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Drought Tolerant Landscaping Design


Drought tolerant landscaping is not the art of creating your own personal desert. It’s a design process that focuses on plants that can thrive with little water and hardscapes that help capture/retain moisture rather than allowing it to simply run off and be wasted. By following the same best practices professionals use, you can surround your home with landscaping that is both lovely and practical.

Start with structure, then go smaller

Landscaping should complement your house – either by blending with it or by providing a contrast that sets it off (nicely, though, not jarringly). In the backyard, where most or all of your outdoor living takes place, consider your overall usage. Do you have an outdoor dining area? Putting green or bocce court? Separate play areas for your kids or the dog? Do you want to grow veggies or small fruits?

These are all “rooms” within your landscape – key elements around which you will design the leafy and floral aspects of your garden. In fact, you can use plantings to beautifully separate and individualize each of these areas.

Make a sketch of where you want major elements to go, then contemplate it for a while. In your mind, picture admiring and using the spaces. You may well decide to make changes. Consider how sun, shade, and wind will affect plant choices as well as placement of outdoor living spaces.

A balanced landscape provides a sense of continuity but not boring sameness. Elevation changes are key – that’s why you want tall trees as well as shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers. You can also create mounds to add definition if your terrain is flat, but keep them to 24” or less. Gently-sloped sides will prevent wasteful runoff.

Identify one or a few focal points to lead the eye around your landscape and provide visual rest stops. Use a sculpture, a birdbath, an interesting boulder, a flowering crabapple in the middle of your lawn or the corner of your garden, or a bright red rose amid a sea of pastels. To highlight focal points, use masses of specific plants or colors.

Pick one hardscape material rather than using a mixture. This adds a greater sense of harmony to your landscape, and it can make a small yard appear larger.

And, as you’re selecting drought tolerant beauties to fulfill your design, remember that plants grow, especially trees and shrubs. Choose them for their mature size, then give them room to get there comfortably.

Practical advice from a pro

Landscape architect Rob Steiner offers some rules and guidelines that will help you design an eminently satisfying space. For example:

  • His “law of significant enclosure” explains the most pleasing height for hedges, walls, or other dividers, so you can balance a sense of openness with the feeling of being embraced by your garden.
  • The Golden Rectangle ratio helps you compute proportions for everything from patios and pergolas to your lawn. (Obviously, that lawn will be artificial grass, since your goal is a drought tolerant design.)
  • He can help you size steps, too, so they are both visually inviting and comfortable to use.

And when you get to the final stage – planting – he quotes a former professor: “It’s better to plant a 50-cent plant in a $5 hole, than a $5 plant in a 50-cent hole.” Landscape plants are expensive. You want them to thrive, and that means every plant deserves a 5-star start, drought tolerant or not. Preparing proper holes is tedious, but your effort will be well repaid every time you gaze upon your landscape.

Above all, remember that your drought tolerant landscaping design is a living thing. Practical components will change over time – your kids will outgrow their play structure – and your plant or color preferences may change, too. A beautiful garden is always a work in progress.

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