Sages, Sages and Succulents: A Santa Cruz Gardener’s Guide to Coping With Drought

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Don’t water those sidewalks. Or water the lawn too soon after a rain. And plug any leaky faucets or pipes. As California enters a third year of droughtthe state has prohibits water wasting practices and threatened to do more as our water supplies dwindle.

But can we still garden? Santa Cruz County is in Plantation Zone 9b, an area that can grow almost anything. Although we have had the driest winter months in 100 years, we can still grow appropriate greenery.

“I would say there are more people worried about drought-tolerant plants this year than usual,” said Christa Jennings, Aptos Nursery Manager at Dig Gardens in Lookout this week.

Although Santa Cruz residents get good overall marks for water awareness – being “water wise” and reducing outdoor water use over time – from more and more people are transforming their environment, some quickly, some slowly, into more drought-tolerant landscapes. They keep ripping up water-hungry lawns for water-saving plants.

Drought-tolerant or water-friendly plants refer to plants that have adapted to survive, and in many cases, produce beautiful flowers, on a limited amount of water.

For people new to maintaining a drought-tolerant garden, and for those who want more resources and advice, Lookout spoke with Martin Quigley, Executive Director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and with Jennings about some helpful tips for drought-tolerant yard and landscaping, popular plants, and trends they’ve seen.

“If you have a combination of herbaceous perennials and shrubs, that’s the best way to have a drought-loving garden,” Quigley said.

Plant where you live. Lookout Santa Cruz – Community Voice.

Herbaceous perennials include plants that don’t have wood, such as salvias, sages (which must be pruned for maintenance each year), and succulents. Shrubs are multi-stemmed plants that can be pruned and shaped and are long-lasting. If you’re looking for a large garden of drought-tolerant plants, you’re out of luck.

Although Lookout can’t list every drought-tolerant plant that can thrive in Santa Cruz County, there are more than popular succulents. And there is an overwhelming amount of locally specific information available from Online resourcesa master gardener hotlineand your local nursery or UCSC Arboretum staff.

We will talk about several tips for those who are just starting out.

An example of drought-tolerant <a class=landscaping full of cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum.” width=”1080″ height=”790″/>

An example of drought-tolerant landscaping full of cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum.

(Hillary Ojeda / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

If you are trying to get rid of a lawn…

As the number of lawns in the county continues to dwindle, some people might start this journey from this first step.

“Lawns in America in almost all cases are not suited to the local climate,” Quigley said.

He wants you to know that making that leap from a green lawn to a drought-resistant yard can be a much easier process than you think.

“If you want to go from a lawn to a succulent garden, or a terra firma garden, or even just a shrub garden, you don’t have to destroy everything all at once,” he said. . “Because it’s very intimidating.”

In most cases this would cost a lot of money and you might want a contractor.

“You can kill the lawn in small pieces and plant islands which after a few years will merge into a larger island,” he said, “until you finally have stone paths and gravel and no grass at all.”

Quigley said there are many ways to kill a lawn. He doesn’t recommend killing a lawn by ripping it up, both because it’s a lot of work and because it might kill good worms and insects.

One method: Cover the entire lawn, or a smaller area, with plastic, cardboard, or mulch for a few months during the summer to kill it.

“So if you’re just smothering the lawn, you can do that with cardboard or newspaper and leaf mulch, you can just shade it,” he said. “It only takes a few weeks to cook that lawn under cardboard.”

Australia's showy honey myrtle blooms for months.

Australia’s showy honey myrtle blooms for months.

(Hillary Ojeda / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

How do you decide what to plant?

Deciding what to plant in your garden depends on several factors, but perhaps the most important is where in the county you live.

Santa Cruz County is in one of five Mediterranean climate zones in the world (the other four zones include parts of North Africa and Spain, Southwest Australia, South Africa, South and parts of Chile), and is home to many microenvironments. Among them: oak grove, evergreen mixed forest, coastal terrace and redwood forest. Very shady redwoods offer a great challenge, requiring plants that can cope with both drought and lack of sun. Each of these microclimates differs in their tolerance to frost and the amount of moisture that falls from the sky, with the Santa Cruz Mountains often seeing double the precipitation of cities.

Sierra Ryan, Santa Cruz County Water Resources Manager, offers some common sense ideas. First, take a walk around the neighborhood and look around.

“That’s what I did when we planned our garden – just walk around the neighborhood and see what people are growing,” she said. “I saw that a group of people in my neighborhood had thriving persimmon trees, so we planted a persimmon tree.”

While you check which plants are growing well, also check the type of irrigation systems in place.

If you’d rather get ideas for your microenvironment from a template, Ryan suggests visiting an online resource set up by the Water Conservation Coalition of Santa Cruz County at WaterSavingTips.org. Go to the resources tab and click on “Resources for Yard and Garden”. There is a wealth of information, including ready-to-use information landscape drawings for the different microenvironments found in Santa Cruz County.

Another important factor to consider when deciding what to plant: What is the purpose of what you want to plant? Do you want plants to create a barrier around your property or do you want plants that create ground cover? Or do you just want plants that bloom longer in the year?

Some plants will serve multiple purposes. Quigley says if you want a drought-tolerant plant that serves well as a ground cover, a good plant to start with is grevillea.

“They’re beautiful. They last a long time,” he said. “It’s fireproof.

Grevillea is an excellent drought tolerant plant for ground cover and flowering for 11 months of the year.

Grevillea is an excellent drought tolerant plant for ground cover and flowering for 11 months of the year.

(Hillary Ojeda / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

And when you start watering, be sure to water your drought-tolerant plants deeply when you first plant them. Although it may seem counterintuitive, these drought-tolerant plants should be watered deeply for the first six months or so.

After they have had a chance to grow their roots, they will become more tolerant of less watering. For basic watering advice, Click here.

Jennings, the director of Dig Gardens, and Quigley both said that in addition to the obviously popular succulents, other drought-tolerant plants that have grown in popularity in recent years include the many species of salvia and protea.


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One of the most requested at Dig, according to Jennings, is the pincushion flower.

“There’s nothing more spectacular than a protea or pincushion flower,” Jennings said. “Almost as quickly as we get them here, they sell out again.”

But salvias aren’t too far behind.

“I would say our most popular category would probably be salvias because they come in a huge range of colors,” she said. “There are a lot of drought-tolerant species. They bloom almost all year round in our climate. It is therefore a very popular and drought tolerant plant.

She estimates that over the past 10 years, the area of ​​the Dig Gardens nursery dedicated to plants from the protea and succulent groups has doubled.

“Over time, we definitely increased the square footage for more drought-tolerant plants,” she said.

More resources

  • Call: UC Master Gardeners of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties Hotline: 831-763-8007. Office hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 am to noon, so if you call during off hours you can leave a message with your question and information. The office is located at 1430 Freedom Blvd., Suite E, in Watsonville, or contact them by email [email protected] and visit their site here.
  • Lily: Are you more of a person who learns from books? Quigley suggests picking up the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” which has been updated regularly and used as a guide for decades.
  • Go online: Find resources from the Santa Cruz County Water Conservation Coalition resources here.
  • Visit the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum to learn in person. The arboretum is located at 1 Arboretum Road and the garden is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for youth ages 6-17. Master gardeners are available to answer questions at the on-site store, Norrie Gift and Garden Shopopen Wednesday to Sunday at limited times.
  • Visit your local nursery.
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