Mountains of free mulch
You can reduce your water use and keep your plants healthier by adding mulch to your planting beds. Spread mulch thickly -- about 1 to 2 inches deep -- and it can help control weeds, too.
Better yet, in many areas, you can get mulch for free. Type "free mulch" into your Internet search bar and you're likely to find dozens of locations where state and community tree-trimmers offer mountains of mulch on a BYOS -- bring your own shovel -- basis.
Daylilies, which die back in the winter, provide bright spring color and need little water once established.
Rosemary is a practical herb that can spice up your soups, as well as keep mosquitoes at bay. This fragrant perennial also brightens the garden with sky blue flowers in the spring..
Ceanothis, a California native, comes in all shapes and sizes, from ground-cover varieties to trees. This plant is more likely to die from over-watering than drought.
Living a rich life, with or without vast riches
Frank McDonough, a botanist with the Los Angeles County Arboretum, readily admits that estimating what families might save on water bills by putting in a drought tolerant garden is almost impossible. To be sure, drought-tolerant plants can thrive on a fraction of the water required by a traditional lawn. But, how much water -- and expense -- you save by replacing water-gulping landscaping with the drought-tolerant variety will depend on how much landscaping you have, which plants you choose, weather conditions, how much your water district charges and whether you are subject to water-guzzler fines. Those factors are impossible to gauge from afar.
However, you can do a reasonable estimate on your own. Start by comparing your water bills from the heat of summer to those in rainy winter months (assuming you turn off the sprinklers when it rains). That difference can tell you roughly how much of your water use is directed to your landscaping rather than your household. You won't save 100% of your landscaping water costs, of course. But, if you're watering your lawn twice a week, you should realize that many drought-tolerant plants need to be watered just twice a month and even less often in the winter, says McDonough.
That could save you 75% on the landscaping portion of your water bill. Thus, if you estimate that you spend $100 month on water; $75 of which is landscaping, you could reasonably guess that swapping high-water landscaping for water-sipping alternatives could cut that cost by $50 a month, or $600 a year.
The bad news is that even in the best of circumstances, the up-front cost of replacing your landscaping can be steep, so your break-even point could be years away. After all, the time and labor required in ripping out a lawn can be substantial. And, while you can find discount nurseries that sell plants relatively cheaply, they're certainly not free. Depending on whether you hire out or do it yourself, you should expect to pay between $2 and $5 for each square foot of landscaping replaced. So, if the family in the previous example was replacing 1,000 square feet of grass, for instance, it might cost $3,000 up-front. At that rate, it would take them five years to recover their investment.
But if you happen to live in the drought-ravaged West, you may be able to find state or city rebates to defray those up-front expenses. The California Department of Water Resources offers a turf replacement rebate program that pays up to $2 per square foot, to a total of $2,000 per household, for instance. And cities in Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado offer rebate programs too.
And even if there's no rebate available to you, the long-term cost savings may still be worth the up-front investment. McDonough adds that even if you can't justify ripping out a lawn for the cost savings, it might still be worth doing for the planet. "Why not do it just because it's the right thing to do?" he asks.
In addition to saving a finite resource, McDonough says that water-wise landscaping has plenty of aesthetic and environmental charms. Many varieties are long-blooming, self-spreading and colorful year-round. Moreover, drought-tolerant plants are a draw to hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators, so they could make your fruit garden more lush and productive. And, since many are perennial, you can put away your trowel. There's no need to pop annuals into the garden for seasonal color. The right water-wise mix will come back year after year.
Convinced but confused about where to start? The first step is planning. Plot out the area you want to convert, measuring the square footage. You'll need these measurements to apply for rebates. They also are the first step in figuring out just how many plants you should buy to populate your garden. Be aware that perennials grow quickly, so there's no need to plant them right on top of one another. Give them room and plenty of mulch. Even though a just-planted perennial garden looks sparse at first, it fills in quickly.
When it comes to designing gorgeous perennial gardens, there's nothing quite like Sunset Magazine publications, such as their paperback titled simply "Perennials." This book offers garden design ideas based on color palette, water use and the shape of your planting area, as well as providing information about plant sizes, sun and water needs. The books can be purchased for a few dollars on line. Beware the publication's water-use designations, however. McDonough says that many plants that the magazine describes as "moderate" water users are low-water plants once established.
Another great resource is the online Monrovia plant catalog. Plug in the criteria you want -- from flower color and height to water use -- and the search tool will present you with dozens of options, replete with photographs and other details. Monrovia also offers a newsletter and a wide array of online garden planning advice.