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How to Start Your Own Water-Saving Garden

A drought-resistant garden is possible, and it’s pretty amazing too. We’ll give you an in-depth introduction to drought-resistant gardening (with plant recommendations) in this article. But before we do that, let us explain what it is and how it’s superior to other gardening approaches.

What is a drought-resistant garden?

Also known as a dry, water-saving, or waterless garden, a drought-resistant garden is truly low-maintenance. This is achieved by reducing the overall lawn area and including elements other than plants in the landscape.
The focus is on plants that thrive in hot weather and don't rely on rainwater or irrigation to survive. Given that plants are chosen for their resistance to drought conditions, you can either reduce watering dramatically or eliminate the need for irrigation altogether.
Water Saving Garden colorful arrangement
Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Gardens, Hyde Hall, UK Image source: Flickr  

What is, perhaps, a little less apparent is that a waterless garden also requires less weeding and trimming, and the use of fertilizers and pesticides is dramatically lower too.

Naturally, this makes a dry garden more economical and sustainable than any other. And the natural ‘field of wildflowers’ aesthetic these gardens can have shouldn’t be underestimated either.

A guide to planning your dry garden

Every drought-resistant garden looks different. Like no other, this gardening approach takes your climate into account. Therefore, your garden can look like a field of wildflowers, a rock garden with succulents and decorative grasses, or a very Mediterranean gravel garden depending on where you live and what aesthetic you’re going for.

Below, we outline the primary principles of planning a dry garden and provide several beautiful plant recommendations at the end.

1. Know the terrain like the back of your hand

Water Saving Garden cactus garden
The Dry Garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Essex, England Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Knowing the climate in your area and your specific piece of land is key to a successful waterless garden. If you’re not sure what plants are hardy in your area, this official USDA hardiness zones map is a good place to start. Once you learn the growing zone in your location, you’ll be able to pick and choose the best plants for you.

Also, keep in mind the sun conditions in your garden - are you getting southern or western exposure?
How much rain do you usually get in the area?
What type of soil do you have - loamy, sandy, or chalky?

The answers to these questions will help you build the ultimate plant palette for your garden.

Whenever possible, work with the natural conditions in your garden instead of augmenting the soil. The only exception to that rule concerns areas in the garden where water collects and stays. This may sound counterintuitive, but the soil needs to be free-draining to support a waterless garden. Therefore, areas that are too moist must be augmented with a draining material, such as gravel or sand.

2. Pay close attention to light

Water Saving Garden rock garden

So, let’s assume you’ve established that your garden is south-facing. Before you assume that this means that all your plants get full sun, take some time to really examine the light conditions in your garden in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. Walk around the garden at different times of the day and try to see if any areas of the garden get partial shade from trees or surrounding structures.

If you were to plant sun-loving plants in a shaded area, they will die regardless of the southern exposure overall. And vice versa - you may be able to pull off growing a sun-loving plant in a north-facing garden with lots of open space. 

Aesthetics play a big role here too. “You should also observe where the light falls across the garden, as it can help you to decide where you plant certain plants such as grasses, which look fabulous backlit by the sun,” said garden designer Sue Townsend to Homes and Gardens.

3. Reduce the size of your lawn

Water Saving Garden Japanese garden

Consider downsizing the lawn area. A traditional grass lawn is the part of your yard that requires the most water, so we’d advise that you cut down the area of the lawn to a bare minimum if you want to make your garden more low-maintenance.

To begin, identify high-traffic areas which require more maintenance or look patchy, and work from there. And remember - reducing lawn size can be done in a clever and aesthetic way, with no bare patches in your garden. Just think of traditional Japanese gardens with their rock gardens and gravel paths, and they’re considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the world!

In place of the lawn use stone terraces, gravel or brick paths, wooden patios, or even manmade ponds and fountains to add visual interest and texture to your garden. Plants that naturally grow in rocky areas will further complement your rock garden and give it a pop of color. These are usually sun-loving plants like succulents, decorative grasses, sedums, and even herbs like rosemary and Spanish lavender.

Alternatively, you can replace the lawn with a combination of groundcover plants, like creeping thyme or lamb's-ear, and taller, dense perennials, shrubs, and ornamental grasses.

Related Article: Spend Less Time on Lawn Care and Maintenance - 7 Best Tips


4. The best materials for backyard landscaping ideas

Water Saving Garden rock garden

Using local, naturally sourced materials is the best option - both for your wallet and the environment - as this will allow you to cut manufacturing and shipping costs. To improve the drainage of the soil, you can use any type of loose stone, gravel, sand, or crushed concrete. The same materials can be used for mulching and lining pathways. A balance of plants and stone is a beautiful feature present in many traditional dry gardens - be it the Mediterranean or the Japanese garden. 

Top the surrounding area of the plant with gravel as a mulch. This has several uses. First of all, it “locks moisture into the soil below in summer,” says garden designer Jane Gates. At the same time, gravel will help keep any moisture away from the plant itself while also protecting your garden from weeds. In the wintertime, the gravel will also lock warmth in the soil, allowing your plants to survive in the cold. Hence, using some kind of well-draining mulching agent is extremely important.

5. Let shrubs and trees frame your garden

One effective approach to planning a successful waterless garden is relying on vertical elements that provide structure to your garden. These can be shrubs or smaller trees that don’t cast too much shadow. “Start with a backbone of shrubs for year-round structure and only select trees that won’t cast dense shade,” recommends Asa Gregers-Warg.
Water Saving Garden path lined with beautiful plants
Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex, UK Image source: Flickr

6. Deep roots are a key to success

Wish to reduce watering as much as possible? The best way to do that is by encouraging root growth. The logic is simple: the longer the roots, the better the plants are at absorbing moisture from deep beneath the surface of the soil. To achieve this, plant them small. Young plants are in their active growing phase, which gives them a better chance to develop a long and healthy root system.

Before planting a new little plant, prepare the site by breaking up and aerating the soil. This will make it easier for roots to spread. While your plant is getting established, give it deep but occasional watering, as this further promotes root development.

7. Select drought-tolerant plants

The choice of plants is central to a successful drought-tolerant garden, as is the way you choose to care for them. Dry garden experts recommend deep watering while the plant is getting established. Once established, start watering sparingly and without enriching the soil.

As for combining plants, choosing species that naturally grow alongside each other in dry, hot climates is always a safe bet. Repeating similar colors and textures throughout the garden will help guide the eye and give your garden a more cohesive appearance.

Now onto our favorite plant recommendations (finally) to consider - all of them mix and match very well:

Ornamental artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)

Water Saving Garden Ornamental artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)
The ornamental artichoke is a tall perennial (up to 8 feet tall) that has silvery, spiny leaves and a big thistle-like inflorescence with purple flowers. Grows in zones 3-11 and blooms from late summer to autumn. Artichokes can be perennial in zones 7-11.

Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum)

Water Saving Garden Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
This beautiful plant produces tall, vertical spires of white, purple, or pink flowers throughout summer. Culver's root is native to the eastern United States and south-eastern Canada. It’s usually grown as an annual, but it’s hardy in zones 3-8.

Purpletop (Verbena bonariensis)

Water Saving Garden Purpletop (Verbena bonariensis)
This type of verbena has been cultivated to produce clusters of purple flowers and tall, wispy leaves. Also known as South American vervain, Purpletops are annuals, but they self-seed very productively, so you’ll watch them appear and spread through your garden year after year. Verbena bonariensis grows in zones 7-11, and it will bloom from late summer until the first frost. 

Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima)

Water Saving Garden Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima)
Image source: Flickr
Mexican feather grass is a medium-high deciduous grass. It grows to be up to 2 feet tall and forms tightly-packed thread-like leaves. These plants are hardy from USDA Zones 6-10 and produce feathery clusters of flowers in summer.

Cheesewood (Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’)

Water Saving Garden Cheesewood (Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
‘Tom Thumb’ is a slow-growing evergreen shrub that grows in a round, compact shape. The plant has gorgeous deep purple leaves. Cheesewoods are perennial in zones 8 to 11.

Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri)

Water Saving Garden Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
This stunning wildflower has airy stems and dainty white or purple flowers that bloom all summer long. Native to Louisiana and Texas, this perennial plant is hardy in zones 5-9, and it requires well-draining soil.

Butterfly Stonecrop (Hylotelephium spectabile)

Water Saving Garden Butterfly Stonecrop (Hylotelephium spectabile)
Butterfly stonecrops are also known as iceplants, and they originate from China and Korea. This colorful flowering plant has thick succulent leaves and stems, and dense flat-top inflorescences beloved by pollinators. Iceplants grow about knee height, and they will survive even the hottest summers. This plant is hardy in zones 3-9.

Silvergrass (Miscanthus)

Water Saving Garden Silvergrass (Miscanthus)
This ornamental grass comes in many varieties, and it grows to be quite tall - up to 6 ft tall. The grass produces fountains of foliage that produce white or pink flowers in summer. Over time, these flowers fade into a golden beige. Miscanthus is hardy in zones 5-9.

Sea Holly (Eryngium planum)

Water Saving Garden Sea Holly (Eryngium planum)
These perennials have steel-blue flowers shaped like cones lined with spines. Beloved by butterflies, Eryngium planum is hardy in zones 4-8. The plant has deep roots, which allow the plant to survive every drought.

South African Geranium (Pelargonium sidoides)

Water Saving Garden South African Geranium (Pelargonium sidoides)
Image source: Flickr
As the name suggests, South African Geranium requires a hot and dry climate. The ideal location is anywhere between zones 9 and 12. The beauty of this plant lies within its near-black dark red-purple flowers and dainty silvery leaves. What a beautiful and sophisticated plant to add a pop of color to your dry garden!
Find even more plant recommendations here - 10 Low Maintenance Perennial Plants With Lovely Flowers.
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