6 Drought-Resistant Landscaping Ideas for Sacramento

purple flowers of Showy Penstemon

If your water bill has gone off the rails, let us help you get it back on track. You can have a beautiful lawn with four-season color and save money on your water bill. We’ve got tips, tricks, and information to help you trim your water bill and maintain your curb appeal.

1. Consider your approach

Are you confused by all of the different terms that surround low-water landscaping? Here are a few you’ve likely heard:

  • Climate-adapted
  • Drought-adapted
  • Drought-tolerant
  • Drought-resistant
  • Low-water
  • Mediterranean
  • Native plants
  • Summer-dry
  • Water-free (a misnomer)
  • Watershed Approach
  • Water smart
  • Water-wise
  • Xeriscape

Overwhelmed yet? As you become more familiar with ways to save water in your landscape, you’ll likely see these terms mentioned frequently. Delving into each of these is beyond the scope of this article, but it helps to know that there are different approaches and strategies to reduce water in your landscape.

So, where should you start? 

Clarify your goals

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How much water do I want to use?

If the answer is, “No supplemental water once the plants are established,” then your plant selection will look different from someone willing to water every week or two. 

  • What other goals do I have for my landscape?
    • Pollinator garden
    • Four-season color
    • Low-maintenance once established
    • Refund from the city’s rebate programs
    • A particular color scheme or garden theme, etc.

As you do more research (Step 2), your vision and goals may become more focused.

  • What is my budget?

Write down a budget. If you later see it is unrealistic, do the project in stages. With the rebates and DIY potential, though, it can be an affordable project for many homeowners.

Do your research

Take time in the summer to do your research and plan your project. Look at local plant lists online, visit the UC Davis Arboretum, and call or visit local plant centers. (See local resources and rebates section below.) If you want to re-do the entire front yard or backyard (or both), consider hiring a landscape design firm or landscape architect to take the brunt of the work off your shoulders. 

Why not plant in the summer? Experts don’t recommend planting in the summer since that is Sacramento’s dry season. Instead, spend that time doing your research, and install new plants in the fall once the rains return. This will reduce or eliminate supplemental watering while the new plants become established, saving you time and money.

Map out your design

If you hire out the work, you can leave this to the experts. If you DIY, grab a pen and paper or pull up the California Native Plant Society’s (CNPS) Calscape Garden Planner to get a basic sketch in four clicks. 

Calscape’s Garden Planner is an interactive guide that will ask for your city, preferred garden style, sun/shade exposure, and gardening priorities. After these four simple questions, you’ll get a few visual layouts and native plant recommendations for your garden. How easy is that?

2. Use hardscapes in your landscape

Before we focus on softscaping (plant life), let’s mention another aspect of home landscapes: hardscaping. Hardscaping is simply the non-living elements in your lawn. Popular hardscaping elements include:

  • Driveways
  • Walkways
  • Stepping stones
  • Seating benches
  • Steps
  • Fences
  • Boulders
  • Outdoor kitchens, fire pits, eating areas
  • Walls, etc.

So, how does hardscaping relate to drought-resistant landscaping? Well, it doesn’t require any water, and hardscapes are essential for most lawns. Moreover, it’s important to be smart about the hardscaping you install. 

If you want to cover the ground with concrete, stones, or other materials, consider pavers or otherwise leave spaces in between bits of stone or concrete. This will allow water a place to sink into the ground rather than runoff into the stormwater system. These strategies are essentially one form of permeable hardscaping. Other options include decomposed granite for walkways and patios or manufactured permeable systems for home hardscaping, to name a few. 

As proponents of the Watershed Approach explain it, try to keep the water that falls on your property on your property, either by water collection or by having the water go back into the soil. As the water permeates the soil, the microbes in the soil and plants clean the water before it is released back into the air via your plants or enters waterways. This reduces the pollution burden on your local stormwater system and provides natural rainwater for your plants.

So, not only is hardscaping a key functional element in your lawn, if done well, it can help you retain more water on your property.

3. Install native plants

If you live in California, you’ve probably heard about native plants. Native plants are plants that have become acclimated to the area’s climate and conditions and are touted to bring many benefits to local lawns including:

  • Use less water than most non-native plants
  • Invite beneficial insects (butterflies, bees) and wildlife
  • Require less or no fertilizer and chemicals
  • Require less maintenance than non-natives
  • Help maintain the balance of the local ecosystem

What’s not to love? 

One thing to note: Native doesn’t always mean ”very low water” or “no water once established.” Even though they normally use much less water than grass or other thirsty plants, know a plant’s water requirements before you buy. If you want plants that survive on natural rainfall (or lack thereof), you won’t want to buy a plant that prefers a good drench once per week in the summer. 

Here are a few California native plants that fit the low-water bill:

4. Group by water needs

Whether you use a sprinkler system or enjoy hand-watering your plants, this is smart garden advice. Design the landscape so that plants with high, medium, and low (or no) supplemental water needs are grouped together. This is called hydrozoning and helps reduce or eliminate wasted water, time, and energy. 

5. Mulch your garden

Mulch is anything that covers the soil surface. In desert gardens, this is usually rocks; in other climates, it is anything from newspaper, bark mulch, grass clippings, or pine straw, to name a few. 

Mulch is valuable in most climates, but especially in areas with drought. Why? Here are a few reasons mulch is a popular ground cover:

  • Reduces erosion
  • Moderates temperature swings
  • Reduces soil moisture loss
  • Reduces weeds
  • Feeds the soil as it breaks down

Still aren’t convinced? Think about the textural options you have. Bark, rocks, and straw each contribute a different aesthetic to your garden. And don’t forget about the many color choices: black, brown, white, grey, and red. Rocks also come in different textures, sizes, and colors. 

Consider your mulch to be the canvas upon which you’ll build your drought-tolerant tapestry. Your creativity is your only limitation.

6. Reduce the grass

If you’re nervous about removing your lawn, try reducing the lawn first. Then, if you like the results, you can always remove more grass. Start small, in other words.

There are many reasons to reduce the amount of grass in your lawn. 

  • Less grass means less water use for your home
  • Lower water bill
  • Less mowing, maintenance, fertilizer, and chemicals
  • No more brown, crunchy lawn
  • Go from monochromatic to multi-chromatic
  • More opportunities to encourage pollinators, wildlife 
  • Add four-season colors through shrubs, perennials, trees, and so forth

According to Sacramento sustainability program manager Roshini Das, up to 60% of a home’s water use goes into the landscape. Reducing or eliminating the lawn and replacing it with plants that use no supplemental irrigation means you reduce your water use (and water bill) by that amount.

Tips to manage drought in your Sacramento landscape

Drought in California’s Central Valley is nothing new. Whether you live in Folsom or Fair Oaks, Rocklin or Roseville, Granite Bay or Eldorado Hills, drought-tolerant landscaping is not a fad. Here are a few tips to help your landscape thrive in these challenging times.

Plan ahead

Since you know your plants won’t get rainfall for about six months of the year, plan for that. If you want to install plants that will need water every week or every few weeks, plan to install a greywater or rain collection system. If you want to do zero supplemental watering, only install plants that will survive in your area on fall and winter rains.

Even with the best planning, sometimes plants will die. Don’t sweat it. Instead, use that as an opportunity to experiment with a different plant (or the same plant in a different microclimate in your lawn). Or, plant more of the ones that are successful in that spot.

Greywater or rain barrel system

Greywater systems not only qualify for a city rebate, they are a great water-saving way to reuse this natural resource. You’ll have to use a biodegradable, low-salt detergent and a few other details, but it’s a great option to consider, especially for ornamental plants. Vegetable gardens get a bit trickier, but for ornamentals, it’s fine. If you use rain barrels, those can be used on veggie and ornamental plants.

Go lean with fertilizer

Most native plants need very little if any fertilizer. In addition, that extra growth will mean higher water needs. To keep things low-water and low-maintenance, focus on plants that don’t need this kind of intervention to thrive.

Irrigate wisely

If you have plants that need irrigation every so often, make sure your irrigation system is not wasting any of this precious resource. 

  • Plant and water in zones

Install plants with similar water needs together. Set your irrigation system to give just enough water to each zone.

  • Maintain your system

Have your irrigation company do regular maintenance on your irrigation system. Make sure you’re not watering the sidewalks, and use tuna cans to measure each zone before the dry season. This will ensure you use the right amount of water without waste or excess.

Local resources and rebates

Check out their numerous resources, including:

–Helpful plant lists 
–Local plant sales 
–Local nurseries
–Webinar recordings
–And much more

FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping

1. How long until my plants become established?

It depends. Some say a full year for perennials (trees and shrubs take longer), but it depends on the plant and how quickly it will establish roots. If you’re planting in the fall, it will likely need regular watering (rainfall or supplemental) in the fall and spring. Once summer arrives, keep an eye on it. If you see signs of distress, it likely still needs supplemental water.

2. Are there other benefits of drought-tolerant landscaping?

You’ll not only conserve water resources (and money) when you install water-wise landscaping. Here are a few other perks you may enjoy:

Less outdoor maintenance
More enjoyment from your landscape
More aesthetic interest and color (not a cookie-cutter lawn)
Customize landscape to complement your home (curb appeal)
Low-water landscapes are a selling point for homebuyers
Wel-maintained and well-designed landscapes add long-term value 

3. Are succulents low-water plants?

Succulents are usually considered low-water-use plants and are often used in xeriscaping and other low-water landscaping. However, most do require watering periodically, more often in the summer, and usually much less or no supplemental irrigation in the winter. 

There are some that, once established, don’t need water just south in Southern California, including some cacti, agave, dasylirion, and yucca. Since the Sacramento area is north of there, you may be able to try these to see if they’ll work with zero watering in your area.

If you’re still hanging on to a part of your lawn, contact one of our Sacramento lawn care pros to mow (or paint) the lawn and keep it looking lush year-round.

Main Photo Credit: Thayne Tuason | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.