The secret to having a drought tolerant garden isn't in the plants, at least not totally, says garden expert Patrice Hanlon.

It's in the soil.

"A drought tolerant garden grows from the ground up," Hanlon told the group at Our Garden. "If you don't have soil that will retain the water and support the plants, you won't have a drought tolerant garden."

Hanlon, who is helping the city of Walnut Creek establish a native garden for pollinators, offered her tips for having a garden that uses less water.

Know your space

  • Drought has become the new norm for California, Hanlon says, and people need to look at how they are using water in their landscape, not just in drought years but for long term.

  • Learn everything you can about your space. Study where the sun and shade is during each season, know your microclimate, and design your garden to maximize the conditions.

  • Grow the soil first. Good soil will mean plants will need less water and fertilizer.

  • Most of us garden in soil that is heavy clay. Amend the soil by adding compost.

    Choose wisely

  • A plant that is drought tolerant in one garden may not be in another because of the different conditions.

  • Even non-drought tolerant plants can survive on less water if they are planted in the right places.

  • Don't plant in rows. Grouping plants in clusters not only will allow you to have more plants in the beds, but the growing plants will shade the soil, helping to slow evaporation.

  • Don't arrange plants just by what looks good together. Look first at what the plant's water needs are, then group plants with the same water needs together, which will prevent over or under watering.

    Keeping it dry

    Research your plants. California natives hate summer water; even non-drought tolerant plants can, at times, have their water cut back. Know the plant and how much water it needs throughout the year.

  • Instead of watering multiple times a week, practice deep watering at more infrequent intervals. Deep watering encourages the plants' roots to follow the water downward, where it will find natural reservoirs of water.

    Loving the lawn

  • Many people are removing their lawns to conserve water, but not everyone wants to do that. There are ways to reduce water going to the lawn, including leaving grass clippings on the lawn as a natural, slow-release fertilizer.

  • Raise the blade on your lawn mower and mow every other week. The shorter you cut your lawn, the faster it will grow, so letting it get a little tall and lopping off less will slow the growth and the water needs.

  • Practice deep, infrequent watering.

    Popular plants

    Here are some of Hanlon's favorite drought tolerant plants:

    Shrubs:

    Rhamnus californica (California coffeeberry)

    Rhamnus alaternus 'variegata' (Variegated Italian buckthorn)

    Leucophyllum candidum 'Thunder Cloud' (Texas Ranger)

    Eriophyllum confertiflorum (Golden yarrow)

    Lavatera maritime (Tree mallow)

    Phymosia umbellata (Mexican bush mallow)

    Abutilon magapotamicum (Abutilon)

    Plumbago auriculata (Cape leadword)

    Buddleja nivea yunnanensis (Buddleja)

    Coprosma 'Rainbow Surprise' (Mirror plant)

    Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' (Variegated false holly)

    Hebe sp. (Hebe)

    Correa 'Wyn's Wonder' (Variegated Australian fuchsia)

    Perennials

    Solidago californica (Goldenrod)

    Penstemon heterophyllus (Foothill penstemon)

    Diplictera suberecta (Velvet honeysuckle)

    Salvia apiana (White sage)

    Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland sage)

    Nepeta tuberosa (Catmint)

    Asclepias speciosa (Showy milkweed)

    Senecio cineraria (Dusty miller)

    Eriogonum fasciculatum (Buckwheat)

    Gaillardia sp. (Gaillardia)

    Herbs

    Aloysia citrodora (Lemon verbena)

    Lavandula sp. (Lavender)

    Agastache foeniculum (Anise hyssop)

    Agastache sp.

    Origanium (Ornamental oregano)

    Satureja montana (Winter savory)

    Check the leaves

    If you're uncertain whether a plant is drought tolerant, a look at the leaves can provide a clue. Drought tolerant plants generally will have leaves that are:

  • Waxy

  • Small

  • Silvery

  • Spiky

  • Hairy

    Our Garden

    Our Garden offers free gardening classes 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday, through October. The garden is located at Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions and diagnose disease and pests, and there is a wide variety of plants for sale.

    Next time in the Garden: No class on July 2, but join us on July 9 for living with wildlife with Master Gardener Susan Heckley.