No Water, No Problem
These three fabulous low-maintenance gardens don’t sacrifice beauty, even if they do slash your water bill.
Feeling guilty every time the lawn sprinklers switch on at your home? If so, you’re not the only one. Given California’s historic drought, many homeowners are looking for water-wise ways to keep their yards and gardens beautiful year-round. Here are three gardens that use native plants, smart design, and other tricks that will help inspire your own low-water oasis.
Eclectic and Eco-Conscious
Don’t settle for a barren backyard during the scorching summer months. Sustainable gardens are low-maintenance alternatives to landscapes with thirsty turf.
For Kipp McMichael, a web developer with a penchant for gardening, creating a sustainable space was the best way to transform his water-guzzling front yard into an eco-friendly, low-fuss landscape.He replaced the high-water flowers and shrubs with a rich range of drought-tolerant and native species selected to thrive in the local climate and soil.
McMichael managed to pack the modestly sized Berkeley space with more than 200 species—including succulent hybrids and flowering euphorbia—by playing with the topography and adding mounds where he could place more plants. He also mixed textures and colors to make the garden appear fuller and more lush, planting low-lying purple- and mustard-hued succulents next to spindly cacti, bright green agave, and pink echeveria. While beautifying the garden, these plants can withstand hot, dry weather with little maintenance and significantly less water than conventional yards.
McMichael says his “antilawn” and plants, which he occasionally gives away to visitors, attract a lot of interest from his neighbors. “There are definitely some ego strokes—because people are always stopping by to admire the plants and ask about them,” he says.
Aloe brevifolia: This plant boasts annual stalks of red-orange flowers.
Aloe nobilis: On average, this succulent perennial never exceeds a height of one foot.
Aeonium species and hybrids: These ornate, low-water plants are easy to maintain and can survive freezing temperatures.
Agave parryi var truncata: Chosen for its elegant architectural form and color, this plant is virtually maintenance free and requires no supplemental water once established.
Cordyline australis: This palmlike tree makes a striking architectural statement and withstands drought conditions.
Echeveria species: These colorful plants stay gorgeous throughout the year without requiring a lot of maintenance.
Echinocactus grusonii golden barrel cactus: This cactus continues to grow in the winter.
Euphorbia species: These plants are diverse and simple to grow.
Graptoveria Fred Ives: This plum-colored plant is low maintenance and highly adaptable.
Haworthia species: These small shade-tolerant succulents often grow year-round without needing much water.
Pleiospilos bolusii: Originally from South Africa, this “rock plant” is perfect for pots and features yellow daisylike flowers in late winter.
Pilosocereus pachycladus: In addition to being drought tolerant, this beautiful blue-hued cactus can handle frost.
Senecio rowleyana (vine, string of pearls): An endearing vining succulent, this plant looks spectacular when cascading out of pots or ledges.
Senecio serpens: This resilient plant boasts a beautiful frosty blue hue.
Traditional gardens wilt during the warm months, but that’s when dry landscapes shine. This low-maintenance option—sometimes called a Zen garden—incorporates plants
that thrive on rays.
For one couple living in the Oakland hills, a dry garden was the ideal solution to their problem: an unappealing backyard. The narrow, walled-in space was small and awkward, and the overgrown, jungle-esque hillside looming over it only made it worse. The homeowners knew the yard needed a face-lift.
The couple turned to Rudabeh Pakravan, a designer, architect, and UC Berkeley lecturer, to convert the nonfunctional backyard into a chic and stunning oasis, proving that ample square footage—or even water—isn’t necessary to create something beautiful.
Pakravan chose to focus the design around a stainless steel planter with undulating bands that pull the eye across the garden and away from the high hill, making the yard appear more spacious. The planter spills over with succulents, California native species, and plants with vibrant blooms, including the fire spinner, an ice plant that holds up against drought and heat.
To make the space feel wider, Pakravan replaced the retaining wall in the middle of the yard with a set of amphitheater steps—complete with a fire pit to gather around during cool Oakland evenings—leading to an artificial grass area. She also kept the number of plants on the hillside to a minimum, choosing low-water shrubs with warm tones, such as salmon-hued sunshine conebush and bronze-leaved purple hopseed bush—to add a dose of color to the garden.
“Before they redesigned their yard, they never went outside and always kept the shades closed,” Pakravan says of the owners. “Now, they use the yard often and entertain guests out there. That really makes me happy.”
Agave blue flame: This succulent forms clumps with rosettes.
Agave parryi, yucca glauca: These reliable plants grow at a slow rate.
Chondropetalum: Originally from South Africa, this reed-like plant thrives in the sun and requires little water.
Cotinus: This flowering plant features leaves that come in various tones of purple, bronze, and green, making it a wonderful accent plant.
Delosperma fire spinner: This drought-tolerant ice plant makes a statement with its bright orange, red, and purple blooms.
Dodonaea purpurea: With its reddish-purple foliage, this shrub contrasts beautifully with greenery.
Euphorbia species: These colorful plants are low fuss and water wise.
Leucadendron laureolum: This plant brings pops of gold in the winter.
Phormium duet: This evergreen perennial is very compact, making it an ideal choice for smaller yards.
Purple Crest aeonium: This purple plant sprouts bright yellow blooms in the late spring.
Sedum Angelina: These plants need minimal amounts of water yet are very tolerant to high sun exposure.
Tristania laurina: Native to Australia, this slow-growing tree features fragrant yellow flowers in the spring.
Struggling to keep your yard looking green? Plants that are indigenous to the East Bay thrive here, making them easy to grow and likely to succeed.
A few years ago, Liz Simpson of Berkeley-based Liz Simpson Garden Design, which specializes in low-water landscaping with California native plants, transformed a generic Pleasant Hill backyard into a playful outdoor environment. The job called for shady retreats, sitting areas, and plants that attract birds, bees, and butterflies, and the project was a big undertaking. “I had never designed a yard that large before,” she says, “so I had to think of it as designing multiple gardens within the same garden.”
She divided the space into a series of living “garden rooms,” each with its own character and use. The flagstone patio’s outdoor patio—intended for lounging and enjoying the greenery—features a comfy couch and shade sails that can be moved around the surrounding redwood trellises to create eye-catching patterns.
Next to the patio is a small vegetable garden, as well as a meadow with walkways that wind through the yard. The path is lined with colorful blooms and billowy forms—flowering sages, yellow yarrow, bright blue penstemon, and other native perennials—that were chosen for their striking hues and ability to thrive in drought conditions.
The pathways eventually lead to a hidden petanque court and seating area in the back of the garden, where birds build nests from the lush grasses and feed on the insects attracted to blooming yarrow.
Last year, this garden was featured on the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, an annual showcase of native plant gardens in the East Bay.
“People who are interested in growing native plants should consider going on a garden tour,” Simpson says. “All the plants are labeled, so people can get a sense of what they like, and the designers are usually on-site to answer questions. It’s a great way for people to get inspired.”
Achillea millefolium Island pink: These flowers are easy to maintain and attract beneficial insects.
Aquilegia eximia: This hardy red-and yellow-flowered columbine attracts hummingbirds.
Arctostaphylos manzanita Dr. Hurd: This manzanita species has lovely red branches.
Asclepias fascicularis: This milkweed species is the main food source for the Monarch caterpillar.
Ceanothus Ray Hartman: This blue blossom looks beautiful in the spring.
Dudleya brittonii, Archtostaphylos bakeri: This succulent and Manzanita thrive in drought conditions.
Eschscholzia californica: California’s official flower, the poppy, adds a dose of color to gardens.
Festuca idahoensis Stony Creek: This blue-gray bunch grass is a great border between shrubs.
Fremontodendron californicum: This flowering evergreen thrives even in nutritionally poor soils.
Iris douglasiana: This gorgeous iris grows well under oak trees.
Mimulus cardinalis: This robust, scarlet-petaled plant attracts hummingbirds.
Penstemon heterophyllus Blue Springs: This striking perennial is a magnet for birds, bees, and butterflies.
Polystichum munitum: This lush evergreen fern requires little water.
Quercus lobata: The quintessential California oak is a large but graceful tree, providing shade on warm days.
Salvia clevelandii Winifred Gilman: This salvia features tubular violet-blue flowers and fragrant foliage.