Ellen Zagory knew it was a dry winter. But just how parched our usually "rainy months" had become hit home when her shovel hit dirt.
"The soil was bone-dry," said Zagory, horticulture director for the UC Davis Arboretum. "I dug 2 feet down and it was still dry. It was shocking."
Zagory and the arboretum staff are in the midst of transforming the entire campus into a water- efficient landscape. Usually, winter is the best time to transplant when the soil is still moist from winter rains. Hard ground has led to more hard work.
"There's been no water this winter," Zagory said before this week's expected rainfall, which was expected to do little to change the situation. "We've already had to turn on our irrigation. We usually wait until the rain stops but it's already stopped."
That lack of winter rain brings back the dreaded threat of drought, a term no gardener or farmer wants to hear. So far, this year ranks among the driest since 1920. Sacramento's rain total for January and February a scant 1.32 inches is the third-driest since record keeping began in 1850.
The "d" word looms large over area gardeners. More than 65 percent of household water consumption in Sacramento goes to landscaping.
Drought also drives up water prices and thousands of Sacramento homeowners only recently converted to metered water. With that in mind, many gardeners are making the switch to more unthirsty plants.
"There is reaction to the reality of recurring droughts, metering and the increasing cost of water," said landscape designer Cheryl Buckwalter, the Regional Water Authority's "Blue Thumb" expert. "I think we are being presented opportunities for us to change our behaviors and do what we should have been doing all along using water efficiently."
But where to start?
"Especially in these economic times, people can't always start from scratch," Buckwalter said. "They need to work with what they have in their landscapes."
Many homeowners are in the process of transitioning their landscapes with drought-tolerant plants.
"Green Acres has seen a continually growing demand for these plants from our entire customer base," said Andy Emmert, the nursery's lead patio buyer. "Our contractor sales department, which deals with all forms of landscape professionals, has seen a strong increase in residential and commercial designs incorporating drought-tolerant plants."
Retail customers also want drought-tolerant plants, he added. "Many of our top-selling shrubs and trees are drought- tolerant and well-suited to our Mediterranean climate here in Sacramento."
Among those best-sellers: Manzanita, ceanothus, grevillea, bottlebrush, butterfly bush and rosemary.
"Our top-selling trees include the Arbutus 'Marina', the cherry laurel and the many varieties of crape myrtle," he said. "And some of our top perennials are the Santa Barbara daisy, Spanish lavender, Cleveland sage, artemisia and sea thrift."
Emmert said customers also like these water-efficient finds: "the free-blooming perennial Lobelia laxiflora, the striking violet-blue blooming Penstemon 'Margarita B.O.P.', the trendy succulent hen and chicks, and the delicate, feathery shrub Grevillea 'Long John' which astonishes everyone with its huge, toothbrush-like pink flowers."
Orangevale landscape designer Susan Silva sees many requests for water-efficient gardens that still have a lush look.
"It's all about proper planting and soil," she said. "Good soil is a prerequisite for healthy plants. It allows roots to grow deeply and retains moisture. Shade also is important; it can keep your garden 20 degrees cooler. Make sure to incorporate trees."
Silva helped Jim and Gloria Eller transform their Carmichael backyard with an ultimate water-efficient makeover they got rid of the backyard pool.
"The pool had become a black hole for money," said Jim Eller, noting their children had grown and left home. "Nobody was swimming in the pool, and we were spending a lot of money. It was time to do something with less water and a lot less maintenance."
Surrounded by 100-foot redwoods, the garden uses that shade to maximum advantage, creating a cool and mostly dry oasis with shrubs, perennials and succulents. Instead of a pool, the focal point is a large fountain-turned-planter with succulents spilling from the top.
"We're very happy with how it turned out," said Gloria Eller. "It will take about three years before everything fills out. But (the landscape) has a real nice flow to it."
The transformation to water savings takes time. Drought-tolerant plants still need at least weekly deep irrigation until established. That can take up to two years.
"It's great that we are converting our landscapes to be more water- efficient," Buckwalter said, "but we need to realize that newly installed plants regardless of the fact that they are low water-use plants need a period of time to get established. Once the plants are established is when greater water savings will be seen."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.