Fall gardening: 4 drought-busting plant combos for a cooler planet

September 24, 2015 | By | Comments (5)

A dead lawn and water-starved plants are not environmentally responsible reactions to the drought. (Andrea Hurd)

Not to beat a dead lawn, but as summer temperatures were rising after two winters in a row of very low rainfall, the drought was never far from our minds in the West. So we reduced how often we watered our gardens … and lawn-shaming became a sport. But here’s the rub: Not watering our gardens—and allowing them to die—only heats up the planet faster. So if you’re thinking about planting a fall garden that will thrive and conserve water at the same time, choose native plants that are “unthirsty” once established. Here are some of my favorite combos:

Drought resistant plants on a stone wall.

Native succulents (Dudleya), Pelargoniums, and Rubus pentalobus ‘Emerald Carpet’ on a stone wall. (Andrea Hurd)

1. Trick the eye with deep greens
These bright plants only look lush as they spill over a stacked natural-stone wall.

drought resistant plant mix

Yarrow, manzanita, lavender, yucca, and Verbena bonariensis make a dense cover that, once established, requires very little water. (Andrea Hurd)

2. Combine different types and heights of plants
A combo of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs will help you establish a green cover while reducing the total amount of water your garden needs. Note: Because these varied varieties have different water needs, working with them in a side-by-side grouping requires a bit of know-how—but experimenting and learning are exciting parts of gardening.

native penstemon

Pollinators’ dream: native Penstemon. (Andrea Hurd)

3. Be butterfly-friendly with native nectar providers
There are many species of Penstemons and Salvias that provide nectar for butterflies—and pretty flowers for us—over long periods of time during the summer and into the fall. Once established, they use far less water than non-native flowering perennials. Why? They are adapted to our seasonal cycles of wet winters and dry summers. So even though our past two winters have been increasingly dry, Western natives will persevere because they long ago figured out how to survive in dry conditions.

Many grasses—both native and non-native—are incredibly successful in a drought. Shown here: Festuca ‘Idaho Blue’, Sporobulus aeiroides, and Carex testacea. (Andrea Hurd)

4. Plant more grass—native grass
Whether as a meadow or a border, native grasses such as Fescue, Carex, Agrostis, and Deschampsia will all survive on minimal monthly watering once established. Pepper in some native flowers such as California poppy, Clarkia, and Mimulus for a spectacular garden show that will flower from February through November.

All of these plants will stay lush with little water—and help to keep our planet cooler without taxing its resources.

Guest blogger Andrea Hurd is the award-winning landscape designer behind the Bay Area’s Mariposa Gardening & Design.


  1. Kari

    I live in Southern California about 2 miles from the coast. I am looking for the kind of low water plants to use as I remove the sunny front yard, also the shady area next to the north side of the garage. I am disappointed because I have crused through several Sunset slide shows with nice pictures but only 2 or 3 pictures with the names of the plants included and pictures that make it hard to distinguish what kind of plants are used.
    There does not seem to be accurate information about the newest kinds of drip watering available or how to install it. I have been a sunset subscriber since the 1970’s.
    I do not understand why the company makes it so difficult to find the helpful information people need. The slide shows seem to be an advertisement for the landscaper that produced the garden. All good but I want to do it myself.
    A list of names of plants without the amount of sun and soil and no pictures is not very helpful. A zone area is not always helpful either be

    November 20, 2016 at 4:38 pm
  2. Melissa Dawn

    I live in Eastern Washington Kennewick area and its dry desert winters can be raining icy but cloudy icky days what grows here?

    October 4, 2016 at 7:22 pm
  3. diane

    These are good if you live in a mile climate but most of these die back and go dormant or look ratty during the winter in Northern CA valleys leaving my yard looking derelict.

    March 22, 2016 at 8:09 am
  4. Malana Watt Corn

    Tucson, AZ is much drier than Phoenix . Seeking landscape ideas for very hot and dry lower desert Arizona, please.

    March 2, 2016 at 2:56 pm
  5. 4 Drought-Tolerant Plants to Add to Your Garden

    […] a look at this gallery at Sunset for […]

    February 17, 2016 at 1:48 pm

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