The Water-Efficient Landscape of the Central Valley


Last updated 5/14/2015 at 7:26pm | View PDF

When replacing plants in your garden, just start using lower-water-use species.

Think you can't have a beautiful landscape in the "new California?"

Think you can wait it out and keep that fescue turf and those coastal redwoods?

Are you ready for a change?

If you are still reading you are probably interested, or at least worried. Those of us who have been planting low-water-use plants for years are not so worried about this drought. Of course, drought is stressful to even low-water-use plants, but these plants don't have as much trouble staying green and blooming even with water restrictions and conservation goals. But along with the plants, there are some necessary steps we should do to be water-efficient.

The first thing to do is to repair any leaks, and then actually watch your lawn sprinklers to make sure you are not over-watering, causing run-off, or watering concrete. Make adjustments or ask your gardener to bring everything up to best possible repair and adjustments.

Wherever possible, convert to the newer efficient sprinklers, often called rotating heads. Planting beds and vegetable gardens should be converted to drip irrigation, which includes everything from true drippers, to low-volume misters.

If you are letting the lawn die (or if it will die because of water restrictions), you will still need to water your mature trees. Mature, older coastal redwoods may not survive this drought. They require high water in the summer to try to compensate for the lack of fog they would receive if planted in their natural habitat in the coastal mountains and hills. But try running a drip line with misters or drip emitters to keep the trees hydrated.

Try cycling your water times if you use a controller, to get more of the water to soak in and not run off or evaporate. That means watering three times for five minutes instead of once for 15 minutes, for example. Each cycle should be at least 30 minutes apart, but longer gaps are better. I think the best time to water landscapes in the Central Valley is in the early morning hours. The soil has had time to cool off, reducing the chance of root and crown rot problems we see in some woody Mediterranean-climate plants, and the evaporation effects of sunlight and wind are reduced or non-existent.

Removing or reducing your fescue lawn? Bermuda grass hybrids are still a possibility, but there are lots of options. Combine outdoor living areas, pathways, plants and open space. Start small if you are not sure, or seek the advice of a professional.

Those who have been planting low-water-use plants for years are not so worried about this drought.

When replacing plants in your garden, just start using lower-water-use species. Nurseries are scrambling to provide you with more and more choices. Some of my favorites are the California native sages like Cleveland and bee's bliss, sages from the Southwest like the many autumn sage varieties, sun and winter hardy succulents like bulbine and red yucca, and great low-water-shrubs like California coffeeberry and barberry. Ornamental grasses like deer grass and pink muhly provide great accents and look tidy all year.

Most of these plants require once a year trimming and no fertilizer. They are not bothered by insect and disease pests. So they are part of a lower-maintenance garden.

Plants will always be an important part of our lives and our homes. They raise property values and increase the quality of our lives. The answer, even in a drought, is not to stop planting. There are thousands of plants that will work in our great climate and soils. Just jump in and stop worrying!

Peyton Ellas is the owner of Quercus Landscape Design, specializing in California native plant-based gardens, and the owner of Auntie's Home Grown, a small sustainable farm.


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