A drought-tolerant landscape at sunset. There are native plants and part of a home. This landscape is designed to conserve water.
Photo Credit:
Studio Foliosa
Save water, save money

How to Create a Drought-Tolerant Landscape

Leon Hordijk
September 19, 2023

How to Create a Drought-Tolerant Landscape

As the world grapples with the consequences of climate change, one of the most pressing challenges is water scarcity. Even though a surprisingly wet winter along the West Coast has filled up most of our reservoirs and temporarily alleviated some of the significant drought symptoms, water shortages still are and will continue to be increasingly common in many regions.

Water shortages still pose a significant threat to our natural and man-made systems, significantly impacting our way of life moving forward. To mitigate this issue, homeowners, landscape professionals, and state and county agencies alike are turning to drought-tolerant landscaping as one solution to alleviate the problem.

It may seem straightforward, but what is drought tolerance anyway?

Woman in her drought-tolerant landscape
Source: Studio Foliosa

Drought-tolerant landscaping may bring to mind pictures of desert-like, gravel-rich yards dotted with a few cacti or succulents here and there. While this type of Xeric landscaping (the practice of designing landscapes to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation) is commonly found in places such as Palm Springs or Tuscon, AZ, this is not the only option. In fact, drought-tolerant landscaping doesn't mean you have to pave paradise and give up verdant or visually stunning landscapes at all!

At its core, drought-tolerant landscaping is all about reduction in water consumption.

Some of the elements that work together to make your landscape drought-tolerant are as follows:

  • Native and adapted plants (species with special features that allow it to thrive in a particular place or habitat)
  • Efficient irrigation systems
  • Clever use of hardscape elements (the man-made features used in landscape architecture, e.g. paths or walls as contrasted with vegetation or softscape)
  • Minimal ongoing care

These work together to accomplish the drought-tolerant effect. Ultimately, drought-tolerant landscaping aims to design and implement gardens that can withstand the stresses of our changing climate (less water, warmer varying temperatures, and overall sustainability).

Why save water? Doing good by Mother Nature and your wallet

A woman checks a group of water meters
Source: Adobe Stock

Reductions in water consumption for your home’s landscape help reduce the burden on local and regional ecological resources and save you money in the long run.

Using less water for landscape irrigation can and will drastically reduce your water bill. This is especially true during months of peak usage and times of water restrictions imposed by local jurisdictions. Secondly, local and state incentives (like these in California) may help lessen the cost burden of moving towards a less thirsty landscape. Finally, by using native and adapted plants best suited to your local region, you will be adding more biodiversity, life, and beauty to your home landscape.

Taking actionable and practical steps towards a healthier and more beautiful drought-tolerant landscape.

If you can afford to, hiring a professional landscape architect or designer who is familiar with your climate, plants, and local required rules/regulations (if any) is your best bet. They can work with you to come up with a plan of attack, which can then be handed off to a landscape contractor or installer for final implementation.

For DIY'ers who love to take matters into their own hands, below is some helpful high level information to get you on your way to a beautiful drought-tolerant landscape:

1. Come up with a plan

Source: Studio Foliosa

First, come up with a 'vision plan' for your space, and consider what 'style' of garden you want. This plan can be referenced throughout the implementation timeline, whether that is a few months or a few years, depending on your budget and schedule. Consider the layout of existing and future hardscape elements (pathways, patios, decks, driveway, doors & window views and access, or maybe even a hot tub!), as well as existing trees and large shrubs that are already thriving with little to no water. This layout will then serve as the framework to fill in the gaps with planting.

Next, you will need to research what plants can grow in your region (take into account sun/shade patterns, water requirements, climate, site drainage, soil conditions, etc.). Visiting your local nurseries will also be helpful here, as well as figuring out what USDA plant hardiness zone your home is in.

Finally, you will need to either draw or diagram where these plants will go in each respective space (consider groupings, style, and how you want your landscape to feel among the other criteria listed above). Once all of these things have been done, you can start working towards implementing, and remember this can be done in phases or by a professional.

2. Efficient irrigation

A drip irrigation system in a drought tolerant landscape
Source: Adobe Stock

This is one of the most essential steps to ensure a drought-tolerant garden. Beyond plant selection, having an efficient irrigation system means you are only delivering the required water directly to the plants to ensure survival. Low-flow and high-efficiency Drip irrigation is often the preferred choice as it uses much less water and applies water directly to the roots of the plants.

Another vital component of an efficient irrigation system is purchasing and installing an irrigation controller (an industry classic I can recommend is this one from Rain-Bird, though ultimately your irrigation needs are highly site-specific). The controller will allow you to set up watering schedules and run times, amount of water delivery, and many cities require that they are a 'smart controller' with a weather sensor (because the last thing you'd want to do is irrigate when that precious rain finally falls).

Lastly, even if you aren't overhauling your landscape, you can see significant savings in your water bill by updating your system and going through the Water Sense certification by a licensed professional.

*If you reside in California, please check with your local city or county if you are required to submit MWELO documentation (for existing landscapes over 2,500sf and new construction over 500sf) to ensure you are implementing a drought-tolerant and appropriate landscape. A landscape architect or landscape/irrigation designer can help with this, too.  

3. Native and adapted plants

Source: Studio Foliosa

Mother nature usually does it best, so don't try to reinvent the wheel! The existing plant communities in your region are already adapted to survive with natural rainfall alone. That said, you don't have to be a purist about this and can opt to use non-native plants as well; actually if done appropriately, some adapted plants can be very complimentary to blend with natives.

Adapted plants are plants that will also thrive off little to no water (once established) and typically occur in similar Mediterranean climates around the world (for example, plants from certain parts of South Africa, South America, Australia, and the European Mediterranean climates can thrive in many parts of California, the West Coast, and the Southwest). Again, local native (and non-native) plant nurseries, books, and online documentation can be beneficial resources in honing in on a plant palette.

4. Break up with your lawn

Removing that thirsty, toxic, and unnecessary traditional lawn is one of the most significant steps you can take toward water reduction and drought tolerance. For those who cannot let go of their precious lawn, there are other alternative lawn species that use less water. If, on the other hand, you want to go all in on drought-tolerance, we would recommend a complete overhaul and plan for a drought-tolerant garden with the suggestions we have mentioned within this blog post.

5. The importance of soil, mulch, and ongoing maintenance

plants growing with roots showing
Source: Adobe Stock

Soil is one of the most overlooked components of the garden and is quite literally the lifeblood of the garden. Healthy soil can be imported from a landscape materials yard, or better yet, existing soil can be amended with compost and other organic nutrients. We recommend a soil test prior to making adjustments to know what you are working with.

Mulch is another important component of any garden. It can help suppress weed growth, keep the garden tidy, and most importantly, keep all of that valuable irrigation moisture closer to the roots of plants and limit evaporation.

Lastly and sadly, there is no such thing as a 'no-maintenance' garden beyond the wild. However, the great thing about native plants and a well-designed garden is that it will require much less care than traditional gardens; they usually prefer a more hands-off approach. Usually, bi-annually (spring and late fall/winter), you will need to remove dead plant matter (branches, leaves, and flowers) and overall make sure your efficient irrigation system is functioning properly.

In closing, whatever your current conditions are, there are various ways you can have a positive impact in water reduction and creating a more drought-tolerant landscape. You will be able to achieve savings on your water and electric bill, increase biodiversity around your home landscape, and feel good about lessening your footprint on an already stressed world.

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