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Gardening in Drought – the importance of planting design

xeriscape garden in silver and red
A xeriscape planting design that uses color and texture.

We had a little drizzle in Carmel Valley this morning, which is not so common in September, especially in a year of serious drought. It got me to thinking, with all the implications of the drought, how plausible is it to raise an ornamental garden with little added water? It’s a challenge we deal with on a regular basis as designers, and one that morphs into new challenges as each client adds their own set of criteria.

Can such a garden be beautiful? I would argue that it can, depending on your definition of beauty and your tolerance for brown hues.

Let’s set aside the question of Beauty with a capital ‘B’ and think for a moment about what styles lend themselves to low water plant palettes.

The two I’ve seen used most are what I’ll call the naturalistic style and the xeriscaped style.

Certainly, a naturalistic approach can seem like a simple choice. In this case, I’m using the term for a style that mimics the local ecology, which, if well done, can create a planted landscape that thrives in the climatic conditions of the region. Succeeding at this strategy isn’t necessarily easy. Natural landscapes arrive at the result we see through a myriad of complex strategies and interactions. Finding the right balance with a purposeful approach takes either experience or the patience to see the project through on a trial and error basis.

The xeriscaped style, as I’ve usually seen the practice applied, starts with a palette of low water use plants and places them, usually higgledy-piggledy, with each specimen far from its neighbor in a sea of mulch. It’s akin to an English border in its mish mash of species and varieties, except that all of the plants keep a distance from each other instead of intermingling and creating a riot of lush growth.

If it sounds like I’m not super excited about either option, I’ll admit that that’s partly true, but only partly. Each offers great possibilities for design. What I’m not excited about is the lackluster way each is usually applied. Frankly, they usually leave me bored and ready to see something different.

Image of drought tolerant planting in California

Instead of throwing a handful of random plants in a bed and calling it a garden, how about using a planting design concept that results in a dynamic interplay of form, color and texture? Why not use those characteristics to create a display that makes a statement? If mulch is to be visible, why not make it worth seeing?

There are strong constraints on creating this type of garden. Whether people limit their choices simply to low water users or go the extra step of looking for only plants native to their region, it can be a challenge to find a wide variety of options. Sometimes, though, constraints are the very thing that drive a creative solution.

Rather than using a lot of different species together with only one or two specimens of each, why not limit the choices to a few species that contrast or play up each other’s characteristics? Start with a focal point or a framed view and choose varieties that will perform the function needed to achieve the desired look.

Here on the Central Coast of California, if I’m looking for a small tree to create a focal point, Arctostaphylos ‘Dr. Hurd’ has an interesting form, provides evergreen canopy and uses very little water, in addition to being native. If we want a silver-hued shrub to cover the ground plane, Silver Bush Lupine or Eriogonum come to mind. A backdrop of Ceanothus would provide a stunning complement of color when the blue flowers come into bloom in the spring. It’s a simple mix, but effective.