The One Change I'm Making to My Backyard Garden This Summer (And It Only Costs $150)

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garden-refresh: newly planted iris and garden clogs
Dana Dickey

Have a spare afternoon this summer? Here’s my suggestion for a mood-elevating, home value-enhancing and water-bill reducing project: Layer in some drought-tolerant florals for a pop of color in your garden.

I live in California, where we’ve had a rainy few months abating a year-long drought. Still, water-wise gardening is an ongoing national concern. Long sprays of water are not a good idea for the planet or for anyone’s household budget, since all that precious water is largely being sucked up by ornamental grasses and flowers. And while I’m not ready to tear out all the non-native plants in my back yard, I am curious about the native plants that are adapted to the local climate, therefore needing less water. Are they going to look good in my garden, like the native-garden-hype-beasts say, or am I going to actually be planting scrubby flora with all the esthetic appeal of tumbleweed? I decided to use an unloved corner of my garden as a test case.

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1. The Problem Area

I started with a sad, tree-shaded corner. It’s a problem area—the dappled sunlight isn’t great for plant growth, and the pulsating high-summer heat that goes up over 100 degrees is a killer. I’ve placed some perimeter drip irrigation around the yard (seriously, the app-controlled Rachio sprinkler controller is a game-changer), but I’m stingy with the water. This summer, I’ve had it—I’m asking for expert help on a water-wise solution to this regrettable area. I snapped a few pictures of my proposed planting area and took them to the Theodore Payne Foundation, a plant nursery and education center that “inspires and educates Southern Californians about the beauty and ecological benefits of California native plant landscapes.” (TikTok is a great resource for cross-country regional plant experts.) A local designer friend with great taste gave me a gift certificate there for my birthday, so I asked the team to recommend California native plants that would look attractive, mingle nicely and not drink too much. Basically, my directives for everyone that comes over to my house.

backyard-refresh: irises and sage in soil

2. The Solution Plants

We settled on a mass of Canyon Snow irises with a couple Fragrant Pitcher Sages to fill in. The straw-hatted gardener who showed me the plants told me that the irises would clump out into plump green profusions of spring flowers like the few orchid-like blossoms already in place, and that it would attract butterflies. The sage, with its spikes of hairy purple flowers, would explode to be as large as three to five feet wide and tall. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds, she said, as she plucked a leaf off and crushed in in her hands for me to smell. It was intoxicating, minty and fresh.

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3. There’s Always Compromise When Planting

I bought ten of the irises and a couple of the pitcher sages, since the latter threatens to grow into a giant beast, and planted them under my shady fig. It was a bit of a battle, finding places where there was enough soil free of roots. I’m glad I purchased young plants, because although they look a bit sparse when in place, they require less space to be dug out to plant them. When I asked the nursery staff about watering, I got a shock—though these plants are low-water once established, that might take a year to happen, and until that time, I should water deeply and frequently, so that the plant roots would grow downward in order to seek water and be healthier in the long run. OK so, I’ll still need to water my little corner, which is actually fine since I have it automated, and also since it’s so pretty that I’ll be wanting to hang out there for summertime cocktail hours. Added bonus: I don’t have to fertilize, since according to the experts at the nursery, native plants have evolved to get whatever nutrients they need from our natural, non-amended soil.

backyard-refresh: new plants in place under a tree

4. A Little Non-Native Cheating is…Fine

Overall, I’m super happy with my water-wise plant florals. I’m also thrilled that I don’t feel I have to completely pledge my allegiance to the all-native ethos. In other words, I added a couple asparagus ferns which are South African imports but look so perky, fluffy and green from the get-go that I couldn’t resist (and they’re still low-water!). Also, I topped the soil with a thin layer of black wood mulch which is dyed and therefore rejected by garden purists; however, I love its crisp dark background to my green florals and like all mulch it helps keep moisture in the soil. All in, I spent around $150 on my garden tweak, so expect to find me waiting for the hummingbird and butterfly parade all summer long.

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Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space. Suitcases to sex toys, she's got an opinion on what's best. Dana is based in Los Angeles; her work has also appeared in Condé Nast TravelerVogue and The New York Times. Check her out on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...