Smart Plant Choices To Decrease Water Use in the Landscape

Drought tolerant coral fountain (Russelia equisetiformis) grows alongside ‘Monstrosus’ totem pole cactus (Pachycereus schottii ‘Monstrosus’)

Residents of the Southwest know how valuable a resource our water is and that it’s important to conserve this precious resource where we can. The best place to look at water savings should begin in the landscape, where up to 75% of household water use occurs. While this is a lot of water, there are a number of ways you can minimize the amount of water you use, which can make a significant difference. Let’s take a look at five ways you can make smart plant choices to decrease water use in the landscape. 

Rock penstemon (Penstemon baccharifolius) blooms throughout the warm season. Photo taken at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Remove thirsty shrubs. Many of the plants seen growing in the arid regions of the Southwest thrive despite the heat and dry climate. However, they use a lot of water to do so. These include shrubs like such as gardenia, hibiscus, and pittosporum. To reduce water use in the garden, take out these thirsty plants and substitute with more waterwise shrubs.  Visit your local nursery and ask them for shrubs that are considered to be drought tolerant.

Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) grows alongside a Trichocereus hybrid cactus.

Use flowering plants sparingly to create colorful impact. Create a few separate groupings of flowering plants for maximum color impact and fill the surrounding area. There are many flowering ground covers and perennials that don’t use much water –  angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), and penstemon (Penstemon spp.) – are among my favorites. The unique shapes of succulent plants add excellent texture contrast when planted alongside flowering perennials and create a lovely design element.

Artichoke agave (Agave parryi var. truncata), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), and Argentine giant cactus (Echinopsis candicans)

Add succulents in place of flowering groundcovers. Low-growing cactus and other succulents make an excellent drought-tolerant alternative for flowering groundcovers. I like to use small to medium-sized agaves such as artichoke (shown above), black-spined (Agave macroacantha), or the beautiful Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)  to create a lovely low-level planting where their distinct rosette shapes are on display. Other choices include adding one of the newer dwarf prickly pear cactus varieties or a group of gopher plants (Euphorbia biglandulosa), and Moroccan mound (Euphorbia resinifera), which are but a few of available choices that will help you create an attractive, waterwise planting.

A succulent container planted with flowering crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii), lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus), elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra), and a blue-gray cactus.

Substitute thirsty annual flowers for attractive succulents in containers. While flowering annuals are beautiful, they use a lot of water and require frequent maintenance in the form of fertilizing and deadheading. Switch them out for succulents, which can be used to create a striking statement that needs just a fraction of the water that flowers do. If you are missing the bright colors that annuals provide, consider planting flowering succulents such as ‘Blue Elf’ aloe or crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii). Succulent plants look fabulous when planted in a colorful container in shades of blue, purple or orange that provide a welcome splash of color all year long.

Flowering chuparosa (Justicia californica), is a favorite among hummingbirds and is native to the Sonoran Desert region of the Southwest.

Look to native desert shrubs for adding color to the landscape. If you think that saving water means you can’t have colorful plants in the landscape, think again. Look at what is blooming in the natural areas around you – these plants are adapted to the average rainfall that falls in your area. At first, they will need supplemental irrigation through the first year, until established, and infrequent watering may be needed if rainfall amounts are below average. Not sure what plants are native to your area? Visit your local botanical garden, which can be an excellent resource for finding colorful plants that are native to your area.

By implementing one, or more, of these recommendations, you will save water by making smart plant choices without sacrificing the beauty of your landscape.

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