Here in California, we hear rumblings about gardens wasting water. In an era of limited resources, can we afford to have water for gardens ?

California chaparrel and annual grasses habitat in summer at Mt. Diablo state park

California chaparrel and grasses in dry summer landscape

Isn’t the native habitat beautiful enough? Do we want to have gardens here?

Southern California spring landscape with Lupine wildflowers and oak trees. Los Padres National Forest, Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.

California spring landscape with Lupine wildflowers and Oak trees.

Well of course I am biased – I am a gardener. And yes, we certainly do want to have gardens; indeed, we need gardens for so many reasons. Not only are gardens urban and suburban oases that provide habitats, living soil, fresh air, and carbon exchange, they provide so much peace for so many. Gardens are important in a civilized society.

Deck garden room under California live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in afternoon light

Deck as garden room under California Live Oak trees in afternoon light

So yes, we do want to gardens. Not only do we want gardens, we must have them. But in this summer-dry climate how do we sustain them? Dry summers are not drought, it’s normal. How much water can we afford to allocate for gardens in the summers when the plants need it?

Oak trees (Quercus lobata) on Mt. Burdell State Park, Novato, California

Summer-dry, spring green – Oak trees in California hills.

Californians have been suffering through years of drought, and while this winter we have had good rains to store water in the snow pack for the reservoirs, we need to be mindful that it only rains in the winter and we cannot waste water in the hot days of summer.

Fortunately, there are many plants that are adapted to dry summers. Not just our California natives, but plants native to other summer-dry regions of the world such as the Mediterranean and Western Australia. In order for these plants to look good in gardens throughout the summer, many of them need some supplemental water, but the little bit they need is a fair use of our overall water resources.

Grevillea 'Bonfire' red flowering shrub in California summer-dry garden with Agave and Leucadendron salignum by stucco wall; design Jo O'Connell

Summer-dry, Australian, South African and U.S. native plants by stone wall in California garden. Design Jo O’Connell

Agriculture uses 80% of California’s stored water, and is certainly a vital and key component of the economy, but I hope no one questions the need to allocate some water for gardens too. We do want gardens here.

There are many styles of garden that can fit comfortably and aesthetically with little water, assuming we choose plants adapted to summer-dry climates. However, not all of California can be classified as summer dry.

Joshua trees in California Mohave Desert at Walker Pass Road

Joshua trees in California Mohave Desert at Walker Pass Road

Much of southern California is desert with less than 10 inches of rain a year. There certainly can be beautiful gardens in the desert (hooray for succulents) but it is a much different aesthetic from the coastal regions of California with most of the population. Desert gardeners should not rely on the plant palette of the summer-dry regions.

Dasylirion wheeleri (desert spoon, spoon flower, or common sotol) in succulent border backyard garden with Aeonium 'Mint Saucer' blooming yellow and Lithodora and Echinocactus (Barrel Cactus)

Dasylirion (Sotol) in succulent border in California garden. Design Susan Springer

I am a member of the California Native Plant Society and advocate for using our beautiful natives in gardens. I think these are our first choice for gardening, so long as the gardener chooses a native that is actually native to their region.

Consider trees. Redwood trees are from the wet Northwest coastal forests and Joshua trees in the southern deserts – both California natives but neither would survive in the others’ habitat.

Redwood Trees, Sequoia sempervirens, in Muir Woods

Redwood Trees and Joshua Trees – California native Trees

I am a huge fan of Oak trees, the most sustainable of trees which are native throughout the state and. A well sited oak tree can be the signature of a great garden. In this garden of native plants, the oaks were precisely planted in the garden to frame the views.


California outdoor stone patio sitting area under Oaks with native Carex lawn

In this next garden, a small bog pond is planted with reeds and rushes to create a lush oasis under the native oak.

Lounge chairs under shady oak trees in back yard habitat California native plant garden with bog, Schino

Lounge chairs under shady oak trees in California native plant garden with bog. Design Michael Thilgen

Next, native summer-dry shrubs are pruned in a somewhat formal fashion that provides privacy in this front yard garden in southern California.

Small patio secluded by drought tolerant shrubs in Southern California front yard native plant garden

Small patio secluded by native shrubs in Southern California front yard garden.

I think the most adventuresome gardens are a of mix plants from the summer-dry regions of the world. One of my favorites is the nurseryman David Fross’ garden (Native Sons Nursery) who has advocated for summer-dry, adapted plants for many years.

Live Oak tree (Quercus californica) in California meadow garden with wild rye (Helictotrichon sempervirens), rye (Leymus condensatus) David Fross

Live Oak tree and Wild Rye in David Fross’ California meadow garden

And there are plenty of bold choices to using non-native plants. This red flowering Grevillea is from Australia, the beautiful Leucodendron against the wall is from South Africa, and the magnificent silver foliage Agave is an American desert native.

Grevillea 'Bonfire' red flowering shrub in California summer-dry garden with Agave and Leucadendron salignum by stucco wall; design Jo O'Connell

Grevillea ‘Bonfire’ in California summer-dry garden with Agave and Leucadendron

Many wonderful Mediterranean natives are splendid in California gardens and we could hardly do without such herbs as thyme and lavender.

Lavender 'Provence' in xeriscape drought tolerant garden with grass Stipa gigantea.

Lavender ‘Provence’ in xeriscaped summer-dry California garden.

And of course anyone who knows me knows I love the grasses, here next with lavenders under native oaks.

Flowering grasses, Miscanthus sinensis, Lavender, Lavatera and Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' in border garden under native oak

Flowering grasses, Lavender, and Lavatera in California summer-dry garden border. Design Gary Ratway

I have done two entire books about grasses, The American Meadow Garden with John Greenlee and Grasses with Nancy Ondra, so I need not to get started touting grasses for California gardens. But there is no doubt they fit into the aesthetic of summer-dry gardens.

Ornamental grass Stipa arundinacea - (aka. Anemanthele lessoniana) Pheasant's Tail Grass with Stachys and Phormium in colorful drought tolerant garden

Ornamental grass with Stachys and Phormium in colorful California summer-dry garden.

So yes, gardens certain can be adapted to California. I do think they require some supplemental water, but everything any of us do in California requires supplemental water. If we can use plants that are adapted to summer-dry conditions, then the gardeners’ share of the water resources is just as important as farming and flushing. It sustains the beauty of nature we all need.

Gardens? Here in California ? Oh yes !

Follow more blog posts about plants for summer-dry gardens and find a searchable photo database at, and keep abreast of water issues for gardens in California at the California Center for Urban Horticulture.