The No-Water California Garden


Hi friends! Sorry I’ve been so very, very absent–if you’re wondering why, it’s because I wrote a novel called Girl Waits with Gun and that shit is time-consuming. It’s coming out September 1 and I’m going on a book tour that I very much hope puts me in a city near you. Really, you have no idea how much I’d appreciate it if you’d come out and say hello, or cajole some friends who happen to live in Austin or Portland or wherever into going, or both. Last bit of new business and then I promise to move on: If you’re at all interested in pre-ordering a book, it turns out that pre-orders matter quite a lot in this brave new era of publishing, and I’ll send you a little something if you take that bold step. Details here.

OK! On to the subject at hand. I live in Eureka, CA, which is not only at the more terrifying end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone everybody’s talking about, but it also in that state that’s having that big drought we’re also all talking about. Water restrictions are a fact of life here now, as they always should have been. And the kind of gardening I do is suddenly very much in vogue, which is to say that I don’t water at all.

At all. Ever.

Even in a normal year, we get no rain from about May-October. None. Not a drop. That’s just regular California weather.

So I was not all that put off by new watering restrictions that allow me to only water on Tuesdays and Thursdays or whatever it is. Who cares? Why water?

What a lot of people are doing is letting their lawns go brown. I’m totally good with that.

Here’s another option. If this makes you happy, go for it. The dye is some kind of vegetable-based thing that probably doesn’t hurt anything but your pocketbook.

dye on lawn

Here’s what I’ve got going on.

front yard garden no water

Now, this might not be to your taste, and I apologize for the unflattering cell phone snapshot, but you get the idea. Perennials and grasses. Poppies. Stuff like that. This garden gets zero water, as in none, ever. And my secret and highly technical technique for making this work has consisted of the following:

1.  Plant stuff that seems likely to be drought-tolerant.

2.  Wait and see what dies.

3.  Plant more of the stuff that didn’t die.

My friend Scott Calhoun, who designs gardens in Tucson and knows about drought, once said to me (quoting someone else, and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten who), “How do you know it’s drought-tolerant if you water it?”

So that’s what I do.  Now, there are a couple of tricks to making this work. One is to put new plants in the ground in the fall, right as it’s starting to rain, so they have the winter to get established. The other is to give new plants a deep, long watering once every few weeks or so in their first year to help them get established.  For instance, in this garden I have two smallish tibouchinas that I just planted, and those get a few hours of a slow drip from the hose once in a blue moon.

And I will admit that there are a few edibles in pots outside my kitchen door that get water. But very little.

I don’t even want to post a plant list or suggest plants that might be drought-tolerant for you, because it’s really all about your microclimate and your soil. I have a rhododendron in this garden. Are they high on anybody’s drought-tolerant list? I’ve got rose campion that insist on doing well even though they should be dead. I don’t question it–I just plant more of what lives and less of what dies. Over time, the whole thing comes together.

One parting thought for you, if you’re living out here in Drought-Land with me:  My friend Saxon Holt is doing some remarkable things with his Summer Dry website. Please go check it out, and remember, even if El Nino comes and we get inundated with water this winter, we should all be figuring out how to get through the summer without irrigation. It can totally be done. It doesn’t have to look exactly like this, if this is not your thing, but it can look like something lush and interesting and appealing.

Anybody else have a no-water garden out there? I’d love to see some photos.

That is all. Back to Novel-Writing Land I go…


  1. IDK, not watering in summer seems like such a waste. I mean why not use all that lovely greywater to grow some awesome water hungry plants and make your neighbors jealous?

  2. Great post- hooray for no water gardens!. I don’t live in California, but Missoula, Montana, and apart from our vegetable garden, the rest of our landscaping is done with plants native to the Missoula area. The only thing we water is our vegetable garden- the rest hasn’t been watered in up to 15 years, yet we have an interesting, beautiful, and diverse landscape. I’d post some pictures, but I am not sure how- but you can have a look at my blog:

  3. When we were in the forclosure mode a few years ago. Lawns were spray painted green. After about a month, they turned a lovely shade of turquoise.
    Who knows, maybe they’ve improved the formula.

    • Or maybe it depends on which one is used. There’s a lawn in my neighborhood that is a lovely shade of turquoise. Pretty sure it’s not what the owner intended.

  4. Amy, your post makes me feel so much better about my garden beds that have bare spots from perennials that have died over the past two summers from not watering. Not because of the California drought (I’m in Tennessee) but because I wasn’t able to keep up watering twice a week during the summer as I did the previous 10+ years.

    Instead of feeling like I neglected the perennials that died I should be noticing the perennials that love where I planted them!….they are beautiful! I should plant more of these this fall instead of waiting until I can put summer watering back in my schedule!

  5. People have stopped watering in Los Angeles, and as a result the trees are dying, people are covering what used to be greenspace with cheap rocks, and the heat island effect is worsening. Most designers, landscape architects, and local horticulturalists are trying to spread the word that our greenspaces need supplemental water in Southern California – it may be different up north, where the weather is milder. That doesn’t mean that we irrigate as if for lawn, but it does mean a small amount of water is needed to keep our trees, perennials, and shrubbery at least surviving, if not exactly thriving. Planting drought tolerants and non-invasive natives is a part of a smart strategy – as is using gray water and increasing the carbon in our soil. Since California is so big, its climates are incredibly diverse. It is awesome that your garden can look like that on no water – mine would be a dustbowl. It would look just like our native chaparral – dry, crispy, and ready to catch fire!

    • I’m in Sacramento (not milder here, though Eureka certainly is), and we, too, have to water certain things or live with a almost completely brown landscape until November or so. I’ve seen many trees dying, presumably because the owners or caretakers stopped watering them. Yes, the heat island effect is increasing here too. Someday the drought will be over (fingers crossed for this winter being the one), but those 10-20 year old trees that people let die with their lawns won’t come back with the winter rains.

  6. Artificial turf or “painting” the Lawn… Really? Neither is safe for you and the environment. Are we going to put perceived beauty before ecology yet again?

    • The “paint” on the lawn is really a vegetable-based dye. Not harmful to any organisms that are still living in the brick-dry soil, nor in creeks, etc once it runs off into the storm drains.

  7. Our small Oregon county (Hood River) just recently declared a drought emergency. Our mountains, where we get our water from, had less than 30% of the normal snowpack this winter. Our irrigation district dialed us back 25%, and now also has us on rotation, 3 1/2 days on, 3 1/2 days off (yes, farmers too). Our orchard is feeling it, but our vineyard, which has been dryland-farmed for almost 40 years (no water after the first 2-3 establishment years), is fine. Well, it’s a little crispy out there between the vine rows. My landscaping is being watered with gray water, or not at all. Our town is full of brown lawns, but you can see judicious watering of trees and other special perennials. The predicted El Nino that will bring rain to CA this winter will probably keep us mild and dry unfortunately.

    • We’re hoping El Nino will bring rain & snow this winter. After four years of hoping, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. If it does though, here’s hoping you see some of the action too.

  8. Amy,
    You live in Eureka, a coastal town, that likely gets morning fog/overcast. Here in Los Angeles, if I didn’t water my garden ( light sandy soil, but heavily amended & mulched) with many Australian plants, they would up & die. Very few gardens are no water by gardener unless they are in a location with summer fog and/or rainfall.

  9. Ditto what Nina said.
    We install gardens all over the San Francisco Bay area and just by moving a mile or two out of the coastal fog belt the success rate of a non irrigated garden with the same tough as nails plant species is nil. – been there , killed that.
    A fair amount of California native plants , Agaves, Yuccas, a handful of Australian and South African plants will survive and can make a lovely looking garden, but even those will look water stressed by mid to late summer without any minor palliative watering care.
    Stalwarts include Rosemary, certain Salvias, Arctostaphylos, Grevillea, Yuccas, Agaves, Olives, Rhamnus, Ceanothus, Echiums, Westringia
    and Leptospermums.

    • Ditto that Ditto Michelle! I have to tell my clients (mostly a few husbands, who are so eager to cut back on water that their large investment in a great garden is threatened! Yikes!) that there is a big difference between surviving and thriving. In Los Angeles, even coastal gardens are feeling the pinch. Inland, where I live – fuggedaboudit – if it isn’t given water at least once a week, it will die. I haven’t watered my garden in 2 years, to see what could really survive and what would die, and I was amazed by the outcome. Tough natives bit the dust, while a few phormiums are going strong. Most agaves are fine, but many aloes have struggled and died. My Rosa ‘ Mermaid’ is glorious, my echeverias are crispy little balls. This drought is quite the teacher!

  10. Some gardening friends just moved to Tucson and they’ve had to definitey relearn.
    I don’t think I could live in a drought environment. I am too in love with my watered and occasionally fertilized perennial and annual pollinator garden. Unfortunately, water stress results in fewer flowers, less nectar and pollen and with our hotter and drier years, it’s as if the bees and moths look at me and ask for some extra help.

    My watered common milkweed is 8 feet tall this year, had so many blooms that with a slight breeze you could smell them as I rounded the corner two houses up from my house. Loads of bees feasted in the daytime, the moths at night. The common milkweed in the open fields nearby is only 3 feet tall with a few blooms. And, now my agastache, clearly my best plant for the pollinators, is 6 feet tall and there are few vacancies at that diner.

    If my neighbors had any interest in helping out these insects themselves, I probably would back off the care.

    But, I need these insects as much as they need me.

  11. I love your garden ! It rocks. And your friend Saxon Holt is amazing! I live in New Orleans so I’m not too familiar with the plants but they looks gorgeous. Although we have a lot of water down here, we do have problems with plants tolerating the heat. Do you have any recommendations for heat tolerant plants that can will do well with the rain and humidity we have here?

  12. Amy, your garden looks great. But here in the Bay Area, where I’ve been watering very minimally, even plants I considered seriously drought-tolerant are looking pretty scruffy. The worst case is my Brown Turkey fig tree, which has dropped all its leaves and I’m afraid I might lose it. But as others have more or less commented, all gardening is local and California is the land of a bazillion microclimates, so whatever works in your garden is what you should be doing.

  13. I haven’t watered my garden in 30+ years. I also plant only in the fall (October) and do a heavy fall and spring mulch. I never even water the next summer. (I do water briefly until the fall rains begin.) What I’ve learned with this garden (that is also deer resistant – which greatly reduces the list of choices): Plants grow much slower and take a long time to mature. They can often not fill out to the width of irrigated plants. Thus, for full coverage plants need to be planted closer than Sunset’s recommendations unless you want to wait a long time. Sadly, the bloom period is much shorter. I have a test garden where I planted lavender in the ground with almost no water and a lavender in a trough with a very limited amount of daily irrigation. (5-10 minutes with 1/2-gal-per-hour emitters) The trough plant is 3-4 times bigger and blooms for many weeks longer. I’ve had to use many Mediterranean plants as the deer eat many of the natives, if not most. A good exception are native salvias. My theory is that some introduced/exotic plants are more drought resistant than some natives as they come from more extreme climates. Like echiums from the Canary Islands. Any agreement with this last comment? (I don’t know how to post a photo of my garden on this site.)

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