Home & Garden

Embrace drought and plant a more beautiful garden

Bright yellow yarrow fills perennials beds bordering a fountain at the Huntington Library in San Marino.
Bright yellow yarrow fills perennials beds bordering a fountain at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

"Drought tolerant" doesn't mean dull. For California gardeners, saving water can be beautiful, not boring.

The key is color – not paint, but plants and the neon-bright palette that flowers can add to a landscape, even with water restrictions.

"I believe flowers belong in our lives," said longtime California horticulturist and author Maureen Gilmer. "And right now, everybody needs a refresher on what 'drought-tolerant' really means."

A syndicated columnist and author of 18 gardening books, Gilmer is on a crusade to return big flower color to our gardens without increasing water demand. Just released, her latest book is a handy guide for making the transition to a less-thirsty landscape: "The Colorful Dry Garden: Over 100 Flowers and Vibrant Plants for Drought, Desert and Dry Times" (Sasquatch Books, 214 pages, $22.95).

"I'm hoping this book starts a little revolution in California," Gilmer said in a phone interview. "If you love flowers, grow them. They're good for humanity, good for nature. They may be the perfect panacea that we need right now."

And while the soil may still be damp from recent rain, now is the time to be thinking "dry." Early spring is ideal to transplant many drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs so they have a chance to become established before the heat of summer.

Water use continues to be a top concern for California homeowners, looking for more ways to save. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, reducing water usage is a main motivator for homeowners hiring a landscape design expert.

Conservation always becomes a priority during drought. Although 2017 was a "wet" year, 2018 returned to below normal rainfall totals.

Recent drought-tolerant makeovers have tended to load on rocks and paving for minimalist landscapes that look dry and hard, Gilmer noted.

"The landscape trend in America has become way too masculine for me," she said. "It worries me. How is it connecting with people? It's all about rocks. How is it sustainable if you're hauling in big boulders and tons and tons of stone? (In these landscapes), the plants are not that important; that's the style and I don't like it. It feels hostile. It's all hard with no movement and really static, except for maybe some grasses."

Instead, Gilmer prefers a softer, friendlier, more colorful landscape filled with flowering plants.

"Instead of concrete and green clumps, you've got a lot of color and movement," she said. "Flowers make us happy."

Gilmer approaches flower gardening with a zen-like attitude.

"Take a flower in your hand," she said. "For that moment, it's your world. Look at it closely, study it. Marvel in its beauty, in its mystery and perfection.. Then, share it. I want to give that world to someone else so they can appreciate it, too."

Gilmer, 61, has been a go-to expert on California gardening for decades. Her popular Yardsmart column is carried by Scripps Howard News Service and appears in dozens of newspapers nationwide.

"In the early 1990s, I wrote California gardening books on wildfire and floods," said. Gilmer, who is currently reworking those books for a national audience. "They're all suddenly relevant again."

For 20 years, Gilmer worked and gardened in Sacramento and Dobbins in Yuba County.

"So, I'm very familiar with what grows well in Northern California," said Gilmer, who now lives near Palm Springs. "For this book, I pulled out a lot of my old plant lists and went back to some favorites."

Those include California fuchsia, bottlebrush and salvias.

"Cleveland sage is my favorite," she added "I love Matilija poppies with their big, beautiful flowers. I love the Moraea iris. Planted in a dry stream bed, it looks like reeds but with these beautiful white flowers. It's a garden chameleon."

Limiting those choices to about 100 was hard.

"For plants to be included in this book, No. 1, they had to have great flowers," she said. "Drought tolerance was No. 2. Then, they had to be adaptable to a wide range of soils, from sand to heavy clay. These plants aren't picky."

They also had to be widely available.

"Most of these plants, you can find easily," she said. "There are a lot of good low-water plants out there that you don't have to special order."

The key to success in a low-water garden? Excellent drainage, she said.

"That's one trait that most low-water plants share; they need good drainage," Gilmer said. "So, work on your drainage before transitioning to a drought-tolerant landscape."

For Sacramento gardens, Gilmer suggested a relatively simple solution.

"Use road base (aggregate gravel)," she said. "It's inexpensive. You can raise your whole garden up 6 to 12 inches and plant directly into the gravel. It keeps the crowns of these perennials high and dry, the way they like it. Drainage problem solved."

Instead of changing the entire landscape at one time, work in sections, she advised. "You don't have to do the whole thing in one try. That's really expensive. Maybe you don't want to redo all at once? You can make your garden more beautiful and drought tolerant, piece by piece."

That method also allows for experimentation, piecing together new-found favorites while preserving cherished shrubs and trees.

"We're ready for a change. It's time," Gilmer said. "Embrace our drought and learn more plants. You'll plant a more beautiful garden and worry less."

Ellen Zagory, director of public horticulture at the UC Davis Arboretum, shares why the arboretum's Conn Acacia Grove is special, particularly in times of drought.

Top low-water flowers for Sacramento

Author and horticulturist Maureen Gilmer chose these plants as her favorites for Sacramento gardeners.

Her top three native bloomers:

  • Autumn sage (Salvia greggii): Hybrids of this sub-shrub come in many colors.
  • Hummingbird sage (Zauschneria california): This bird-friendly perennial produces abundant purple-red flowers.
  • Hybrid desert willow (Chilopsis linearis): Often grown as a small tree, this large deciduous shrub offers huge blooms in shades of pink, red, purple and white.

Gilmer's top three "exotic" low-water flowers:

  • Moraea iris (Moraea iridioides or Dietes vegeta): Also called African iris or fortnight lily, this "dry" white iris thrives in a wide range of conditions.
  • Bird of Paradise bush (Caesalpinia gilliesii): A member of the pea family, this woody shrub produces unusual yellow flowers and makes a great accent.
  • African daisy (Arctotis acaulis): Hybrids of this clumping ground cover come in many hues., from pale yellow to neon pink.

During recent winter storms, many Sacramentans had the same thought: How can I save some of that rain for later? Holding onto that rain can recharge soil moisture, cut down on outside water use and create lasting savings on irrigation. Which metho