Explaining the benefits
For Jennifer Orr, owner of Jennifer Orr Landscape Design in Austin, Texas, drought-tolerant landscaping is a way of life.
“You have to think of drought tolerance in Austin, or else it’s just not going to work,” she says. “And it’s important because water is becoming so scarce.”
But for Orr and many other landscaping professionals, it can sometimes be difficult to get clients to understand what drought-tolerant landscaping entails since many automatically associate it with barren landscapes and cacti.
“A lot of it is education,” Orr says. “The ‘English garden’ look is what a lot of people think they want, but it’s all about educating customers on other plants and aesthetics. It can look a lot of different ways and still look attractive,” she says.
Orr recommends landscapers first find out what their clients want—not necessarily just the type of plants they want, but what they want to get out of the space.
Deborah Roberts of Roberts & Roberts Landscape and Garden Design, based in Stamford, Conn. agrees.“You have to talk to the homeowners about what they want and how they’re going to use their gardens,” she says. “Then you can recommend plants that require less maintenance and less water.”
And while Roberts’ clients don’t have gardens that suffer from intense heat and water shortages, they still find value in easier maintenance and water savings—something that clients across the country, regardless of climate, will find value in as well.
What to consider first
When designing a drought tolerant landscape, landscape designer and contractor Mitch Kalamian of Solena Landscape Company in Huntington Beach, Calif., begins as he would any other landscape—identifying a theme.
“Typically what drives my designs is the theme of the home,” says Kalamian. “The theme will dictate the plant material to use. For instance, a Spanish styled home will use Mediterranean plants, which are naturally drought tolerant.”
While many drought-tolerant designs are based around native plants since they are naturally accustomed to the region’s climate, Kalamian also uses plants from various parts of the world that thrive in similar weather patterns.
And to the surprise of many, drought-tolerant landscapes can still include more popular plants and flowers such as roses, which are commonly overwatered.
“A lot of plant materials are actually drought-tolerant once they are established,” says Kalamian. “The key is to pick the right plant material and get them established.”
Grouping, then irrigating
When designing spaces, Roberts first groups plant materials based on their water needs. In this practice called zoning, plants that need the most water are grouped together, as are plants that require less.
“It’s really about knowing which plants are compatible as far as water is concerned,” she says.
Since many drought-tolerant plants typically thrive in less than ideal soil conditions as well, Roberts chooses to place these plant groups in areas that lack fertility—areas that all homes usually have.
Before anything is planted, however, appropriate irrigation should be considered. Roberts irrigates in zones by using drip systems and rain sensors that work to minimize the amount of water used.
“To create a successful drought tolerant landscape, it’s all about the irrigation system,” adds Kalamian. “In Southern California it’s a must since it supplements the lack of rainfall.”
To sod or not to sod
Many homeowners want the lawn to be the focal point of their garden, but for Kalamian and Orr the lawn is the most difficult part of the garden to sustain—especially in arid regions such as the south and southwest. While lawns are aesthetically pleasing and help lower temperatures, they require much water and maintenance to remain as full and as lush as homeowners typically want them.
For clients that can’t forgo their lawns, Orr recommends finding a balance.
“It’s all about compromising—use native grasses than can already handle the weather—not Kentucky Blue Grass,” she says. “You can also just reduce the lawn size. It’s all about finding out what the client actually wants.”
Kalamian suggests recommending other ground covers that offer a similar aesthetic, but require significantly less amounts of water. Kalamian uses decomposed granite with an added stabilizer to create a more structured, firm surface. Decomposed granite is a popular choice over cement or concrete, and its permeable design controls storm water runoff while preventing the heat island effect typically created by asphalt or concrete.