How to Make Your Garden Water-Free

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By Erika Heet
Landscape architect Brennan Cox, principal of San Francisco–based Groundworks, explores the best approaches to drought-tolerant landscaping practices that can be implemented anywhere in the world.

What questions should people ask their landscaper or nursery owner if they want to put in a low-water landscape?

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For a project in Menlo Park, California, landscape architect Brennan Cox flanked pavers with drought-resistant Phormium ‘Rainbow Warrior.'

I would ask a lot of questions about site preparation; it is extremely underrated but critically important. Having the right type of soil and solar aspect are also important, and making sure they match up with the type of plants you want to put in that space.  

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In one area, he built a vertical wall of succulents.

Is there such a thing as a no-water landscape?

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Another water-saving project in Menlo Park includes a rock bed with succulents.

Sure, one that uses plants adapted to the local climate. All landscapes need water for the initial establishment period. 

Tell us about the kinds of general drought-resistant practices people can implement anywhere. 

Drought tolerance starts first with an acceptance of the flora that grows where you live. While planting doesn’t need to be dominated by natives, it should start with an understanding of what native plants can complement other drought-tolerant plants. This information comes from many trips to the nursery, books, and other informational sources. I’ve always found it extremely helpful to visit local botanical gardens; they often have a great collection of native plants, as well as other non standards. I think the last practice is creativity and inventiveness, both of which are underrated. For most residential clients, paying someone to do a planting plan sounds extravagant, but it is sometimes the best money spent because a professional is able to devote the time needed to craft a cohesive planting plan.   

How do you approach balancing plants with hardscaping and xeriscaping to save water?

This is a matter of space and use, what kind of space [you’re] trying to create and what is the intended use for the space. For some reason, hardscape has been given a bad name. Not everything needs to be paved—loose rock and gravel, combined with focal plants, can be extremely visual landscapes. I highly recommend a trip to the local landscape supply store, and I don’t mean an outdoor section of a big-box retail store, but a legitimate landscape supply vendor. These places will definitely intimidate because most are not geared toward retail, or a least dealing with clients that may not be as informed as a contractor, but they will have a larger variety of all types of landscape materials.