Drought tolerant plants

I found this article in our local paper and it was very timely, as we’re experiencing a drought recently and many people are considering changing their thirsty lawns for drought tolerant plants.

As California heads into its third dry summer and pressure mounts to turn down the tap, a new set of plant and landscape descriptors has emerged.

“Drought tolerant.” “Low water use.” They have quickly become so ubiquitous, so P.C. as to be downright trendy.

As much as you might like the English cottage garden look, there is something appealing about a landscape that is more independent. It’s sort of like raising kids. They’re adorable as babies and you can’t imagine them growing up when they’re toddling and cooing so endearingly. But when they finally are old enough to drive, make a sandwich on their own, dress themselves and not require a sitter every time you walk out the door, it’s deliciously liberating.

Is it possible to have an independent landscape? Taking low water use to the next level, can you have a garden that can at least survive a drought if voluntary cutbacks — the goal this year is 25 percent in Sonoma County, 50 percent in Mendocino — escalate into actual water rationing next year?

Yes, say experts — with some caveats. And it doesn’t have to look like a prickly back yard in Tucson. “Drought tolerant” and “low water use” are replacing the old term “xeriscape,” which, fair or not, had come to be negatively perceived by some as arid.

In light of the water crisis, the Sonoma County Master Gardeners have put their heads together to compile a list of super-drought-tolerant plants, including no-water perennials and vines that will survive even if you shut off the faucet.

These tend to be natives or plants that originated in Mediterranean climates not unlike California that experience only minimal rainfall in summer.

Stephen Hightower, who helped work on the list, stresses that however low-water a plant may be, like any plant it will need ample water in the beginning to get established. So if you want to create a more irrigation-independent garden using some of these uber-tolerant plants, study and plan now, and buy and plant in the fall, when you can take advantage of autumn rains to get them going.

“They’re genetically primed to really take the water at that point,” said Phil Van Soelen, the longtime co-owner of California Flora Nursery in Fulton. You may also add a little water yourself, he suggests, helping the plants along to wake up “and start growing and accepting the water and being happy with it.”

He also warns that many of these plants need well drained soil. You can’t just insert them in clay and expect them to thrive. So if you do have heavy adobe soil, plant in mounds. Even natives are accustomed to a specific microclimate and soil, of which there are many in Sonoma County alone. To be completely drought tolerant they would need the right climate, soil and topography.

“You can’t place a plant that was used to a naturally moist area in bone dry, compact soil and expect it to do just fine just because it’s native,” he said.

In fact, natives often need even more water than other plants just at first, Van Soelen explained, because of the deep roots they have developed and depend on to survive months with little or no rain.

“Many in the beginning are extremely unforgiving. So they need to be well watered for the first few weeks and then you can start pulling back,” said the veteran native nurseryman, who likes to soak the root balls before planting.

The beauty of them, however, is that once they are established, they will need little additional irrigation and some of them can live with no additional water at all.

When it comes to drought-tolerant, Van Soelen stresses, there are two camps: those that can survive a dry summer without irrigation and those that can not only survive but still look reasonably good.

Among his favorites in the latter category are manzanitas, of which there are varieties not only native to California but native to Sonoma County.

“They’re totally beautiful and well adapted and yet almost never used in the landscape,” he lamented.

The Pajaro manzanita, for instance, has pretty pink flowers in winter with a kind of new growth mindful of “a stained-glass window.”

“It starts out with an orangish cast and changes as the leaves mature into more of a gray,” Van Soelen said. “And it has picturesque shaggy bark.”

Another plant that will take water neglect is Dudleya, a native succulent, similar to echeveria. They have reddish stalks, fleshy leaves and little yellow or orange flowers in late spring.

“Since they’re succulents they suck up all the water they need for the year and hold it in their structure. Therefore they need very little water for the rest of the year and they’ll still be looking good in late summer, with just a monthly water at most, while everything else has dried up and gone dormant or died,” Van Soelen said.

Plants that look good even with no irrigation are Dendromecon harfordii, or Island Bush Poppy, and the Matilija poppy, a shrubby perennial with brilliant white flowers and yellow centers like fried eggs.

“Everyone who sees it wants it,” he said of Matilija.

Another plant that people are often “wowed” by is Fremontodendron or Flannel Bush, an evergreen shrub that can take full sun.

“It has giant yellow flowers and it’s in full bloom in spring up until now,” Van Soelen said. “People often kill it by not giving it enough water at first. It is one of those natives that once established, it wants monthly water at most.”

Another thing to keep in mind with ultra-low-water-use plants, experts say, is that even though they may survive without irrigation, they will look better with a little water — even just once a month — if you have it to spare.

Hightower is experimenting more and more with California natives on his property on Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen.

With some thought, an ultra-low-water garden can also have some pizzazz, with texture and drama.

For an accent Hightower likes yarrow (Achillea), a generous bloomer that is nice for cut flower arrangements. Artemesia or Dusty Miller is a stubborn survivor with a blue-gray look. And for something that will make a big statement without needing much to drink, he likes knifofia, that tall perennial, many native to South Africa, that also is known as Red-Hot poker. They have big brazen flowers that look like lit torches.

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