Ministry Of ControversyScience Says

The No-Water California Garden

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Hi friends! Sorry I’ve been so very, very absent–if you’re wondering why, it’s because I wrote a novel called Girl Waits with Gun and that shit is time-consuming. It’s coming out September 1 and I’m going on a book tour that I very much hope puts me in a city near you. Really, you have no idea how much I’d appreciate it if you’d come out and say hello, or cajole some friends who happen to live in Austin or Portland or wherever into going, or both. Last bit of new business and then I promise to move on: If you’re at all interested in pre-ordering a book, it turns out that pre-orders matter quite a lot in this brave new era of publishing, and I’ll send you a little something if you take that bold step. Details here.

OK! On to the subject at hand. I live in Eureka, CA, which is not only at the more terrifying end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone everybody’s talking about, but it also in that state that’s having that big drought we’re also all talking about. Water restrictions are a fact of life here now, as they always should have been. And the kind of gardening I do is suddenly very much in vogue, which is to say that I don’t water at all.

At all. Ever.

Even in a normal year, we get no rain from about May-October. None. Not a drop. That’s just regular California weather.

So I was not all that put off by new watering restrictions that allow me to only water on Tuesdays and Thursdays or whatever it is. Who cares? Why water?

What a lot of people are doing is letting their lawns go brown. I’m totally good with that.

Here’s another option. If this makes you happy, go for it. The dye is some kind of vegetable-based thing that probably doesn’t hurt anything but your pocketbook.

Here’s what I’ve got going on.

Now, this might not be to your taste, and I apologize for the unflattering cell phone snapshot, but you get the idea. Perennials and grasses. Poppies. Stuff like that. This garden gets zero water, as in none, ever. And my secret and highly technical technique for making this work has consisted of the following:

1.  Plant stuff that seems likely to be drought-tolerant.

2.  Wait and see what dies.

3.  Plant more of the stuff that didn’t die.

My friend Scott Calhoun, who designs gardens in Tucson and knows about drought, once said to me (quoting someone else, and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten who), “How do you know it’s drought-tolerant if you water it?”

So that’s what I do.  Now, there are a couple of tricks to making this work. One is to put new plants in the ground in the fall, right as it’s starting to rain, so they have the winter to get established. The other is to give new plants a deep, long watering once every few weeks or so in their first year to help them get established.  For instance, in this garden I have two smallish tibouchinas that I just planted, and those get a few hours of a slow drip from the hose once in a blue moon.

And I will admit that there are a few edibles in pots outside my kitchen door that get water. But very little.

I don’t even want to post a plant list or suggest plants that might be drought-tolerant for you, because it’s really all about your microclimate and your soil. I have a rhododendron in this garden. Are they high on anybody’s drought-tolerant list? I’ve got rose campion that insist on doing well even though they should be dead. I don’t question it–I just plant more of what lives and less of what dies. Over time, the whole thing comes together.

One parting thought for you, if you’re living out here in Drought-Land with me:  My friend Saxon Holt is doing some remarkable things with his Summer Dry website. Please go check it out, and remember, even if El Nino comes and we get inundated with water this winter, we should all be figuring out how to get through the summer without irrigation. It can totally be done. It doesn’t have to look exactly like this, if this is not your thing, but it can look like something lush and interesting and appealing.

Anybody else have a no-water garden out there? I’d love to see some photos.

That is all. Back to Novel-Writing Land I go…

Posted by

Amy Stewart
on July 20, 2015 at 3:22 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform.


  1. IDK, not watering in summer seems like such a waste. I mean why not use all that lovely greywater to grow some awesome water hungry plants and make your neighbors jealous?

  2. Great post- hooray for no water gardens!. I don’t live in California, but Missoula, Montana, and apart from our vegetable garden, the rest of our landscaping is done with plants native to the Missoula area. The only thing we water is our vegetable garden- the rest hasn’t been watered in up to 15 years, yet we have an interesting, beautiful, and diverse landscape. I’d post some pictures, but I am not sure how- but you can have a look at my blog:

  3. When we were in the forclosure mode a few years ago. Lawns were spray painted green. After about a month, they turned a lovely shade of turquoise.
    Who knows, maybe they’ve improved the formula.

  4. Amy, your post makes me feel so much better about my garden beds that have bare spots from perennials that have died over the past two summers from not watering. Not because of the California drought (I’m in Tennessee) but because I wasn’t able to keep up watering twice a week during the summer as I did the previous 10+ years.

  5. People have stopped watering in Los Angeles, and as a result the trees are dying, people are covering what used to be greenspace with cheap rocks, and the heat island effect is worsening. Most designers, landscape architects, and local horticulturalists are trying to spread the word that our greenspaces need supplemental water in Southern California – it may be different up north, where the weather is milder. That doesn’t mean that we irrigate as if for lawn, but it does mean a small amount of water is needed to keep our trees, perennials, and shrubbery at least surviving, if not exactly thriving. Planting drought tolerants and non-invasive natives is a part of a smart strategy – as is using gray water and increasing the carbon in our soil. Since California is so big, its climates are incredibly diverse. It is awesome that your garden can look like that on no water – mine would be a dustbowl. It would look just like our native chaparral – dry, crispy, and ready to catch fire!

  6. Our small Oregon county (Hood River) just recently declared a drought emergency. Our mountains, where we get our water from, had less than 30% of the normal snowpack this winter. Our irrigation district dialed us back 25%, and now also has us on rotation, 3 1/2 days on, 3 1/2 days off (yes, farmers too). Our orchard is feeling it, but our vineyard, which has been dryland-farmed for almost 40 years (no water after the first 2-3 establishment years), is fine. Well, it’s a little crispy out there between the vine rows. My landscaping is being watered with gray water, or not at all. Our town is full of brown lawns, but you can see judicious watering of trees and other special perennials. The predicted El Nino that will bring rain to CA this winter will probably keep us mild and dry unfortunately.

  7. Ditto what Nina said.
    We install gardens all over the San Francisco Bay area and just by moving a mile or two out of the coastal fog belt the success rate of a non irrigated garden with the same tough as nails plant species is nil. – been there , killed that.
    A fair amount of California native plants , Agaves, Yuccas, a handful of Australian and South African plants will survive and can make a lovely looking garden, but even those will look water stressed by mid to late summer without any minor palliative watering care.
    Stalwarts include Rosemary, certain Salvias, Arctostaphylos, Grevillea, Yuccas, Agaves, Olives, Rhamnus, Ceanothus, Echiums, Westringia
    and Leptospermums.

  8. Ditto that Ditto Michelle! I have to tell my clients (mostly a few husbands, who are so eager to cut back on water that their large investment in a great garden is threatened! Yikes!) that there is a big difference between surviving and thriving. In Los Angeles, even coastal gardens are feeling the pinch. Inland, where I live – fuggedaboudit – if it isn’t given water at least once a week, it will die. I haven’t watered my garden in 2 years, to see what could really survive and what would die, and I was amazed by the outcome. Tough natives bit the dust, while a few phormiums are going strong. Most agaves are fine, but many aloes have struggled and died. My Rosa ‘ Mermaid’ is glorious, my echeverias are crispy little balls. This drought is quite the teacher!

  9. Some gardening friends just moved to Tucson and they’ve had to definitey relearn.
    I don’t think I could live in a drought environment. I am too in love with my watered and occasionally fertilized perennial and annual pollinator garden. Unfortunately, water stress results in fewer flowers, less nectar and pollen and with our hotter and drier years, it’s as if the bees and moths look at me and ask for some extra help.

  10. I love your garden ! It rocks. And your friend Saxon Holt is amazing! I live in New Orleans so I’m not too familiar with the plants but they looks gorgeous. Although we have a lot of water down here, we do have problems with plants tolerating the heat. Do you have any recommendations for heat tolerant plants that can will do well with the rain and humidity we have here?

  11. Amy, your garden looks great. But here in the Bay Area, where I’ve been watering very minimally, even plants I considered seriously drought-tolerant are looking pretty scruffy. The worst case is my Brown Turkey fig tree, which has dropped all its leaves and I’m afraid I might lose it. But as others have more or less commented, all gardening is local and California is the land of a bazillion microclimates, so whatever works in your garden is what you should be doing.

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