I Never Water This



Okay, so before you get all “you people in California can do anything,” let me just say that we all have our challenges, garden-wise.  Here in Eureka, my challenge is that it never, ever gets warm (today’s temps are high of 62, low of 54, and I am wearing a sweater as I type this), and it doesn’t rain all summer.  Not once.  We might get mist, we might get fleeting moments of drizzle, but it last rained in late May and we probably won’t see enough water to penetrate to the root zone again until October or November.  Maybe December.

So a few years ago, my friend Scott Calhoun (quoting someone else, and I’m sorry I can’t remember who that was) said, “How do you know it’s drought-tolerant if you keep watering it?” and I thought, oh yeah.  I should just stop watering. Period.  At all.  Forever.

So I did.

What happened next was a sort of survival-of-the-fittest competition. I guess some things died–I didn’t really pay attention.  Some things self-sowed. I get great orange California poppies every year, and for whatever reason the Verbena bonariensis just marched to the front of the border all by itself–I swear I didn’t do it.  Other things probably just got swallowed up, I don’t know.

I didn’t even do the whole “give it supplemental water the first year and then leave it alone” thing.  I just planted in early winter, when rain starts, and explained that they’d need to be well-rooted by June, because that’s when the spigot turns off.  Sure, they sulked through the summer, but after a couple years, they got the message and grew up big and strong.

Once it starts raining in the winter, I might go out and dig up one of the more successful plants, divide it, and stick it back in the ground in a larger mass.  But now I’m not even going to do that anymore.  I feel like this thing is pretty much done.

There is no weeding.  Sometimes a blackberry vine will make its way through the jungle and head upward, gasping for air–those get cut down, but that’s about it.

There probably should be more deadheading than there is, but–whatever.  I’ll get around to it. Maybe.

I think it looks pretty durn nice, and it’s highly unusual for me to have a garden that I consider “finished”–but I like it.  Most of all, I like that it’s a response to my specific, weird climate.  Through a lot of trial and error, I figured out what grows here with no interference from me and I planted a lot of that.

And by the way, these are not necessarily top-selling plants  at local nurseries or mainstays of local landscapers.  Some of them are, but others (like that absurdly huge angelica) are just impulse buys from specialty nurseries or big-city garden shows that turned out to be curiously vigorous.

Your climate is probably not my climate. (Be grateful for that.) So what grows without interference for you?  What would it be like to fill a front yard with those plants?



  1. Ooh, thanks for the inspiration! I’m in Indiana and have been thinking of planting “drought tolerant” prairie plants on the south side of my house.

    • Do it! I’m in IN too and my natives have thrived in our drought. Right now most nurseries by me have their grasses on sale, so it’s a good time to buy.

  2. l live in NYC on Staten Island- Zone 7A and I never water my lilacs, lavender, boxwoods, sedum, arborvitae or irises. They don’t seem to like it! 🙂 This year we had much less rain than usual so there were weeks that I thought about it – but used what I had to on my containers and roses instead! Actually even then I didn’t water my ground cover roses (which are 3 ft high). They stopped producing flowers for a bit but then started again when the rain came back!

  3. I have several beds I never water (though I did water to establish them because we don’t have a standard rainy season to plant in). They look pretty good–better than my cottage garden, which I am struggling to drag through the August heat.

    In the Intermountain West, I highly recommend Bob Nold’s “High and Dry” as a guide for truly dry gardens.

  4. I like that you’ve turned the yard into a Darwinian Thunderdome – survive on your own merits or perish. Being a former California resident I totally understand your plight. People tend to think that the weather there is perfect, but no rain for 6 months a year can really present its own set of challenges.

    I moved from Southern California (Zone 10) to North Dakota (Zone 3) and have had to pretty much relearn everything I thought I knew about plants. It’s been challenging but fun.

  5. The hubby busted the hose bib on the outside of my house, and my Little Gremlins love to empty the rain barrels and create streams running down the backyard, so I’ve inadvertantly adopted the “survival of the fittest” practice in my front yard. Couldn’t really water, even if I wanted to. Luckily, we’ve had killer heat, but no serious drought this year, so everything seems to be doing well. Throttling back on the “Controlling Gardener” thing a bit does wonders for your stress level, and the enjoyment of your garden, too. I was very surprised to learn this.

  6. It’s an absolutely beautiful yard. Maybe you could follow up with a plant list? Up until this year, I let most of my beds go without watering and they did fine. This year’s drought and heat made me give in, however. I hope to go back to the no watering (except for new plants) status quo.

  7. Gorgeous mature garden, Amy. I am working toward the same goal here in Southern California, where we are borderline desert. My plants get water when they are new and they have to have masses of mulch. It gets hot and dry here. (Only plants that get regular water are those that give me food.) My inspiration was originally England’s Beth Chatto and her Dry Garden. BTW she lives in a very low rainfall part of England. I have found Olivier Filippi’s “The Dry Gardening Handbook” fantastic. It answers “what plant work best in dry conditions and what practices will ensure that they survive?” He gardens in the Mediterranean area. Also useful for those areas with less sun is Graham Rice’s “Planting the Dry Shade Garden”.

  8. My native prairie gardens survived the heat and drought of the midwest this summer magnificently without a drop of supplemental water. I live in the Chicago area.
    Various yellow daisies–Silphium, Rudbeckia, Helianthus–plus Blazing Star, Rattlesnake Master, Prairie Baby’s Breath, Royal Catchfly, Wild Petunia, Wine Cups are all in bloom.

  9. I’m trying to do the same thing here on the NH seacoast. i’m looking for drought-resistant plants because we often have really dry summers and this year has been a doozy! I water like mad the first year to get plants established, but after that, I don’t water the echinacea, day lilies, crookneck loosestrife, butterfly bushes and sedum groundcovers. The astilbes are another issue – they don’t seem to like being thristy.

    LOVE the verbena bonariensis – I can’t find any locally even though I see it in other people’s gardens. Maybe some will “volunteer” in my garden!

  10. Very nice. i am wondering what it would look like in the humid zone5/6 Ohio. In the winter. You don’t whack anything down? You don’t cut off dead things? They just stay there year after year.? Show us a picture in another season.

  11. If it’s in the ground I don’t water really at all. Maybe when I first plant something, if I remember. We are on a well and I just can’t have plants that need to be watered, like you, it’s survival of the fittest and do they ever have to be fit. Trees are the primary competition for anything I plant, great big huge trees that suck the water out of the ground. It’s been dry this year, but for the most part everything has survived, mostly. I want what you have though..I want to be done and just enjoy it!

  12. In some ways, my garden is similar. In 2006, I couldn’t water for 10 months through the summer. In 2007, I didn’t tend the plants either, but it rained a lot. Basically, my plants went without care for 2 years, and after I cleared out the weeds in 2008, I was surprised at what survived.

    However, many of the plants I absolutely love like more water than what my part of Texas offers. I garden on caliche. In some places I have 4″ of soil and in others I have no soil, only limestone plus lots of drought, heat, and sometimes humidity.

    I am also not partial to agaves, sotolos, yuccas, and cacti. I want a cottage garden–and I am doing it with natives and drought-tolerant plants.

    The plants that didn’t get water from me in last year’s drought were turk’s cap, bush germander, desert willow, cotoneaster, esparanza, zexmania, yaupon holly, coral vine, iris, mock orange, Mexican oregano, crinum, Mexican honeysuckle, boneset, salvia greggii, mealy blue sage, cenizo, chives, Mountain Laurel, and Bermuda grass (yuk!). I’d hoped the Bermuda grass had died, but I wasn’t that lucky.

  13. This is the way we NEED to garden, now and into the future! I’ve been doing this for a couple decades in my southern VT gardens. “Finished” means plants are matched to and in balance with the site resources of soil fertility, water and light. I’m glad you are “publishing” rethinking the resources we continue to add to our site: water, annual fertilizer/compost. So many gardeners get on autopilot re: adding these inputs. . .

    • Absolutely! No unnecessary watering. No perennials ever get watered in NY state
      zone 6a. Lately, I’ve only watered the Clematis because it needs regular moisture and we’re in drought-mode right now. Everything else looks fine.

      Great post. Your garden looks great.
      Yes, what grasses are those?

  14. Since we have a well, I never (well, hardly ever) water the ornamental gardens. I do water after planting for a brief while. We have had a droughty summer and while most plants are not as lush, they are surviving. We do have the benefit of cooler nights. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought those Japanese irises, though.

  15. Another request for a plant list! Especially for the third photo – what’s that magenta flower peeking from behind the big reddish strappy plant? I’m new to the area and establishing a garden right up the road from yours. Trial and error is all well and good, and there will be plenty of it, but I’d like to put in a least a few things that are likely to survive.

  16. Amy: Leave it to Scott to cut to the chase. I’ve long harbored the idea of asking my design clients to experiment with putting their gardens on a severe survival regimen, but the idea of spending a chunk of change on a new garden, then putting them on short rations and watching Darwin have his way with them wasn’t the kind of advice I wanted to pass along. Good to see your lovely border.

  17. Leave it to me to buy $700 worth of perennials and plant then have 7 weeks of above normal and no rain! Luckily we amended our sandy soil and mulched but still lots o water sucked out of the well. What I notice that does well in my sandy soil without much water are asiatic lilies. Lavender too, salvia’s, and the goldenrods as well as other native plants. This was a tough summer those weeks without rain. I’m glad we use a well. The lawn took a bit hit though.

  18. Hmmm….there’s two beds I don’t water anymore, and one I haven’t watered since the soaker hose nozzle came off last fall. A fair number of natives, like goldenrods, mountain mint, black-eyed susans, a few grasses…the Walker’s Low catmint, hardy lantana, the Salvia greggi…maybe a couple of sedums. We get so much rain in spring and the summers have been murder recently, so what survives the drought may rot in spring, and what loves wet feet may roast in summer.

    I’d like to get it down to Complete Non-Coddling Status, but the garden is still young enough at four years to be a work in progress, and some things require staking no matter how much I swear I am done with staking forever.

  19. Excellent post with a great idea, and your garden looks great.
    We do need a plant list, is that a red Phormium?

  20. I love it. I totally do this as well. One of the amazing things about the mediterranean climate is the diversity of plants from the different mediterrean climate zones around the world.
    If you spend some time searching for good nurseries in CA you can have an amazing garden with amazing plants few people can grow- a unique seasonal garden that is totally tough.
    I am so against babying your plants, in my mind it is key to find the right plant to that fits the unique microclimates in your garden, rather than trying to change the soil water and climate to fit your plants. That is a fight which everyone eventually loses.

  21. Given that I hate the lawn & have some serious issues with the current drip & drainage systems, maybe this the way I should go. Turn off the water & see what lives.

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