Santa Monica, CA backyard
Photo: Lisa Romerein
In this drought-tolerant Santa Monica, California, backyard, landscape designer Nicole Lopez cut the lawn back to a rectangle just big enough for lawn sports and kids' play. Then she surrounded it with low-water plants that saturate the space with color and texture.
Introduction to Xeriscaping

Here's a riddle for you: Two homeowners live on the same street. One sprinkles his lawn weekly with massive quantities of bottled water. The other hooks his hose up to an oscillating sprinkler each morning and then cascades the driveway, adjacent pavement, and passersby with the town's finest tap water. Who's being more extravagant?

The answer isn't so easy to figure in drought-prone places like Santa Monica, California, where rainfall measures a scant 12 inches a year and 90 percent of the municipal water supply has to be imported from sources 400 miles away. Not coincidentally, "irrigation overspray" and watering lawns between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when moisture evaporates most quickly, both violate the city's municipal code.

"Where drinking water is scarce, it doesn't make sense to use so much of it on our lawns and flowers," says Santa Monica landscape designer Nicole Lopez. "You need to match plants to the climate that you live in. It just doesn't work the other way around."

The idea of creating a landscape designed to thrive on the amount of rainfall nature provides—called xeriscaping (ZEER-uh-scaping)—seems like a no-brainer when you consider the facts. Across the country, booming populations of homeowners are siphoning off reservoirs of potable water faster than clouds can replenish them. The problem spikes in summer, when, depending on rainfall, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent or more of all residential water used gets lavished on the landscape.

Wherever you live, it makes sense to stretch the finite supply of drinkable H2O as far as it can go. Water-wise landscapes tend to be more resistant to diseases; more welcoming to pollinating butterflies, birds, and bees; and easier to maintain. All good news, whatever the weather report predicts. Using water resources wisely doesn't mean you have to give up turf grass cold turkey or resign yourself to a gravel garden. While soil types, annual precipitation, and recommended plants differ from region to region (and even yard to yard), the basic principles that Lopez applies to sustain landscapes in perpetually water-strapped Southern California will help you create a yard that will weather dry spells, too.

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