7 tips for landscape survival during drought

Photo of the UC Davis Arboretum's Mary Wattis Brown Garden of California Native Plants

The Mary Wattis Brown Garden of California Native Plants includes an extensive collection of native plants that work well in home landscapes, arranged along meandering paths under stately oaks. The garden showcases a native meadow—a California-style lawn—and many Arboretum All-Stars, our recommended plants for Valley-wise gardens.

This article was featured in The Davis Enterprise on January 22, 2014.

With water reserves at all-time lows, water rates reaching all-time highs, and severe water rationing on the horizon, representatives from the staff at the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden compiled some quick tips for homeowners whose goal is to save water as well as their landscapes.

1. Mulch. “If I could only give one recommendation it would be mulch, mulch, mulch!” cites Cary Avery, associate director of grounds and landscape services. “Mulching not only keeps the ground moist, but as the mulch breaks down, it provides good nutrients for your plants, improves your soil quality, and looks attractive in areas where there’s little landscaping or your plants have not filled in.”

2. Compost. “The sponge-like nature of compost means that rain or irrigation water will be absorbed and stay in your soil—where your plants need it—instead of trickling off into the gutter. It’s also good for getting many types of plants established during their first year in the ground,” says Stacey Parker, GATEways horticulturist. “Add compost before you mulch to double the impact of your water investment.”

3. Focus on your trees. “In times like these you expect that your lawn will suffer, but don’t forget about your trees if you decide to turn off your irrigation altogether,” explains Ryan Deering, GATEways horticulturist. “Give your trees a deep watering with a hose about every two weeks. If you lose your lawn, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it may be a good thing. But if you lose a tree, you’ve lost years of a shade canopy, and a nice wildlife habitat, not to mention its value in terms of home energy conservation.”

4. Tune up your irrigation. “With the recent freezing weather you’ll want to look at your irrigation system closely to make sure you aren’t losing water due to any broken pipes. Turn on your system and make sure water is going on the plants or turf you want to irrigate. An efficient well-tuned irrigation system will use less water if properly managed and maintained,” recommends Matt Forrest, irrigation supervisor. “Once that has been evaluated, talk to someone at your local hardware store about replacing old sprinkler heads with low-water-use heads for turf, and consider converting shrub and ground cover irrigation to drip or micro-spray. These small changes will help make sure you are watering your plants, not sidewalks or driveways.”

5. Reduce your watering schedule. “If you haven’t already, do it. It’s the simplest way to conserve,” says Andrew Fulks, director of the UC Davis Putah Creek, Riparian Reserve and campus naturalized landscapes. “If you are irrigating for 15 minutes, turn it down to 6. If you are watering four days a week, change it to two, and make sure you are watering in the early morning or late at night. Give the water a chance to seep into the soil before the sun comes out and you lose it to evaporation.”

What if you’ve already done these things? What’s next for the advanced water-saving homeowner?

6. Replace your plants with California natives. “Many homeowners are interested in this type of landscape, but worry that the plants might be hard to grow. However, with right mix, you’ll have an easy-care garden with year-round color and interest, long-term water-savings once the plants are established, and  a much-needed habitat for our pollinator friends,” explains Ellen Zagory, horticulturist. “In addition, people also worry they’ll have trouble finding the plants at their local retailer. Come to the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum plants sales this season. We’ve got a great selection of native plants for this purpose, and we’ll point you in the right direction.”

7. Remove your lawn. “It’s not that scary, I promise. There are so many great alternatives to a standard lawn,” encourages Taylor Lewis, nursery manager at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery. “You’ll see more and more information about how to do this online, or I also encourage you to find a local seminar sponsored by Master Gardeners or a similar club. We’ve compiled a list of these types of workshops on our website.”

With a landscape as large as the UC Davis campus, Arboretum and Public Garden staff consistently employ these methods every year, drought or no drought. In addition, over the last ten years, they have installed a large-scale, “smart” central irrigation system (a high-tech tool able to determine the amount of irrigation needed based on weather conditions), implemented an aggressive irrigation preventative maintenance program, and worked to replace little-used lawns and high-maintenance landscapes with sustainable plants including Arboretum All-Stars.

Where can you find the right plants?

For a wide-selection of attractive, drought-tolerant, region-appropriate plants like California natives and Arboretum All-Stars, shop the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum plant sales this spring at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 15 (members only; join at the door); Saturday, April 5; Saturday, April 26; and Saturday, May 17 (clearance sale). These sales also feature a variety of experts, including Arboretum and Public Garden horticulturists, Master Gardeners, and knowledgeable sales associates ready to assist customers and answer questions.

For more plant sale information, as well as a list of workshops you can attend to “waterwise” your landscape visit our website: arboretum.ucdavis.edu.

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  1. Laurie January 22, 2014 Reply

    Still looking for something to plant that the dogs can run on!

    • David Feix January 24, 2014 Reply

      Dymondia margaratae or Lippia nodiflora.

  2. Margaret January 29, 2014 Reply

    I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned installing a greywater system in your advanced tips. See greywateraction.org The Santa Clara Valley Water District provides a Graywater Laundry to Landscape rebate of $100 per residential site for the proper installation of a system that allows one to reuse waste water from washing machine in an irrigation system. And research has found that tomatoes come up sweeter and better when grown in brackish water!

  3. Rosemary Carey March 17, 2014 Reply

    Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) makes a very tough and low water use turf, which has been used on college campuses in California. Plugs are planted on close spacing (8-12″) which fill in to form a low ground cover which can be mowed to look like a lawn, or left taller for a meadow appearance. Dogs can run on it.

  4. Tanya Kucak April 16, 2014 Reply

    More tips and articles at

    and there’s a discussion list at

  5. Richard April 28, 2014 Reply

    Some great ideas in there!


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