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Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

Now that Governor Brown has issued the first-ever statewide mandates on water use, many of us are looking at our gardens through a new lens. How can we can reduce the amount of water they use? What are the most drought-tolerant plants? Should we ditch the lawn altogether?

Sunset’s brand new Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings, subtitled “The Ultimate Guide to Low-Water Beds, Border, and Containers” has come along at just the right time to answer those questions and help arm us for the dry seasons ahead. The book is edited by Sunset Magazine’s Garden Editor, Kathy Norris Brenzel. We spoke with Brenzel to learn more.

The new book couldn’t be more timely given new state-mandated water restrictions being imposed because of the drought. How seriously do you think gardeners in the West take the need to conserve water?


Most homeowners are taking the drought very seriously. I see it every day: browning lawns, lawns being removed and replaced with mulch and low, widely spaced shrubs or unthirsty perennials. The local hardware store sold out of buckets of all sizes recently — people were using them to collect shower water. Landscape designers tell me that they’re getting lots of requests for unthirsty front-yard meadows, and for succulent gardens. 
The new book demonstrates myriad ways to plant low-water and drought-tolerant landscapes. What is the the most common thing you see gardeners do to reduce their water use?

They’re removing the front  lawn (often the back lawn, too), and replacing it with  drought-tolerant plants or permeable paving such as decomposed granite, with little islands of drought tolerant plants here and there. Fall, when temperatures are cooling, is the best time for major landscaping, though.

Any plant (except maybe succulents and cacti) needs water to establish roots, especially in summer. Now is a great time to plan, though, and to keep existing trees and shrubs, going with a couple of slow, deep soaks in early morning. Or plant a tired corner with a few tough Mediterranean shrubs, such as silvery Lamb’s ears, Purple coneflowers, yellow-flowered Achillea ‘Moonshine’, and deep pink Salvia buchananii ‘Wendy’s Wish’s and Penstemon ‘Arabesque Violet,’ as in the little garden at Sunset (pictured, top).

Lawns are typically seen as the most glaring culprits when it comes to consuming water — is that actually the case?

Yes, most lawn grasses need lots of water to stay green — more than other plants in the garden. There are exceptions, though: deep-rooted fescues and native grasses such as hair grass (Deschampsia) need less water to look good. Also Eco-Lawn, a mixture of fescues, used here in a Menlo Park Garden:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

Is it possible to create a garden that requires no water whatsoever in the Berkeley/East Bay area which is our focus? Using only succulents for example?

Absolutely. The combo of succulents, a few small shrubs, and permeable paving is tough to beat, as this garden below demonstrates. Designers Lauren Dunec Hoang and Johanna Silver call it “Palm springs style meets Northern California.” Yucca recurvifolia fills low bowls; columnar cacti grow in big pots. Succulents also edge the little water bowl in foreground, for visiting birds. A ground cover of precut pavers and decomposed granite add to the spare but dramatic garden:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

What are the alternatives to lawns if you still want an expanse of some type of grass?

Red fescue creates a soft, wavy effect if you don’t mow it. California meadow sedge (Carex pansa) is another good choice if you don’t plant to walk on it too much. Or plant Blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’), used with feathery blue Senecio talinodes for a gorgeous rug effect. Or a grid of mounding grasses, such as this slender veldt grass (Pennisetum spathiolatum), pictured below:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

The book is full of gorgeous-looking borders, beds, and containers. You emphasize the low-maintenance aspect but are they mostly relatively easy to create too, or is it wise to bring in a professional gardener?

Easiest plantings to do yourself would be the smaller borders, path fringes, and container plantings in the book; use the photos as your guide. For larger garden redos, I’d suggest consulting with a landscape architect or designer. That’s what the owner of the garden pictured below did when she decided to remove her lawn on a corner lot. She gathered images of unthirsty plants she liked, then asked designer Rebecca Sweet to pull it all together. Sweet chose frosty blue Dymondia margaretae for the “lawn, with islands of ‘Bronze Carpet’ sedum and mounding Carex divulsa dotting it, and toughies such as rose-flowered Centranthus ruber, blue penstemons, and silvery white lambs ears edging it. The effect is cool and colorful — and bees and butterflies love it!

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

What’s an easy first project for someone who wants to make a start with gardening but has little experience?

Plant a container, like the tabletop desert designed by Lauren Dunec Hoang, pictured below. The 11-inch diameter bowl contains five tiny barrel cactus surrounded by five tiny by clusters of thimble cactus, with a mulch of tiny black pebbles. Once you get the hang of smaller plantings, try something bigger.

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

There are presumably trends and fashions in gardening. What do you see as being popular now?

Designers are getting lots of requests for small-home meadows, which blend grasses with native wildflowers or succulents such as aloes. Colorful water-wise shrubs are trending now, too, from Coprosma, purple smokebush, to natives such as California lilac (Ceanothus). People can’t get enough of succulents, which is why we filled this little garden at Sunset (pictured below) with them. Blue green Calandrinia spectabilis mingles in foreground with blue pickle and grassy blue fescue, around tall rosettes of Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

Any personal favorite gardening schemes in the book?

My favorite is a border that contains mostly colorful shrubs (variegated Cistus corbariensis ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, plum-hued Loropetalum chinense ‘Purple Pixie’, and red-tinged nandinas, green Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’); grasses and grasslike plants (lime- colored Carex ‘Everillo’, blue fescues, smoldering Cordyline Design-a-Line’ Burgundy’ and frosty blue green Astelia chathamica x ’Silver Shadow’, and a single perennial —  coral- flowered Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame’. We planted this border at Sunset, using our favorites from the Sunset plant collection. It’s so easy to tend, and all the plants are tough and unthirsty:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

Anything else that you’d like to mention?

The key to any easy-care, water-wise garden is to choose plants that are adapted to your climate, site, and the conditions on your property  (soil, sun or shade, exposure). This is the book’s central theme, touted in the Introduction and carried throughout its pages. Colin Miller, the designer of the Danville garden (pictured below) for example, let the natural grassland vegetation on the rolling hills beyond the back fence inspire the garden’s design, with tiered plantings of lavender, penstemons, trailing rosemary, and grasses mingling on the tiered slope:

Photo: Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings

Sunset’s Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings is available at independent bookstores as well as online.

This article is part of Berkeleyside’s ongoing drought coverage. Read more about water conservation in the series.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...