Regional Picks: Water-Wise Plants – Southern California

Fine Gardening – Issue 170

Southern California


1. Deer Grass


Name: Muhlenbergia rigens

Usda Hardiness Zones: 5 to 11

Size: 3 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; tolerates a wide range of soils

Deer grass is a lovely bunch grass native to much of California and grows well in both dry and slightly wetter areas. This graceful grass grows to 5 feet tall once the late summer blooms come in, making for an elegant plant that gently dances when it catches a breeze. An excellent contrast to more architectural denizens of a garden, deer grass is a good substitute for the very invasive and overused Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima, Zones 7–11).


2. Island Alum Root


Name: Heuchera maxima

Zones: 8 to 10

Size: 14 inches tall and 24 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to shade; tolerates a wide range of soils

The key word in the Latin name of island alum root, another California native, is maxima, as it is larger than other Heuchera and does an excellent job of populating difficult areas, like the dry shade under oaks. That said, don’t use it just in deep shade! This soft green, spreading mound is tough and flexible, working well in almost any condition it’s put in, thriving with occasional water. The delicate white (sometimes light pink) flowers are a bonus.


3. Santa Barbara Daisy


Name: Erigeron karvinskianus

Zones: 8 to 10

Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

With small flowers and feathery leaves, one might think Santa Barbara daisy is best used in a cottage garden. Not at all. Cuddle this drought-tolerant beauty under an agave (Agave spp. and cvs., Zones 5–11) or some aeoniums (Aeonium spp. and cvs., Zones 9–11), and you have an unexpected contrast that will bump your dry garden to the next level. It blooms beautifully in spring; an easy cut-back during summer refreshes the plant for a repeat performance in fall.


4. Dwarf Japanese Juniper


Name: Juniperus procumbens Nana’

Zones: 4 to 9

Size: 1 foot tall and 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Let’s be honest: Junipers have a bad reputation. Nobody really likes them, and when they use them, it is under extreme duress, in the most difficult of situations when nothing else fits the bill. Fie on that! Dwarf Japanese juniper is a top-shelf evergreen shrub that elevates any planting you use it in. As a ground cover, it grows slowly but with grace, partnering effectively with its neighbors and lending an air of sophistication and cool, clean style to a landscape, whether it is spare and modern or eclectic. Its low water and even lower maintenance needs make it a no-brainer for mixing into drought-tolerant gardens.


Ivette Soler is a garden designer from Southern California and the author of The Edible Front Yard.

Photos, except where noted: Joshua McCullough; Doreen Wynja; Michelle Gervais; courtesy of Ivette Soler

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