Although Los Angeles County isn’t technically a desert (it has a Mediterranean climate), Southern California is seriously threatened by drought. In fact, water officials enacted new drought rules at the start of 2022 in an effort to reduce water waste statewide.
You can still have a nice landscape and cut water use. Our guide to drought-resistant landscaping will help save you money, benefit the environment, and create a backyard paradise of beauty and function.
Hardscaping includes all the nonliving elements of your lawn. Think of things made of brick, concrete, metal, and rock. The best thing about hardscaping? It doesn’t require any water (except for an occasional cleaning).
Hardscaping doesn’t have to be boring, either. Beautiful benches, colorful tiled walkways, and modern fire pits create vibrant and welcoming places for friends and family to gather.
Hardscaping ideas for your yard:
- Stepping stones
- Outdoor kitchens and fire pits
- Retaining walls
For maximum water efficiency, you want to create a permeable hardscaping design. This means arranging your materials in a way that allows water to sink into the ground instead of running off into the stormwater system (which is already overburdened with polluted water). Your soil is basically a free water purification system. The microbes in the ground and the plants in the soil clean it before it’s released back into the air or re-enters waterways.
If you decide to install anything that covers the ground like a walkway or patio, consider using pavers so you can leave space for rainwater to make contact with the soil. You also can use decomposed granite for permeable hardscaping.
Cost: Hardscaping costs vary widely depending on project type, size, and materials. A patio costs between $570 to $8,000, and a deck ranges from $4,000 to $11,000. Pathways, on the other hand, cost between $7 and $24 per square foot.
2. Rock garden
If you want to incorporate hardscaping and impress your guests, build a rock garden. A rock garden is a drought-tolerant landscaping feature that uses boulders, pebbles, and all different colors and sizes of rocks to create a serene area to relax.
Be creative by mixing and matching different textures, shapes, and hues. You can install a pergola covered with vines to act as a beautiful entryway to your rock garden. Drought-tolerant plants like succulents, ground cover, and mulch provide splashes of life amid boulders.
Before you build, make sure your soil is up to par. Rock gardens require well-draining soil, so if your ground has a lot of clay, you may need to amend it with compost and sand.
To determine what kind of soil you have, try the squeeze test:
- Grab a handful of damp soil.
- Squeeze it in your palm, then prod it.
- If it falls apart, you have loamier (well-draining) soil. If it stays clumped together, your soil has high clay content.
Pro Tip: Look for local rock suppliers so you don’t end up paying hundreds of dollars in delivery fees.
Cost: Rock garden installation ranges from $400 to $1,000, depending on how many boulders or specialty colors you incorporate.
3. Native plants
Native plants are resilient and adapted to the California climate. That means even moisture-loving plants can usually survive dry spells, making them perfect for a drought-tolerant garden. Plus, they don’t need as much maintenance as most perennials.
Benefits of native plants include:
- Attract pollinators like birds, bees, and butterflies
- Require little or no fertilizer
- Uses less water than imported plants
A note on water: Native plants are low-maintenance, but they do still need watering. Look for succulent varieties if you want your plants to survive on rainfall alone. Don’t forget that all plants need more water as they’re getting established (after you first plant them).
Find an extensive list of options from the California Native Plant Society here. These are a few ideas to get you started with water-wise California native plants:
- Chalk Dudleya (succulent)
- San Diego sedge (grass)
- Deergrass (grass)
- California aster (flower)
- California wildrose (flower)
- Foothill penstemon (flower)
- California poppy (flower)
- Golden currant (shrub)
- Brickell bush (shrub)
- Toyon (shrub)
- Big leaf maple (tree)
- Coast live oak (tree)
Cost: Professional installation for native plants costs $3.50-$15.50 per square foot.
4. Water wisely
How we water our landscape has a significant impact on our water usage. Using a traditional spray sprinkler system, for example, can result in serious water loss due to evaporation, runoff, and simply missing its target.
How do you design a smart watering system? You want to make your irrigation as targeted as possible, which is why drip irrigation is the best system for a water-wise landscape. Drip irrigation is more than 90% efficient versus traditional sprinkler systems that are 50%-70% efficient.
Another way to maximize your drought resistance is to group plants by water needs. This is called hydrozoning. Planting flowers and shrubs that have similar watering schedules helps reduce wasted water and time. If you have slopes in your front yard, install thirsty plants toward the bottom to collect maximum rainfall and plants with low water requirements toward the top.
More tips for watering wisely:
- Water early in the morning (before 10 a.m.)
- Adjust for rainfall
- Scale back your watering schedule during the winter months
- Audit your irrigation system twice a year
Cost: Professionally installed drip irrigation costs between $1.50 and $4.75 per square foot. If you want to DIY, a kit costs around $20, although the true cost will depend on the size of the area you’re irrigating.
Mulch isn’t just wood chips; it’s anything that covers the ground’s surface. In fact, mulch is meant to mimic the natural blanket of organic material that forms on forest floors.
There are two types of mulch: organic and inorganic. Organic mulch decomposes and adds nutrients as it breaks down, and includes things like wood chips and pine needles. Inorganic mulch doesn’t break down and includes things like rubber, landscape fabric, and stones.
Mulch is especially beneficial in drought-prone climates. These are a few ways it helps keep your backyard ecosystem healthy:
- Reduces erosion
- Prevents extreme soil temperatures
- Supplies the soil with beneficial nutrients as it breaks down (organic mulch)
- Suppresses weeds
- Reduces soil moisture loss
Get creative with your mulch and think about what might complement your existing landscape features. You can use bark, rocks, straw, grass clippings, compost, or even newspaper. If you’re concerned about fire-safe landscaping, opt for something that won’t ignite, such as rocks or brick chips.
Cost: Mulch ranges from $15.50 to $75 per cubic yard or $2 to $6 per bag. Higher-quality mulch will be more expensive.
6. Replace grass
We know a lush, green lawn is a homeowner’s dream. A yard full of turfgrass isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, though. In a climate that doesn’t get a lot of rainfall, maintaining a traditional lawn requires a lot of time, effort, and most importantly, water. In California, lawn irrigation accounts for 40%-60% of total landscape irrigation.
If you want to lower your water use but still want a yard full of green, you can shrink your lawn to a more sustainable size and compensate with a rock garden or a rain garden. There are also two great options for fully replacing grass: ground cover and artificial turf.
Ground cover doesn’t get as much stardom as grass, but it can be even better. Forget about cranking up your mower every Saturday – a lot of ground covers take care of themselves. They also stabilize soil against erosion, thrive in sandy and clay soils, and thrive in shade.
Popular California ground covers:
- Canyon gray sagebrush
- Carmel creeper
- El Dorado gold fremontia
- Point Sal spreader sage
- Broad-leaved stonecrop
All of the above ground covers are drought-resistant plants native to California.
Artificial grass isn’t just for the putt-putt course. It can provide you with a perfectly manicured lawn with almost none of the maintenance. The cost up-front can be expensive, but you’ll save time and energy in the long run.
Artificial turf is made of heat-resistant, plastic fibers that are woven into a backing and attached to a shock-absorbing pad. Synthetic grass requires weekly raking and brushing as well as regular washing with an antibacterial solution.
Ways to customize your artificial turf:
- Pile height
- UV-stabilized coatings
- Sanitizing technology
- Urethane backing
- Non-absorbent fiber for pets
Cost: A professional will install ground cover for $3.50 to $15.50 per square foot including materials and labor. Artificial grass costs between $5 to $19 per square foot.
FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping
Yes and no. Artificial turf releases microplastics into local waterways and can hurt local biodiversity. Some turf is made from recycled materials like tires, though. Unlike traditional turfgrass, artificial grass does not need harmful pesticides and herbicides. Finally, it greatly reduces your landscape’s water needs.
Although both have qualities in common, they’re not the same. Elements of a landscape that don’t require a lot of water aren’t necessarily ignition-proof. Not all native plants, for example, are fire-resistant. The placement of plants and hardscaping also plays a larger role when it comes to protecting your home from a fire.
Drought-resistant and drought-tolerant are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. A drought-tolerant plant is able to survive with only a little water for a short period. A drought-resistant plant can survive without any water for a longer stretch.
Yes! A rain barrel is an excellent way to utilize rainwater and repurpose it for gardening. You can pick one up at most local hardware stores. Remember not to drink the water or give it to your pets.
Water-wise landscaping with a pro
You might be excited about turning your landscape into a center of water conservation, but are you excited about the work required to get there? Enjoy saving money, water, and energy with drought-resistant design without sacrificing your afternoons by contacting a Los Angeles Lawn Love professional.
Main Photo Credit: klimkin | Pixabay