Real Estate

Saving water and blooming all year round

Water-wise gardens offer plenty of color options, says gardening teacher

Water-wise gardens, popular during the drought, do not have to be a colorless compromise, according to Roberta Barnes, who teaches science-based gardening in Palo Alto. Planned right, they can be a great source of year-round blooms.

California native plants and others from similar climates beautify a water-wise garden at different times throughout the year, said Barnes who will be leading a seminar, "Success with Low-water Ornamentals," at Rinconada Library in Palo Alto on Feb. 18, starting at 7 p.m.

"Low-water plants from Australia usually bloom in winter," she said. "Then it's Mediterranean rosemary in late winter through early spring, naturalized tulips in spring, water-wise roses from late spring through summer, lavender in summer, California fuchsia in late summer through early fall, and correa from October all the way through next spring."

The seminar will cover how to design a water-saving garden with plants that bloom all year round and how to add low-water plants to a regular garden by hydro-zoning, the practice of clustering plants with similar water requirements in an effort to conserve water. The free presentation is part of a series sponsored by the Palo Alto Library and the nonprofit University of California Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County.

Water-smart gardening has already caught on in Palo Alto. Resident Jane Foglesong said she and her husband are adding native plants to their garden because they are attractive, require less water and chemical fertilizers, encourage beneficial insects and aid in the pollination of fruit trees.

"At present the native plants are integrated with other plants that need more regular watering, but over time we will add more natives, replacing those that need more water," Foglesong said.

To grow low-water plants, Barnes said it's best to start when the soil is damp, before the end of winter rains, which means there is still a little time left this year.

"One thing to keep in mind is that these plants still need a little water especially in their first year. 'Low water' doesn't mean no water," Barnes said.

As for how often one should water these natives, Barnes said, it varies from plant to plant.

Palo Alto resident Sue Luttner said her family changed their landscaping to eliminate the need for irrigation.

"When our first son was born in July of 1988 and I found myself with no time to shower, let alone water the yard, I let the lawn die," Luttner said. "We replaced it with native plants or plants native to similar climates."

Luttner called columbines and zauschneria "big winners" among the low-water plants at her house because they keep reseeding themselves. She also has plenty of herbs in her garden, including lavender and rosemary.

Palo Alto resident Pamela Chesavage said her family has a mix of natives and edibles in their front yard. The native plants needed very minimal hand watering after the initial installation and no additional water after the third year.

"I'd encourage folks to try to design their gardens themselves," Chesavage said. "Going to the class on the 18th would be a good start, but then I'd encourage folks to check out some books on California native plants, figure out which ones they like, measure their yards, and then start figuring out how to do the installation themselves."

Chesavage added that installation is by far the costliest part of changing a landscape, but it's not hard for amateurs to do.

Walking in the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden on Center Road in Palo Alto recently, Barnes passed by a variety of low-water plants: bell-shaped correa flowers in blush pink, periwinkle rosemary flowers, yellow coneflowers and coral-pink grevilleas. In the distance, a hardenbergia vine covered the fence with pinkish purple blooms.

"In my view, a water-wise garden is more interesting than a regular one," Barnes said. "It's amazing how low-water plants conserve water with either small or fuzzy leaves. It's also fascinating to observe the differences between regular and water-wise roses."

Gardeners who aim to save water don't have to replace their entire yards.

Callie Elliston, a master gardener who lives in Palo Alto, said her family replaced the lawns with native plants that only need water once a month. But they retained lemon, apple, persimmon and pineapple guava trees, along with blueberry bushes, for screening purposes and to save on re-landscaping costs.

"Now we have a glorious spring and enjoy a sustainable garden that provides shelter to native pollinators and small birds," she said.

Elliston added a plug for fellow master gardener Barnes' seminar: "Roberta is one of my favorite speakers -- an excellent teacher, knowledgeable, with a keen sense of design."


What: Success with Low-water Ornamentals with master gardener Roberta Barnes

Date: Thursday, Feb. 18

Time: 7-8:30 p.m.

Where: Embarcadero Program Room, Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road, Palo Alto

Cost: Free, no preregistration is required


Freelance writer Crystal Tai can be emailed at

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