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Debunking the most common myths about dry gardening

by Timber Press on June 7, 2018

in Gardening

Dense, layered plantings and carefully selected plants create lush gardens.

Drought, drought, and more drought—dry weather, of course, is to be expected in many regions, but it is only getting worse. Luckily, botanist, biologist, and educator, Nan Sterman is here to debunk the most common myths about gardening in low-water conditions.

Recent years have brought the worst drought California has ever experienced, and along with it a wide array of mandatory water cutbacks. Arizona and California seem perpetually mired in battles over the water of the Colorado River. That water will diminish as climate change promises hotter temperatures and reduced water supplies across the West.

Drought has been an issue in the Southwest for a long time, but increasingly across North America and around the globe, population growth and global warming are making water more and more a focus of sustainability. And as water becomes more precious, gardens suffer. We need to make significant changes in our aesthetics, our attitudes, our plant choices, and our gardening practices.

This is what I’ve spoken, taught, and written about for decades. And throughout that time, I’ve found that gardeners’ biggest fear of waterwise gardens is the misconception that these are brown, lifeless, and colorless gardens—but nothing could be further from the truth.

Low-water gardens buzz with life. They are bright, brilliant, colorful gardens with as much interest and variety—and in some ways more—than any other gardens. In fact, color and low water go hand in hand. This is something I’ve known intuitively for many years. I trace it back to a trip my husband and I took to Santa Fe, New Mexico, long ago. We walked up Canyon Road (a street now infamous for its profusion of artist studios), and as we strolled, I kept noticing the gardens. They were modest, some simple, narrow planting beds tucked up against adobe walls and holding just a few plants: a red- or pink-flowering penstemon perhaps, with a blue-flowering cornflower and a trio of royal purple bearded irises. There weren’t many flowers, but they stood out as brightly and distinctly as if there were an entire mass of color. The bright greens, silvers, purples, blues, pinks, and yellows that filled those beds lit up in the desert sun.

Dry-growing plants, succulents and nonsucculents alike, with colorful foliage and beautiful blooms, arranged in careful layers against a green background—this typifies the hot colors that can be found in a dry garden.

In the years since, I’ve thought often about those tiny, dry gardens and the huge visual impact that resulted from the combination of three factors: the flowers and leaves were deep, intense, saturated colors, while the background earth tones were equally rich, and the sky was a clear, bright, intense blue. Together, the effect was dazzling.

Common Misconceptions About Low-Water Gardens

In my travels throughout the Southwest, I’ve visited countless color-filled, low-water gardens. It is high time that we set the record straight about what can be achieved, even with increasing water constraints. Three central myths about waterwise gardening need to be corrected straight away.

Myth #1: Low-water landscapes are brown, lifeless, and colorless
Low-water gardens are anything but brown, lifeless, and colorless! In fact, plants from dry regions of the world seem to evolve the most colorful and interesting flowers, the most varied and colorful leaves, and attract an amazing array of wildlife.

My own garden and those I design for clients are filled with riotous color—hot colors—alive with butterflies, lizards, rabbits (though I wish we could get rid of them), and birds, including the ever-present hummingbirds whose iridescent throats glisten garnet and emerald as they dart about the garden.

People are amazed to see the color and variety. Not long ago, I appeared on a local television program to talk about waterwise gardening. I arrived at the studio with my truck full of plants, and assembled the display to demonstrate several color themes. The public relations person who arranged my appearance had a decent grasp on the concept of a low-water landscape, but wasn’t herself a gardener. She was absolutely amazed by the rainbow of colors in my show display.

I’m not the only designer who creates colorful, active, low-water gardens, of course. There is a group of professionals, mostly in the West, who have been leading the way. Their gardens, along with some wonderful homeowner-designed gardens, are featured in these pages.

Myth #2: Low-water gardens are scrubby and scrappy rather than lush and plant filled
This is just entirely wrong. There are native low-water habitats that, to the uneducated eye, might look scrubby and scrappy in the dry heat, but gardeners can create lush, vibrant gardens by selecting plants carefully, by balancing shades of green, and by massing plants and placing them closely enough to cover the ground, but not so close to require constant pruning to separate them. “Lush” is an effect, not a plant type. “Lush” does not require water.

Low-water landscapes can be colorful, energetic, and exciting. There’s nothing brown or lifeless about them.

Myth #3: Low-water gardens are all rocks and desert
I often hear gardeners complain, “low water is okay, but I don’t want my garden to look like the desert!” This image hearkens back to the so-called Palm Springs–and Las Vegas–style landscapes of the 1950s and 1960s. Those front yards were done up in sharp gravel, laid out in swirls or other geometric patterns, and edged in red scallop brick. The gravel color palette was eye-blinding white with bright teal, or muddy coral, typically accented with a single saguaro cactus or tall yucca. In short, it was yucky.

In a low-water garden, rocks—real rocks, not faux dyed ones—become architecture that balances plants. Large boulders define contours and demark dry streambeds filled with gradations of cobble. These streambeds collect and hold water, so it has time to percolate into the soil where it is banked for access by plant roots. Rocks that appear to emerge from the earth serve as places to sit and rest for a moment, or to separate one area of the garden from another.

A few years ago, I designed a garden for a couple with very different ideas about what they wanted. They agreed on low water, but while the husband wanted a tapestry of succulents and unusual plants, the wife wanted what she called “frou-frou.” I put on my marriage counselor hat, and negotiated an eclectic front garden for him, with a “frou-frou” rear garden for her. Both were to be colorful, textural, and low water. Six months later, the wife gushed over how much she loved the front garden (the one I designed for her the husband). She had no idea, she said, that a low-water garden could look like that. And, she insisted I add some of those same plants to her back yard. Now, several years later, both front and back gardens are waterwise and wonderful. They are both pleased.

It’s not hard to explode these myths; it takes some really great examples and good information shared with homeowners, professionals, landscape designers, landscape architects, contractors, installers, and maintenance people. That is what I have set out to accomplish with this book.


With degrees in botany, biology, and education, Nan Sterman channeled her passion into a career as an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in major gardening publications on the regional, national, and international levels. Sterman spends much of her time working on her Emmy award–winning TV show, A Growing Passion, which airs on public television in San Diego and is posted online at AGrowingPassion.com. She speaks, teaches, and writes about low-water, sustainable, and edible gardening, and designs landscapes for private homes and public spaces.

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