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Winter's a good time to plant drought-tolerant gardens in parched regions

01/14/2015 11:33 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT
PASADENA, Calif. - When my fiance and I moved to this city just east of Los Angeles a couple of years ago, we quickly learned that planting perkily delicate flowers is a no-no. They wilt like socks in the brutal sun.

So we dug two beds near our front porch and set out to create drought-tolerant gardens dotted with beautiful, twisty plants, from moisture-retaining perennial succulents and cacti to evergreen flowering shrubs. They were about 17 inches deep because the surface ground was as hard as rock. We combined the ground soil with compost to promote new growth.

We went to nurseries and consulted books. Come hell or high water — and without rain, there was no high water — our plants would hopefully survive.

Drought-tolerant gardening is fast becoming a nifty form of home landscaping, as moderate to severe drought conditions and rising water bills have swept across much of the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Southwestern states such as California, Nevada and Texas have been hit hardest with long-term extreme drought. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown declared California in a drought emergency and asked residents to voluntarily slash water use by 20 per cent.

"Drought-tolerant plants, such as succulents, have colour. They have texture. They save water," said Molly Thongthiraj, who with her sisters has owned and operated the California Cactus Center in Pasadena for 38 years. "They're hardy. They can take our temperatures. They can take the lows, they can take the highs."

While planting in winter isn't recommended for colder climates, she said, it's a good time to plant in warmer parts of California and other warm-weather states because succulents can burn and shrivel up under the hot sun if planted during the summer. Water-storing succulents include cacti native to North and South America. In summer, Thongthiraj said, succulents generally need to be watered twice a week, but in winter they can usually go two weeks without water. Cacti can be watered just once a month in winter.

For novices, Thongthiraj suggests the golden barrel cactus, a plump, rounded spiky plant that stores a hefty amount of water and isn't considered tasty to deers. She also recommends sedums, flowering succulents with thick, fleshy leaves and star-shaped flowers. Hummingbirds flock to them. Leucadendrons, tall flowering evergreen shrubs, also withstand heat and dryness well.

Euphorbias, a large class of drought-tolerant plant, come in beautiful shapes and sizes. Just be cautious, since inside they have a poisonous milky sap that causes skin irritation.

My front garden is chock-full of euphorbias, including the euphorbia rigida, an evergreen shrub with small pointy leaves and pale yellow clusters of flowers that bloom in the winter. One of the most popular euphorbias is the euphorbia tirucalli, or "Sticks on Fire," from South Africa, with tendril-like branches that reach toward the sky and turn bright red.

"If you want them to turn red, don't water them," said Thongthiraj. "Water every two months if you want them to be very red."

Agaves — succulents with sharp, long leaves that cluster in a large rosette shape — also need little water. Our side garden is a desert garden, with green agaves surrounded by a bed of white rocks bought at Home Depot and a local rock quarry. Yard fabric underneath keeps out weeds.

When first planting, use soil that is half ground soil and half the plant's root soil — what it comes in from the nursery, said Yvonne Savio, co-ordinator of the Master Gardener volunteer training program at the University of California Cooperative Extension of Los Angeles County.

Then, when you water, do so thoroughly and deeply — what is called "deep watering" — especially for the first year, by filling the area around the plant with water three times until it is good and soaked. Frequency depends on the specific plant and soil type, so always consult local nurseries, which know your soil and climate best. The general rule of (green) thumb is to water drought-tolerant plants deeply and infrequently versus lightly and frequently. Over-watered plants will start to yellow and rot.

Besides saving water, drought-tolerant plants also require little fuss.

"You don't have to mess with them!" said Savio. "They just grow. They're interesting all year long versus annuals," which last just a season or two.

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Follow Solvej Schou at www.twitter.com/Solvej_Schou

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