Dry garden becoming the new front yard

Like a trickle that builds into a steady stream, the low-water message is seeping through our neighborhoods.

Ellen Zagory sees it every day. She notices it throughout Davis and Sacramento. She calls it “The New Front Yard.”

“In the front yard, instead of lawn, homeowners looking to reduce landscape water use are planting drought-tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses,” she said. “This alternative to a mowed lawn can be beautiful and interesting with a minimal amount of care and a significant reduction in watering.”

As the horticulture director of the UC Davis Arboretum, she’s partially responsible for that shift of landscape. She champions the use of California natives and the arboretum’s special collections, including the Arboretum All-Stars and Durable Delights.

Those non-thirsty plants will be available Sunday during the arboretum’s fall plant sale. October also is an ideal time to plant these perennials, shrubs and grasses. During rainy days to come, they can put down roots and be ready to really get growing next spring.

UC Davis is in the midst of replacing its own traditional turf-based landscaping with water-wise alternatives. It not only cuts water use, it saves time on maintenance.

“Our Arboretum All-Stars use 40 percent of the water turf would use,” Zagory said. “We mixed in with those other drought-tolerant plants.”

So far, street medians have been replanted on campus, replacing turf with colorful ground covers and graceful grasses.

“We’re going to do more work this fall,” Zagory said, “but we’re waiting for rain.”

The arboretum staff gets many questions about replacing or augmenting landscapes with drought-tolerant alternatives. Zagory urges planning before you plant.

“Before you decide to convert your high-water turf, it is important to make a plan and approach the change carefully,” she said. “Ask yourself if you have shade trees that might be negatively affected if they get less water.

“Start small and convert areas a section at a time to make work manageable,” she advised.

By planning first, gardeners avoid a common problem in drought-tolerant gardens: Everything looks “dead.” Many perennials and natives go dormant or die back as part of their annual cycle of renewal. By mixing and matching, those “dead” times can be avoided.

Begin with evergreen plants that will grow year round, Zagory suggested. Some good choices are low-growing rosemary, some lavenders, shrubby sages and germander. Besides blooming in season, these plants always have interesting foliage that can give the garden “structure,” a frame for flowers and other plants. Also, consider plants with contrasting foliage – such as fine-textured silver grass paired with bold succulents – that will add interest when flowers are out of bloom.

“In larger areas, plant these ‘foundation’ plants in masses for impact,” Zagory said. “Add accents with upright or spiky foliage plants like coral yucca, deer grass and agave for their interesting shapes as well as seasonal color.”

After establishing that foundation, fill in with flowers and seasonal color. “For bloom in spring, use seaside daisies, catmint, lavender and rosemary,” Zagory said. “For summer and into fall, goldenrod, asters and California fuchsia create waves of color. Ornamental grasses like Japanese silver grass will carry the golden colors of fall into winter.”

Zagory recommends keeping it simple. Use odd-numbered mass plantings (such as three or five of a particular perennial) in repeating patterns. It makes maintenance easier (they all get pruned or die back at once) and also creates a “visual rhythm” for the garden’s flow.

Through trial and error, Zagory has discovered what works in a Sacramento dry or low-water garden.

“I believe that the best and most beautiful plantings result from a combination of plants, mixing non-natives with California native plants,” she said.

“Including as many California natives as possible boosts the odds of attracting and supporting birds and beneficial insects by providing food in the form of nectar and pollen, butterfly larval food plants and fruits and seeds.”

For example, native bees love California lilac ( Ceanothus), redbuds and coffeeberry.

“California fuchsia is guaranteed to bring hummingbirds into view,” Zagory said.

A well-planned dry garden is a lot more entertaining than watching turf grass grow.

“The most fun of your new front yard will be when your plant choices bring your garden alive with all sorts of flying creatures, providing you with the opportunity to observe firsthand the seasonal cycles of plants, birds, butterflies and beneficial insects,” Zagory said.

“At the same time, your plot of earth – and that of like-minded neighbors – will help support songbirds and declining pollinator populations while bringing nature home where you can witness it in all its complexity, right outside your door.”


Here are some water-efficient alternatives for Sacramento area gardens recommended by staff at the UC Davis Arboretum:

Low shrubs and evergreen perennials

• Dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis “Pigeon Point”)

• Valley Violet maritime ceanothus (Ceanothus maritimus “Valley Violet”)

• Wild buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

• Goodwin Creek Grey lavender (Lavandula X ginginsii “Goodwin Creek Grey”)

• Ed Carmen’s rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis “Mozart”)

• Australian bluebell creeper (Sollya heterophylla)

• Azure bush germander (Teucrium fruticans “Azureum”)

Long blooming for summer/fall color

• Monch aster (Aster X frikartii “Monch”)

• Tiny tangerine Cape bulbine (Bulbine frutescens “Hallmark”)

• California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)

• Wayne Roderick seaside daisy (Erigeron “W.R.”)

• Dwarf Russian sage (Perovskia “Little Spire”)

• Red autumn sage (Salvia greggii “Flame”)

Dependable and beautiful ornamental grasses

• Blue gramma grass (Bouteloua gracilis)

• Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis X acutiflora “Karl Foerster”)

• Striped eulalia grass (Miscanthus sinensis “Morning Light”)

• Pine muhly (Muhlenbergia dubia)

• Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)


Where: UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery, Garrod Drive (across from the small animal hospital), UC Davis campus

When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Details:, (530) 752-4880