Designing your Water-wise Landscape with Shrubs and Perennials

When you hear Water-wise in the garden, most people immediately think of succulents. It’s true they are a wonderfully dramatic choice for “going water-wise”; however, if you are not particularly fond of succulents, you have other choices …a more traditional look.

As we are challenged here in Southern California with water restrictions and cutbacks, we can be encouraged by the fact that we have a huge plant palette to choose from as we move forward making changes in our landscapes. I have put together a few recommendations for an appealing, water conservation garden using some of my favorite perennials and shrubs that might be compatible with a more traditional taste or setting.

westringiaWe have two lovely Westringia, ‘Morning Light’ with variegated foliage of cream & green, and ‘Smokey’ in grey. They both have a graceful shrub appearance with fine textured foliage for a “forest-like” or more traditional setting. When they are combined with some drought tolerant perennials or shrub roses it will give you a pleasing contrast in texture, adding both color and grace.

Viburnum obovatom 'Densa'Another water-wise shrub you may want to consider Viburnum obovatom ‘Densa’. It has deep green foliage with clusters of tiny pincushion-like white flowers, growing to a nice size of 3’ round, it is very adaptable to temperatures, and will take both sun and partial shade.

Some perennials tend to look more like shrubs to me.

Salvia leucanthaOne of my favorites is Salvia leucantha and Salvia clevelandii. They both are quite water-wise, colorful and only need to be pruned down periodically to refresh their amazing and eye-catching look in the landscape. Salvia clevelandii has a delightful scent and can be cut to bring inside.

Jasmine angulare looks quite lush, but is easy on the water. Its deep green foliage produces small star-like flowers over the entire shrub and spreads to six feet round by 3’ tall. It’s also a great choice for slopes. Eremophila maculata blooms in pink or red. We have one called ‘Red Hearts’ that I find very interesting. It grows to about 4’ round exploding in red clusters in the spring.

RosemaryRosemary is a very nice water-wise choice. It comes in a prostrate form named ‘Irene’ for drooping over containers or planters…it may work very well on small slopes as well. The other form is officinalis. We have one called ‘Tuscan Blue’ that gets brilliant lavender blue flowers and grows upright to about 5’ tall. I love the scent of Rosemary & often snip some to bring into the house for a vase of fragrance & greenery. The scent is wonderful and it has such a clean look in a slender vase or jar. I often put it on the kitchen table or my desk. I like to see this plant with soft “shrubby” perennials. One I find looks nice with Rosemary is Salvia microphylla ‘Big Pink’ or…Salvia greggii hybrid ‘Concord Grape’ with its soft stems & deep purple flowers. These are both simple to shape with a simple snap of a stem.

I have probably startled you, when I mentioned roses in my scenario for a waterwise landscape…right? I’d love for you to take a look at the following article supporting our concept of water-wise Roses. You will find it at

For those of you who love Roses, but thought they were not an option, I think you will be pleasantly surprised to see this article by Tom Carruth, curator of the Huntington Library’s Botanical Gardens. Learn how he transformed the Rose Gardens! Some of my favorite Roses are Sharon’s Delight, Spanish Red, White Iceberg, Playboy, Lavender Delight, Pink Cadillac, & Sunny Side Up.

Gaura lindheimeriiGaura lindheimerii is one of my favorite more water-wise perennials. Its long stems gently flow with the breeze and have pinkish to white flowers up the stem. When any of the long thin stems start to lie down, it is quite simple to just snip them off to freshen up the overall look. You can cut back as required to manage the overall appearance.

LavenderLavender is also a great perennial for appearance and scent. They are sensitive to overwatering (especially in the summer), making them a good water-wise choice to combine with shrubs & roses. My favorite varieties are Lavandula angustifolia, heterophylla & multifada for their graceful, long stems.

Lobelia laxifloraIf you have room for a traveling perennial with that wildflower look, you might want to try some Lobelia laxiflora, or Centranthus. They both are very graceful in appearance, have slim stems about 2 ½’ tall, and bear colorful flowers. The Lobelia has reddish orange flowers up the stems, while Centranthus gets pink or white flowers at the top.

Quite different than the appearance of the plants we have been talking about is a group that is lower and makes a wonderful addition to this kind of unique water-wise garden. Centauria ragusina is what we call our Snowflake Dusty Miller. One day we were looking at its soft velvety leaves from above and suddenly saw a resemblance in form to a snowflake. It produces orbs of brilliant yellow flowers in the summer, adding interest to the appearance. This plant is soft silvery grey in color, rather compact, only growing about 14 inches tall, with a spread of only about 2 feet & makes a nice compliment to other shrubs and perennials.

Helichrysum italicumHelichrysum italicum, the “Curry Plant” is also grey, but very different in form with thin short leaves, rather like Rosemary. It is also gets creamy yellow flowers at the end of its stems from mid-summer to fall adding to its overall appeal.

Bearded IrisAnother choice with a very different form is Bearded Iris. Extremely drought tolerant, their deep, lush green leaves with vertical lines can produce the uniquely, beautiful Iris blossoms in many different colors & will add interest to your waterwise collection of plants. I find them most attractive planted in groupings or waves within the landscape. Another perennial that is best planted in this way is Pelargonium Nutmeg. If you live coastally, Pelargonium Nutmeg is a great compact choice. It also gives a lush appearance with roundish, fragrant leaves forming soft spreading clumps. It makes a very soft, fluffy ground cover growing about a foot tall and spreading up to 2-3 feet sprinkled with tiny white flowers most of the year.

Santa Barbara DaisyFor a low growing, slightly spreading perennial, Erigeron karvinskianus, the Santa Barbara Daisy with fern-like foliage makes a nice choice. It adorns itself with tiny daisy-like blossoms of white, with a slight pinkish blush & yellow center looking quite delicate, but is a dynamite performer at 1’ tall by 2 ½ -3’ round.

When it comes to “accents” for your landscape, one of my favorites in my water wise list is Melaleuca incana…our Silver Strands. It is very hardy, water-wise and looks best pruned into a small tree with fine textured foliage much like a Rosemary, only in a silvery color…and BEAUTIFUL. It grows in height to about 10 feet with fuzzy, yellow flowers the shape of bottle brush spring to summer.

LeptospermumAnother favorite would be Leptospermum. I like the light pink or white, but red is also very popular. I like it’s vertical, pyramidal shape growing to 8 feet tall. When they bloom in late fall to spring, it’s as though they are dusted with stars.

There is one more plant that brings me so much joy when it blooms! It is Caesalpinia gilliesii, the Desert Bird of Paradise! This is also a shrub, best pruned and shaped into a small tree. Its blossoms are a delight, blooming spring through fall with big clusters of yellow flowers with accents of red feather-like strands on fern-like foliage. It does go deciduous in the winter, but this one is worth the wait.

Caesalpinia gillieseii Desert Bird of ParadiseI hope you have enjoyed learning about some ideas for developing your new water wise garden or landscape. I truly love gardening, and hope that I have inspired you to learn more about these varieties in our website. On our main menu, you will find PLANTS. It will lead you to descriptions & photos updated on a continuous basis. Explore…& have fun as you become inspired to create your outdoor environment that is uniquely yours to enjoy