Low-Water Landscapes

Watering is not a Kelly-family strong point. Hundreds of dollars have withered away in the form of neglected plants. The colorful perennials of my East Coast childhood do not flourish in our desert climate. So, we’re moving to a low-water landscape.

“We’ve had great success with euryops,” offers my pal Bernice. “They grow into large bushes and produce a yellow, daisy-like flower during a lot of the year. They make for a colorful background for our annual family Easter photo. And we hardly water them.

“But my favorite flowers are my ‘breath of heaven.’ How can you miss with a name like that? They produce tiny pink flowers and a scent like incense — perhaps that’s where they got their name. They grow into a large bush, and with a light breeze, the branches wave back and forth hypnotically.”

Tiger Palafox, manager at Mission Hills Nursery (619-295-2808), suggests succulents when I tell him of my low-water aspirations. “Aeonium is a large group of succulents that are popular now [$7.99–$8.99 for a one-gallon plant at Mission Hills Nursery]. For ground cover, there is a large group of plants called sedum that work [$7.99 for a one-gallon plant at Mission Hills Nursery].”

How often should you water succulents or cacti?

“What we suggest is when you plant a succulent you give it a good soaking once, and then you really don’t need to water it again for about three weeks.” After the plant is established, “The only time that you would have to water it is possibly in the spring and maybe in the fall, because usually they start growing in spring and fall. In summer and in winter it’s kind of their dormant period, so they don’t need water during those periods. Succulents have a normal cycle of growth and dormancy, which is exactly what it would be like in the desert. Just because it is hot doesn’t mean it needs water. It is actually dormant at that time of the year.”

Palafox says to let the soil completely dry out between watering — overwater, and they’ll start to rot.

“They prefer a well-draining soil. There are cactus mixes and succulent mixes that have a higher concentration of sand or perlite or pumice. That allows water to flow through them easier so they don’t rot out.”

It’s best to pick native plants, right? “There are all kinds of native plants, and because they are native they survive in our environment just fine with the natural rainfalls and the natural ebb and flow of everything else…the time that they have a hard time is when we should get rain and we don’t....”

“Ceanothus is a large group of different varieties — some trees, some ground covers. They work well anywhere in San Diego County, from the coast to the mountains. They can even handle snow.

“My final favorite is the margarita BOP, a really gorgeous flower,” which ranges from sky-blue to purple ($6.99 for a five-gallon plant at Mission Hills Nursery).

“The grevillea family,” offers David Ross from Walter Andersen Nursery (858-513-4900), “an Australian native, ranges in variety from low ground covers — less than a foot tall — to enormous trees 80 feet tall. There are a whole host of small and medium shrubs and ground-cover varieties that are extremely durable. The salvia, or sage family, is another diverse one.”

Ross, too, mentions the ceanothus group. “They can grow from a ground cover one to two feet tall up to six-, ten-, twelve-foot varieties. The fremontodendron, or ‘southern flannel bush,’ is another Southern California native that is a beautiful, orange-blooming variety [$36.99 for a five-gallon plant at Walter Andersen Nursery].”

Ross finishes with a watering tip of his own. “Many low-water-use plants are going to need regular water this summer to get them established. And the later that they are planted — the closer to summer that they are planted — the more water they are going to need to get through the first summer. They can’t, for the most part, just be put in the ground and ignored. They take a little bit of time to start to get established, and if they don’t get enough water during that time, you can kill them. Feel the root ball — the surrounding soil will hold moisture longer than the root ball. Until the plant roots way out, it is only drawing moisture from its own little cubbyhole.”

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