Deborah Robertson is a horticulturalist and garden designer from Oklahoma City. She designed and installed the Master Gardeners’ garden at the 2004 Symphony Designers Show House in Nichols Hills.

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Resource Conservation
by Deborah Robertson    

The drawing above is a great example of a low-water-use planting covering a variety of plant sizes and textures.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, maiden grass   2. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, feather reed grass   3. Euphorbia characias wulfenii    4. Achillea millefolium ‘Moonshine’, yarrow    5. Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, golden sword    6. Yucca gloriosa, mound lily yucca   7. Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’, purple fountain grass  8. Hesperaloe parviflora, red yucca  9. Santolina chamaecyparissus    10. Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’, blue fescue
11. Sempervivum sp., hen and chicks    12. Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’    13. Sedum sieboldii

Low-water-use gardening with grasses and succulents

As reported rainfall declines and the demand for water increases, it becomes time for gardeners to rethink their gardening style and move away from the manicured lawn and heavily watered and fertilized yards. Now, and in the future, we need to look to the low-water-use garden. This does not mean that a gardener has to sacrifice color and year-round interest, but to consider adding some different plants to the planting palette.

Plants from naturally dry regions have evolved to survive drought. The smaller a plant’s leaf, such as the grassy quills of Festuca ovina, the less water that is lost from the surface. Gray or silver foliage and other light-colored leaves reflect glare. The fleshy leaves of succulents not only store water, but often have waxy surfaces that retain moisture. Plants may develop spines to protect them from grazing animals. Many plants develop deep taproots to search for water at cooler levels, like the yucca family. Plants such as sedums and sempervivum grow in shallow soil with extensive fibrous root systems that gather moisture trapped by rocks.

Above is an example of a low-water-use garden with many contrasts – varying heights, shapes and textures of foliage, flowers, rocks and gravel and colors ranging from silvery blue to burgundy to accents of red, yellow-green to yellow to variegated stripes – all designed to provide year-round interest in the garden.


‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass is the most upright of the ornamental grasses. It’s very useful as a vertical accent.

Hesperaloe parviflora, red yucca, soars above a low grass known as the “moustache” plant because of its seed heads.

Tall plants to be used in back of garden

Saccharum ravennae, ravenna grass, 10 to 12 feet, use for screen or focal point, good substitute for pampas grass (Cortaderia)

Miscanthus sinensis, fountainlike habit, attractive plumes stay through winter, DR*

‘Variegatus’, vertical stripes, lights up a moonlit night

‘Gracillimus’, maiden grass, 6 to 8 feet, most drought tolerant

‘Morning Light’, 4 to 5 feet, long vertical stripes, fine blade, rust/bronze flower plumes

‘Purpurescens’, 3 to 4 feet, leaves turn reddish/bronze in fall

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, feather reed grass, 3 to 6 feet, upright habit, flowering stems 5 to 6 feet appear in summer, are attractive all winter, perennial of the year award winner

• Yucca species, bold, dramatic accent plant, most durable and maintenance-free of broadleaf evergreens available, DR*

Y. filamentosa ‘Adam’s Needle’, creamy white bell-shaped flowers on stalks 4 to 7 feet above stiff, lance-shaped spiky leaves

Y. gloriosa, mound lily yucca, 6 feet, softer than other yuccas, will not penetrate the skin, blue-green leaves contrast nicely with other green foliage



Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ is the most drought tolerant grass. Its feathery plumes stay attractive all winter.

From left: Carex comans, a sedge, mixes with a red-edged succulent and a silvery-blue yucca. Together they provide a nice contrast of colors and textures. All are low-water-use plants.
Mid-Range Plants
Hesperaloe parviflora, red yucca, 3 to 4 feet mounded plant with narrow evergreen leaves and red flower stalks rising 4 to 6 feet above whorled foliage, best in hot, dry locations

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’, or purple fountain grass, has an arching habit with striking, long-lasting purple inflorescence

Foreground: Nasella tenuisimma, Mexican feather grass. Middleground: Purple fountain grass. Rear: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ with bands running across the leaf blade instead of along the edge as in most grasses. These grasses of various heights add interest to the garden with black-eyed Susan and other perennials.

Yucca filamentosa ‘Golden Sword’ or ‘Color Guard’, 2-foot yellow leaves edged in dark green, coral winter color, DR*

Muhlenbergia capillaris, 2 to 3 feet, ‘Regal Mist’ muhly grass has airy red/pink powder-puff inflorescences, pale, grayish green foliage, DR*

Pennisetum alopecuroides, fountain grass, 2 to 4 feet, graceful “foxtail” flowers in late summer, delicate inflorescence and fine leaves contrast nicely with broad-leafed plants such as sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, DR*

‘Hameln’, dwarf variety, 12 to 25 inches

‘Moudry’, 2 to 3 feet, contrasting black awns on the seed heads

Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’, 18 to 24 inches, upright clumping succulent perennial, grows well in difficult sites, attracts butterflies and pollinators/ bees, DR*

Nasella tenuisimma, Mexican feather grass, fine texture, very adaptable/durable, DR*

Eragrostis curvula, weeping love grass, low mounding, 18 to 24 inches, very drought tolerant, pretty in breezes

Santolina chamaecyparissus, 1 to 2 feet, evergreen, aromatic mounding plant covered with yellow buttonlike flowers midsummer, stem used as moth repellent, softens the look of spiky plants, useful in rock gardens or as low hedge, DR*

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’, purple fountain grass, up to 4 feet, great burgundy color with reddish purple plumes, especially attractive when planted with silvery foliage plants like santolina and artemisia, must be treated as an annual but is fast growing, DR*

Euphorbia characias wulfenii, dome-shaped succulent bush to 4 feet tall, clusters of yellow flowers, sap can be irritating to the skin, DR*

Achillea millefolium ‘Moonshine’, yarrow, up to 2 feet, deep yellow flat-topped flower clusters attractive to butterflies, DR*


Low Growing Plants

Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’, blue fescue, up to 12 inches, perennial grass, attractive tuft of metallic blue foliage, useful in rock gardens and as edging or accent plant, combine with penstemon, achillea (yarrow), DR*

Blue fescue ornamental grass grows in fine-textured clumps with a silvery-blue hue
that is best displayed against rough-textured boulders.

Carex morrowii ‘Aureo-Variegata’, sedge, 1 foot, tufts of yellow striped grasslike foliage

Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’, Japanese blood grass, 1 to 2 feet, leaf tips are bright red

• Liriope muscari, monkey grass, forms clumps 1 to 2 feet with 6-inch violet flowers, low maintenance, will take shade, DR*

• Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, black mondo grass, nearly black grasslike leaves to 14 inches, striking when combined with chartreuse foliage of Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, shade, DR*

Sempervivum species, hen and chicks, 2 to 4 inches, evergreen succulent rosette, use in rock gardens, small spaces between rocks, in retaining walls, contrasts well with grasses, stone or gravel mulch, DR*

Shown here are various colors and sizes of Sempervivum, better known as hen
and chicks. Gravel acts as mulch and contrasts nicely with the plants.

Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’, to 6 inches, trailing perennial, evergreen succulent leaves turn bronze in winter, DR*

S. sieboldii, 4 inches high, spreads to 12 inches wide, blue-gray leaves with red edges, turns coppery red in fall, ‘Variegatum’ leaves have yellow/white markings, DR*

For examples of naturally drought-resistant plants, look to the deserts, prairies, seashore natives and Mediterranean climates – areas which usually have poor soil (you can save money by not fertilizing). Add rocks and boulders to your design – they are good contrasts to the architectural shapes of plants like yuccas and provide places to tuck in the smaller succulents, giving them some shade. Place them on a small slope for good drainage and to add visual interest.

Use gravel for a path and around plants as mulch. Gravel is useful as an interesting contrast to the plants, for water retention and for drainage. Most low water plants do not like “wet feet,” particularly in the winter. Water deeply as needed; do not water in small, frequent amounts as this encourages surface rooting. Use recycled water collected in a rain barrel or gray water (domestic water that has been used for bathing or laundry).


DR* - deer resistant plants


Posted: 12/28/11   RSS | Print


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