Drought-Tolerant Gardening: A Southern California Solution


Purple Sage species, a drought-tolerant native

When it comes to lifestyle, it’s hard to beat the climate here in Southern California. Mild winters, ample beach days, and warm summer nights are several of the reasons why so many people have flocked to this region. . Although we may enjoy the plentitude of sunny days, the minimal rainfall we receive results in a tremendous amount of costly irrigation for our yards. When the hills turn brown in the summer, we certainly don’t want our lawns and gardens to do the same.

Many of our yards here in sizzling Southern California contain lush, beautiful plants imported from all over the country and the world. Often these plant species are accustomed to wetter climates, and cannot survive a California summer without ample irrigation. Unfortunately, many of our conventional irrigation methods are very inefficient, resulting in significant water losses and high water bills. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have brilliant, striking gardens and yards without the effort, cost, and environmental impact of intensive irrigation?

Perhaps you’ve heard the words “water-wise gardening”, “drought-tolerant gardening”, or “xeriscaping” recently. These three phrases refer to the process of landscaping your yard with plants adapted to drought conditions, therefore requiring minimal or no supplemental irrigation. In addition to saving on irrigation costs, drought-tolerant gardening is environmentally friendly as it does not deplete our scarce water supply and often provides resources for local wildlife. Southern California native plant species that are inherently drought-tolerant are often employed in this type of gardening. There is an abundance of stunning, low-maintenance native plant species available that offer food and shelter for birds and butterflies that have had their habitats fragmented by human development.

Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) showing red and yellow fruits

Many of us enjoy gardening with edibles and may wonder if cutting back on irrigation will eliminate our ability to do so. Certain species will not flourish without supplemental irrigation; however fortunately there is a multitude of delicious edible plant species that are also drought-tolerant.

Some of the easiest edibles to grow in our region are herbs such as rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, and common sage. These herbs are natives of the Mediterranean Basin, a region with which we share a similar climate. Naturally, these herbs require little water, can tolerate full sun and harsh heat, and do best in well-drained soils. Common sage may require afternoon shade in extremely hot regions.

Olives and Common Figs, also native to the Mediterranean Basin, grow exceptionally well in our region. Although they require some supplemental watering until established, they are very drought-tolerant thereafter. There are over a dozen different varieties of olives, some self-fruitful while others require cross-pollination. Most varieties of Common Figs are self-fruitful, with the exception of Smyrna and San Pedro. Both olives and figs are easily transplanted from containers and thrive in full sun.

Apricots are a great choice for water-wise fruit cultivation, and actually fare better in dryer areas away from the coast. The following varieties are self-fruitful and well suited for our climate: Autumn Glow, Autumn Royal, Blenheim, Floragold, Golden Amber, Gold Kist, Katy, Newcastle, and Royalty. Loquats, very attractive trees with a pleasant fragrance, bear yellow to orange fruits that are harvested in spring. They are quite drought tolerant once established. Blueberries, surprisingly, can be drought tolerant and require hardly any maintenance. If planted with a fair amount of organic material and watered for a few weeks to get established, they will yield ample fruit over summer months. Drought tolerant varieties include Rabbiteye and Misty.

Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia)

Often you will see Prickly Pear Cacti growing in clusters on the hillsides or perhaps even in your garden. A less obvious choice for edible gardening, Prickly Pear Cacti, or Opuntia, bear tasty fruits and pads. The pads are an important part of Mexican cuisine, often a component of salads, tacos, and egg dishes where they are known as Nopales. Opuntia ficus-indica is the species most commonly harvested for culinary use, although the pads and fruit of almost all Opuntia species are edible. When harvesting Prickly Pear, care must be taken to remove the spines and spiny hairs before consumption. These hardy plants are ideal candidates for a Southern California garden as they can survive prolonged drought by storing water in their stems.

Many of us have plants growing in our yards that we are not aware are edible. Mulberry Trees, often used in decorative landscaping, produce delicious edible fruits in the summertime that can be made into jams, jellies, tarts, and pies. Dried mulberries are becoming popular and are often sold for hefty sums in health food stores.

Strawberry Trees, natives of the Mediterranean and Western Europe, have become a popular decorative garden plant in Southern California. Their vivid red or yellow fruits are often disregarded as being too mushy, however most people over-water these plants. Adapted to dry climates, Strawberry Trees require little watering. Their fruits become much crisper with a mildly sweet flavor when not over-watered.

Sugar Sumac (Rhus ovata)

A few of the native Sumac species that are found in the Chaparral plant communities of our area bear edible fruits. Lemonade Berry, a shrub or small tree, sports pinkish red berries that can be made into a tangy drink akin to lemonade.

Additionally, this plant will attract birds and butterflies to your yard. The fruit of a similar species, the Sugar Sumac, can be made into a lemonade-like drink as well. If picking Sumac berries in the wild, make sure to properly identify the species before consumption.

Many people are interested in the prospect of including some native plant species in their yards, but are hesitant to forgo the bold colors and striking aesthetics of many of the classic landscaping plants. Fortunately, there are dozens of species of California natives that are visually striking and much less thirsty than most common garden plants. More and more nurseries are stocking native plant species, and a wider scope of native species is becoming available for purchase.

Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus)

California Fuchsia and Hummingbird Sage, two stunning and vivid flowers favored by hummingbirds, will add a burst of color to your garden. Penstemon species, also brightly pigmented, are attractants of bees and hummingbirds. Other attractive natives include Desert Mallow, Western Blue Flax, several species of Buckwheat, Sticky Monkey Flower, Matilija Poppy, Indian Paintbrush, plus many more.


Works Cited:

Creasy, Rosalind. 1986. The Gardener’s Handbook of Edible Plants. Sierra Club

Books. San Francisco, CA.

Edible Ideas for Drought-Resistant Landscaping. Kashi Natural Learning.

http://www.kashi.com/articles/edible_ideas_for_drought_resistant_landscaping. Accessed 6/1/2012.

Holder, Trish. 2011. Try Blueberries for an Effortlessly Edible Landscape Plant. Greenspiration.http://www.greenspirationhome.com/try-blueberries-for-an-effortlessly-edible-landscape-plant/

McCausland, Jim. 2010. Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles. Sunset Publishing Corporation. Menlo Park, CA

Mulberry. California Rare Fruit Growers. http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/mulberry.html. Accessed 6/13/12.

Ogden, Lauren Springer and Scott. 2011. Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens. Timber Press. Portland, OR.

Shuler, Carol. 1993. Low Water-Use Plants for California and the Southwest. Fisher Books. Tucson, AZ.

Wasowski, Sally and Andy. 1995. Native Gardens for Dry Climates. Clarkson Potter Publishers. New York, NY.