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What’s in a Design: Drought Tolerance

One thing I hear all the time – perhaps more than anything else in design requests – is drought tolerance. Besides doing my own designs and installations, I field the initial design requests for the design team at Flora Grubb Gardens. In gathering information about what the prospective client is wanting, the term “drought tolerant” is almost always at the top of the list (along with “low maintenance,” but I’m going to tackle that next, as a separate topic).

These days, especially with this record-setting drought we’re experiencing in California, drought tolerance is on everybody’s lips. We all know that lawns suck up a lot of water. I spoke and led a workshop on lawn replacement in October last year on the subject, and the turnout was great. I got to do a lot of research into the history and cultural interests and impacts of lawns, so it was a great learning experience for me as well. But when it comes down to it, what do people mean by the term?

Drought tolerance is a literal term: tolerance of drought. Unfortunately, many people have this misconception that it means no water is needed at all. In gardens that are planted in the ground (vs container or deck gardens), it’s certainly possible to design that way. It’s called a xeric garden, or Xeriscaping (or “zero-scaping,” as I often hear it pronounced). It literally means dry gardening. And it’s not all about just cacti. I did a great little xeric garden myself last summer.

Especially at the nursery, we get a lot of people who are inspired to garden, but who have no background understanding of it. Plants for some are almost furniture. I don’t mean that as an insult, just an observation. For them, a garden is something that somebody takes care of for you. Drought Tolerant is perhaps the catch phrase to sound like they know what they want, and that’s perfectly fine.

But then you get follow-up emails six months later with photos of dead plants. “I thought this was drought tolerant!” Then you realize the shortcomings of not educating on what the term actually means.

Just to be perfectly clear, EVERY plant needs water! In situations like xeric gardens, that water can literally be the summer fog off the coast. Plants that are adapted for that can handle it just fine. But it’s still water. If you’ve ever stood under a eucalyptus on a foggy day, you know just how much water can actually be gathered from fog. It’s like it’s actually raining under there! Or, the coast redwoods are even a better example. Their habitat is the 30-mile belt of land that hugs the northern coast, as far inland as the coast fog reaches. If you walk around a redwood forest, any time of year, the ground is damp and spongy from fog or rain.

Drought tolerant gardens that are not planned as xeric still need the occasional water, whether via drip irrigation (which is great, because you can put it on a timer and put the exact amount of water exactly where and when you need it) or by hand watering. In a container garden, there’s really no such thing as truly xeric, outside of cacti. You’ll still need to water, even if only monthly.

It all comes down to plant selection, of course. The same plant will perform differently in the ground than in a container. And in a container, it’ll perform differently on the windy roof than on the sheltered deck. Understanding the conditions your plants need makes all the difference in the world.

If you’re going the route of hiring a designer to pick the plants for you, be sure to pick a reputable one who knows the conditions and can ask you the right questions to draw out of you what you actually mean when you say you want a drought tolerant garden! Going with a cheaper garden company may save money at first, but you’ll lose the savings when you have to replace failing plants.

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