Debbie Arrington

This water-wise landscape should answer some questions

Tour ultra drought-tolerant garden for Northern California

Pat Schink of the Sacramento County Master Gardeners previews the new Ultra-WEL (Water-Efficient Landscape) at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks.
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Pat Schink of the Sacramento County Master Gardeners previews the new Ultra-WEL (Water-Efficient Landscape) at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks.

As California’s drought dragged on year after year, local master gardeners kept getting the same question from worried homeowners: “What can I plant that won’t die?”

Now, homeowners can see for themselves, thanks to a new model water-wise landscape at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks Park.

“The whole idea is to show homeowners really cool plants they might not have thought about that can grow well here with less water,” explained project leader Pat Schink, a longtime Sacramento County master gardener. “Our goal is, once these plants are established, to water only once a month during summer – or less.”

Called the Ultra Water-Efficient Landscape (or Ultra WEL), the new 6,000-square-foot garden is free and open daily to visitors from dawn to dusk.

Scores of master gardeners showed up for the garden’s dedication April 13. Mostly planted last fall, the garden already brims with colorful blooms. Neon-yellow sulfur buckwheat buzzed with native bees. Desert mallow in shades of pale orange and pink fluttered like delicate silk butterflies. Fragrant sages scented the morning breeze.

“The California poppies planted themselves,” master gardener Susan Post noted. “They’re very drought tolerant.”

In the works for two years, the garden grew out of many discussions. Chuck Ingels of the UC Cooperative Extension gets credit for pushing the plan along.

Originally, the master gardeners came up with a list of 150 drought-tolerant plants they’d like to see in the water-wise landscape, Schink said. Eventually, that was trimmed to about 50 sure-fire winners.

“We asked for the same basic requirements of each plant,” Schink explained. “They had to be ‘good neighbor’ plants, meaning they didn’t reseed or run wild. They had to be frost hardy; it gets cold out here. They had to be attractive to wildlife such as bees, birds and butterflies. Of course, they had to be very low water and low maintenance.

“But most of all, they had to be available,” she added. “We had some plants on our wish list that we just could not find. If we recommend them, we want people to be able to plant them, too.”

Davis landscape architect Scott Volmer of Great Valley Design donated his expertise, working with the master gardeners’ picks as well as suggesting a few of his own.

“I love the gold coin (Asteriscus maritimus),” Volmer said. “A customer suggested it years ago and I’ve been using it ever since. That’s how you discover most plants, by word of mouth. I’m really excited about the mallows, too.

“We wanted this to be planted like a real (home) garden, not a public landscape,” he added. “The plants we selected have to look good and work in a residential setting. ... We’re trying to help people design right (for low water use). With the drought, we’re getting all these ‘gravelscapes’ (landscapes that are more rock than vegetation); they’re not pretty.”

Volmer has concentrated on water-wise landscapes for several years. “I don’t even tell people they’re water-efficient landscapes any more; they’re just pretty,” he said. “I concentrate on putting the right plants in the right places.”

For curious gardeners and homeowners thinking about water-wise landscaping, this new garden is a drought-busting trove of possibilities from low-water grasses to flowering trees. All plants are clearly marked in five distinct growing areas that mimic conditions people may find in their own backyards.

In addition to identifying plants, interpretive displays explain the garden’s cutting-edge irrigation system, donated by Hunter Industries. Eco-wrap tubing – irrigation lines wrapped in wicking material – is buried 8 inches deep, directly under plants. This drip system spreads moisture to a larger area than conventional emitters and encourages roots to grow deep.

“Because it’s underground, there’s no evaporation,” Ingels said.

A heavy blanket of mulch retains moisture, too.

“This is all an experiment,” Ingels said. “But in a year or two, we expect it look fantastic, and we’ll only have to turn the water on a couple of times each summer.”

Pat Schink of the Sacramento County Master Gardeners previews the new Ultra-WEL (Water-Efficient Landscape) at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks.