo grass go dormant during the winter, which allows us to embrace the change of seasons and stop pretending that we live in a tropical paradise. 

You’ll need to consider what to do with the space if you remove your lawn. Replacing it with plants may sound exciting but brings with it increased maintenance demands and weeds as new plants mature. Maybe reducing size and replacing a cool-season grass with a warm-season one is the best answer.

Irrigation. The biggest challenge is proper, efficient irrigation. Most spray systems water more soil and concrete than plant. Drip systems are ideal but are prone to damage and clogging. The new subsurface drip systems with in-line emitters seem to work well, particularly for a new installation. Make sure your irrigation is properly maintained: fix leaking sprinklers and valves and inspect the system weekly.

Investigate, consider, weigh your options, and whatever you decide, remember to mulch! A 2-to-4-inch layer of mulch will suppress weeds, reduce evaporation, and provide nutrients for plants as it breaks down.



For more information, visit the following websites: then go to Conservation, then Landscaping


Susan Stiltz is a landscape designer and consultant specializing in water-wise, low-maintenance plants. A certified arborist and master gardener, she is a landscape specialist for the City of Fresno’s Water Conservation Department and the volunteer garden consultant for Clovis Botanical Gardens.