Salvias, sages and succulents: A Santa Cruz gardener’s guide to dealing with drought

The South African pincushion protea plant blooms for months and is drought-tolerant.
The South African pincushion protea plant blooms for months and is drought-tolerant.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lawns are so 20th century, and they’re disappearing from the local landscape. But what to plant as water supply gets increasingly problematic? We talked to the experts and have tips to get you started or keep you going.

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Don’t hose down those sidewalks. Or water the lawn too soon after a rain. And plug any leaky faucet or hose. As California enters a third year of drought, the state has banned wasteful water practices and threatened to do more the thinner our water supplies become.

But can we still garden? Santa Cruz County lies in planting zone 9b, an area that allows for growing almost anything. Though we’ve experienced the driest winter months in 100 years, we can still grow appropriate greenery.

“I would say there are more people indicating concern with drought-resistant plants this year than usual,” Christa Jennings, manager at Dig Gardens’ Aptos nursery told Lookout this week.

Though Santa Cruzans get good overall marks on water consciousness — being “water wise” and on reducing outdoor water usage over time — more people are transforming their environments, some quickly, some slowly, to more drought-tolerant landscapes. They are continuing to tear out water-guzzling lawns for water-wise plants.

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

For folks who are new to maintaining a drought-tolerant yard, and for those who would like more resources and tips, Lookout talked with UC Santa Cruz Arboretum Executive Director Martin Quigley and with Jennings about some helpful drought-tolerant yard/landscaping tips, 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 Voices.

Herbaceous perennials include plants that don’t have wood, such as salvias, sages (which need to be cut back to be maintained each year) and succulents. Shrubs are multistemmed plants that can be pruned and shaped and are long-lasting. If you’re looking for a tall garden of drought-tolerant plants, you’re out of luck.

While Lookout can’t list all the drought-tolerant plants that can thrive in Santa Cruz County, there is much out there beyond the popular succulent plants. And there is an overwhelming amount of locally specific information available from online resources, a master gardener hotline, and your local nursery or UCSC Arboretum staff.

We’ll talk about several tips for anyone just getting started.

An example of drought-tolerant landscaping full of cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum.
An example of drought-tolerant landscaping full of cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If you’re trying to get rid of a lawn …

While the number of lawns in the county continues to decrease, some folks might be starting this journey from this first step.

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

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

“If you want to change from a lawn to a succulent garden, or a dry-land garden, or even just a shrub garden, you don’t have to rip up the whole thing all at once,” he said. “Because that’s very daunting.”

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

“You can kill the lawn in smaller pieces and do planting islands that over a couple of years will merge into a bigger island,” he said, “until eventually you’ll have stone and gravel paths and no grass at all.”

Quigley said there are a couple ways to kill a lawn. He doesn’t recommend killing a lawn by tearing it up, both because it is a lot of work and because it could kill good worms and insects.

One method: Cover the entire lawn, or a smaller area, with plastic, cardboard or mulch for a couple of months during the summer, killing it.

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

The showy honey myrtle of Australia blooms for months.
The showy honey myrtle of Australia blooms for months.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How do you decide what to plant?

Deciding what to plant in your yard depends on quite a few factors, but perhaps most important is where you live in the county.

Santa Cruz County sits in one of the world’s five zones with a Mediterranean climate (the other four zones include regions of North Africa and Spain, southwest Australia, South Africa and parts of Chile), and it’s the home of many microenvironments. Among them: oak woodland, mixed evergreen forest, coastal terrace and redwood forest. Highly shady redwoods offer a big challenge, necessitating plants that can deal with both drought and lack of sunlight. Each of those microclimates differs in frost tolerance and how much moisture drops from the skies, with the Santa Cruz Mountains often seeing double the rainfall of the cities.

Sierra Ryan, water resources manager for Santa Cruz County, offers a couple of commonsense ideas. First, take a neighborhood walk and look around.

“This is what I did when we were planning our yard — just walk around the neighborhood and see what people are growing,” she said. “I saw that a bunch of people in my neighborhood have persimmon trees that are thriving, so we planted a persimmon tree.”

While you’re checking out the plants that are growing well, also check what kind of irrigation systems are in place.

If you’d rather get ideas for your microenvironment from a template, Ryan suggests visiting an online resource put together by the Water Conservation Coalition of Santa Cruz County at WaterSavingTips.org. Go to the resources tab and click on “Yard and Garden Resources.” There is a wealth of information, including ready-made landscape designs 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 for a longer period of the year?

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

“They’re beautiful. They’re long-lasting,” he said. “It’s fireproof. There are grevillea ground cover that bloom up to 11 months of the year.”

Grevillea are a great drought-tolerant plant for ground cover and bloom for 11 months of the year.
Grevillea are a great drought-tolerant plant for ground cover and bloom for 11 months of the year.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And when you start watering, make sure to water your drought-tolerant plants deeply when you first plant them. While that might seem counterintuitive, these drought-tolerant plants need to be watered deeply for the first six months or so.

After they’ve had a chance to grow their roots, they’ll become more tolerant of less watering. For basic watering tips, click here.

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

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

“There isn’t much more spectacular than a protea, or a pincushion flower,” said Jennings. “Almost as fast as we bring them in here, they sell out again.”

But the salvias aren’t too far behind.

“I would say probably our most popular category would be salvias, because they come in a huge range of colors,” she said. “There are lots of drought-tolerant species. They bloom almost all year in our climate. So that’s a very popular drought-tolerant plant.”

She estimates that in the past 10 years, the amount of square footage at the Dig Gardens nursery dedicated to plants in the protea and succulent groups has doubled.

“Over time, we have definitely increased the square footage that’s going to 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 a.m. to noon, so if you call during closed 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 montereybaymastergardeners@yahoo.com and visit their site here.
  • Read: Are you more of a book-learning person? 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 Water Conservation Coalition of Santa Cruz County’s 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 store located on site, Norrie’s Gift & Garden Shop, which is open Wednesday through Sunday for limited hours.
  • Visit your local nursery.