My Most Recommended Tool for Choosing Water-wise Plants for California Gardens

My Most Recommended Tool for Choosing Water-wise Plants for California Gardens

Choosing plants for a landscape plan or even a small garden project can be overwhelming.  There are so many plants!  It is easy to find examples of landscapes and plants we love, but how do we know that the plants we like are going to thrive in our garden?

There are many factors to consider when choosing plants, and if you want your plants to be low-water users, developing your plant list can be challenging.

When researching plants, we see terms like, “water-wise”, “low-water use”, “drought tolerant”, “no summer water”, “medium water”, “moderate water”, “water regularly”, “keep evenly moist”, “keep on the dry side”, “let dry between waterings”, “let dry somewhat between waterings”, “deep and infrequent waterings”.

Seriously?!  How do we know what these words really mean in terms of how to choose and water our plants?  This is like trying to figure out how much light a plant needs:  low, moderate, high, bright, indirect, part sun/part shade, half sun/half shade, dappled shade, filtered shade, etc.!

Introducing Waterwonk!  Waterwonk (www.waterwonk.us) is my absolute favorite Must-Have tool I use when choosing plants for a California garden.  The water needs of any given plant will vary depending on the climate region where it will live.  To make sure the plants I’m considering are appropriate for the location, I look them up in the WaterWonk database. WaterWonk is the WUCOLS online California plant database search tool.

What is WUCOLS?

Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) provides a guide to estimating irrigation water needs of landscape plantings in each of 6 distinct California climate regions.  WUCOLS was developed by the University of California Cooperative Extension in cooperation with landscape professionals and funded by the California Department of Water Resources.

What I love about WaterWonk is that it is so easy to use.  You simply type in your city, and the tool will pull your search results from the correct WUCOLS climate region.  You can view the entire list of plants appropriate for your region, or you can filter the list by entering other search criteria such as type of plant (tree, shrub, succulent, etc.).  You can even select CA native plants only, or plants that require less summer water once they are established.  The database also provides clickable links to Flicker photos of each plant so you are able to get a really good idea of what the plant looks like.  Enjoy!

If you check out the WaterWonk search tool, I would love to hear how you liked it.  Let me know in the comments below!

If you’re gardening in a state other than California, check with your county Cooperative Extension Service, or do a Google search to find landscape water efficiency resources for your region.  Many water agencies, native plant societies, plant nurseries, and other organizations publish plant lists online.  You might start by entering search terms such as “low-water”, “drought tolerant”, or “water-wise” plants for (your city/state).

The #1 Question I Receive About Ecological Landscaping

The #1 Question I Receive About Ecological Landscaping

The question I was most often asked while visiting clients as a Garden Consultant was, “Can you design a totally no maintenance yard for me”?

Although done in a humorous spirit, those who asked this really would prefer to avoid yard work!  🙂

My answer often went something like this…”Sure, if you don’t want any plants”!  We can create a nice hardscape plan for you, and you’ll never have to mow, weed, or prune again”!  (Hardscape includes all the elements of a landscape that are not plant material such as sidewalks, patios, and BBQ pits, etc.  Softscape is the plants: lawn, trees, shrubs).

Seriously though, there is no such thing as a maintenance free landscape.  All require regular maintenance in order to thrive and grow even more beautiful over time.  Your landscape is an investment, and part of the cost of that investment that is often overlooked by DIYers is maintenance.  Maintenance takes time, energy, and money.  If you (or another family member are not a person who really enjoys working in the yard, and has the time and energy to do it, I encourage you to consider hiring a professional gardener to maintain it for you at least for the first two years.”

“A well-planned landscape will require less maintenance once the plants become established, which may be up to two years for many varieties.  The cost of maintenance for two years should be included in your initial budget for your new landscape.  We can definitely create a low maintenance landscape for you by planning for minimal maintenance from the beginning of the design process.  However, please don’t plan to do the work yourself just to save money without really thinking it through.”  It doesn’t take long for a newly installed landscape to go from fabulous to failure due to lack of proper maintenance.

One beautiful benefit of ecological (or sustainable) landscaping is that maintenance is greatly reduced because we design gardens in such a way that we allow the power of nature to do much of the work.  Essentially, we eliminate or greatly reduce labor intensive maintenance tasks by purposefully selecting our design elements and plant material for sustainability, and we let nature put on her show!

What does that mean?

In terms of landscaping, sustainability means we garden in a way that can be continued indefinitely without causing harm to people or the environment, or being a drain on resources.  We seek to work with nature as much as possible, and let go of the need to have complete control.  We build gardens that invite nature in, and we interfere as little as possible with the normal processes of nature.  Don’t worry – that doesn’t mean we allow nature to run wild in our yards and we do nothing!  That is not gardening.   That is simply observing wilderness.  🙂

One example of how to significantly reduce maintenance when taking a sustainable approach to landscaping is to eliminate or at least reduce the size of the lawn.  The lawn is the highest maintenance element of most traditional landscapes, and typically requires high inputs of products for fertilization and management of weeds and diseases.  The lawn is also the highest water use element in most yards.

I’m not totally against lawns.  I just like to encourage people to consider how much they really need.  If you have a lawn now, how often does it get used?  If it is rarely used anymore, maybe you would get much more enjoyment out of the space by turning it into a water-wise garden that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  Think about all the time, energy, and money you could save if you didn’t have to spend it growing a lawn.  A hummingbird garden would require maintenance and water too of course, but not nearly as much as a lawn.  I love the idea of not having to even think about the lawn every week!  If you’re looking to simplify your life, and get more enjoyment out of the space you already have, less lawn might be a good fit for you.

So, although the idea of having a completely maintenance free landscape is not realistic, it is possible to keep maintenance to a minimum without sacrificing beauty.  If you don’t live in a desert, your yard doesn’t have to look like one.  And, conserving water doesn’t mean brown has to be our new green.  🙂

If you have any questions about creating your own sustainable landscape or lowering maintenance in your yard, let me know in the comments below.  Your questions will help me choose topics for future blog posts.  If you already have an easy care landscape you love, I’d love to hear about it.  Please include any details you care to share such as whether you created your own plan or paid a professional to do it for you.  Did you do any or all of the work yourself?  What went right, what went wrong?  What would you do differently next time?

If you found this post valuable, please pass it on to someone who might benefit from it, or give it a share on Facebook or Pinterest!  🙂

Thank you,

Melanie