Salvias, Sages, and Succulents: A Santa Cruz Gardener's Guide to Coping with Drought

Salvias, Sages, and Succulents: A Santa Cruz Gardener's Guide to Coping with Drought

Quick take:

The meadows date back to the 1900s and are disappearing from the local landscape. But what should be planted as the water supply problem grows? We spoke to the experts and have tips for getting started or continuing.

Don't hose down those sidewalks. Or water the lawn shortly after it rains. And plug any leaky faucet or hose. With the entry of California A The third year of droughtthe state has Ban wasteful water practices They threaten to do more as our water supply becomes smaller.

But can we still garden? Santa Cruz County is located in Agriculture Zone 9B, a zone that allows the growing of almost anything. Even though we have experienced the driest winter months in 100 years, we can still grow proper greenery.

“I would say there are more people indicating concern about drought-tolerant plants this year than usual,” Krista Jennings, director of Dig Gardens' Aptos nursery, told Lookout this week.

Although Santa Cruz residents generally score well in water awareness — being “water wise” and in reducing outdoor water use over time — more people are converting their environments, some quickly, some slowly, to… More drought tolerant landscapes. They continue to tear up water-guzzling lawns for aquatic plants.

Drought-tolerant plants or aquatic plants refer to plants that have adapted to survive, and in many cases, produce beautiful flowers, on a limited amount of water.

For people who are new to maintaining a drought-tolerant yard, and for those who want more resources and tips, Lookout spoke with UC Santa Cruz Executive Director Martin Quigley And with Jennings about some helpful drought-tolerant yard/landscape tips, common plants and trends they've seen.

“If you have a mix of herbaceous perennials and shrubs, this is the best way to have a drought-loving garden,” Quigley said.

Herbaceous perennials include non-woody plants, such as sage and sage (which need cutting back to maintain each year) and succulents. Shrubs are multi-stemmed plants that can be pruned and shaped and are long-lasting. If you're looking for a tall garden of drought-tolerant plants, you're out of luck.

While Lookout can't list all the drought-tolerant plants that can thrive in Santa Cruz County, there are many beyond the popular succulents. There is a huge amount of locally specific information available from them Online resourcesa Master Gardener Hotlineand local nursery or UCSC Arboretum staff.

We'll talk about a few tips for anyone just starting out.

An example of a drought-tolerant landscape filled with cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum.
An example of a drought-tolerant landscape filled with cacti and succulents at the UCSC Arboretum. credit: Hilary Ojeda/Santa Cruz Observatory

If you're trying to get rid of grass…

As the number of lawns in the county continues to decline, some people may be starting this journey from this first step.

“Prairies in America in almost all cases are not suitable for the local climate,” Quigley said.

He wants you to know that making that leap from green lawn to drought-tolerant yard can be a much easier process than you might think.

“If you want to change from a lawn to a succulent garden, or a dryland garden, or even just a shrub garden, you don't have to tear out everything at once,” he said. “Because this is too daunting.”

In most cases, this will cost a lot of money, and you may need a contractor.

“You can cut the grass into smaller pieces and plant islands that will merge over a few years to form a larger island, until eventually you have stone and gravel paths and no grass at all,” he said.

Quigley said there are two ways to kill grass. It is not recommended to kill grass by ripping it, because it is too much work and because it can kill good worms and insects.

One way: Cover the entire grass, or a smaller area, with plastic, cardboard or mulch for two months during the summer, killing it.

“So, if you're just smothering the grass, you can do it with cardboard or newspaper and leaves, and you can just shade it out,” he said. “It only takes a few weeks to cook that grass under the cardboard.”

The showy honey myrtle tree in Australia blooms for several months.
The showy honey myrtle tree in Australia blooms for several months. credit: Hilary Ojeda/Santa Cruz Observatory

How do you decide what to plant?

Deciding what to plant in your garden depends on many factors, but perhaps the most important is where you live in the county.

Santa Cruz Province is located in one of the world's five regions with a Mediterranean climate (the other four include regions of North Africa, Spain, southwestern Australia, South Africa and parts of Chile), and is home to numerous microenvironments. Among them: oak forest, mixed evergreen forest, coastal terraces, and redwood forest. Highly shaded redwoods present a major challenge, necessitating plants that can handle drought and lack of sunlight. Each of these microclimates varies in their tolerance to frost and the amount of moisture that falls from the sky, with the Santa Cruz Mountains often seeing twice the rainfall as the cities.

Sierra Ryan, Santa Cruz County's water resources director, offers some common sense. First, take a walk around the neighborhood and look around.

“That's what I did when we were planning our yard — just walk around the neighborhood and see what people are growing,” she said. “I saw that a group of people in my neighborhood had thriving persimmon trees, so we planted a persimmon tree.”

While you are checking which plants are growing well, also check what type of irrigation systems are in place.

If you prefer to get ideas for your microenvironment from a template, Ryan suggests visiting an online resource put together by the Santa Cruz County Water Conservation Alliance at Go to the Resources tab and click on “Yard & Garden Resources.” There is a wealth of information, including ready-made Landscape designs of the different microenvironments found in Santa Cruz County.

There's another important factor to consider when deciding what to plant: What is the purpose of what you want to grow? Do you want plants to form a barrier around your property or do you want plants that form a ground cover? Or do you just want plants that will bloom for a longer period of the year?

Some plants will serve multiple purposes. If you want a drought-tolerant plant that serves well as a ground cover, a good plant to start with is grevillea, Quigley says.

“They're beautiful,” he said. “They're long-lasting.” “They're fire-resistant. There is a Grevillea ground cover that blooms up to 11 months a year.

Grevillea is a great drought-tolerant ground cover plant that blooms 11 months of the year.
Grevillea is a great drought-tolerant ground cover plant that blooms 11 months of the year. credit: Hilary Ojeda/Santa Cruz Observatory

When you start watering, be sure to water your drought-tolerant plants deeply when you first plant them. While this may seem counterintuitive, these drought-tolerant plants need to be watered deeply for the first six months or so.

After they have had a chance to develop roots, they will become more tolerant of low watering. For basic watering tips, click here.

Besides the obviously popular succulents, other drought-tolerant plants that have increased in popularity in recent years include the many species of sagebrush and protea, said Jennings, director of Dig Gardens, and Quigley.

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One of the most requested flowers at the Dig, according to Jennings, is the pincushion.

“There's nothing more exciting than the protea, or pincushion flower,” Jennings said. “Once they are brought here, they are sold again.”

But the salvias are not far behind.

“I would say our most popular category is sage, because it comes in a wide range of colors,” she said. “There are a lot of drought-tolerant species. They bloom almost all year round in our climate. So it's a very popular, drought-tolerant plant.

She estimates that in the past 10 years, the amount of square footage in the Dig Gardens nursery dedicated to plants in the succulents and succulents collections has doubled.

“Over time, we have definitely increased the square footage that will go to more drought-tolerant plants,” she said.

More resources

  • communicate: UC Master Growers Hotline in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties: 831-763-8007. Business hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon, so if you call during closing hours, you can leave a message with your question and information. The office is located at 1430 Freedom Blvd., Suite E, in Watsonville, or contact them via email And visit their site here.
  • is reading: Are you more of a bookish person? Quigley suggests choosing the Sunset Western Garden Book, which has been updated regularly and used as a guide for decades.
  • Connect to the Internet: Find resources from the Water Conservation Alliance of Santa Cruz County Resources here.
  • Visit UC Santa Cruz Arboretum for in-person learning. The arboretum is located at 1 Arboretum Road and the garden is open from 9am to 5pm daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for youth ages 6-17. Master Gardeners are available to answer questions at the on-site store, Nouri's Gift and Garden ShopIt is open from Wednesday to Sunday with limited hours.
  • Visit Your local nursery.
    (tags for translation)Coastal Life

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