The Dry Garden: For water-wise ideas on what to plant this spring, take a tour (and take notes)


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

It’s only February, but bestirred by rain and gathering days, California lilacs are blooming, manzanitas are bedecked with bells and irises are pent up for a March explosion.

It doesn’t just feel like spring, it is spring in Southern California. So, if you are considering a dry garden for your home, now is the time to meet the natives. This is the moment to go to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.


Prepare for romance. There is nothing that quite compares with the first stroll through Rancho. But, remember, it’s also a beauty contest, and you are a judge. You are auditioning plants that you may one day put in your garden. Take paper, a pen and a camera. Print out a copy of the garden’s landscape plan and accompanying plant list. The list and beds are coded, so if plant tags are missing, you will know what’s what.

Rancho can be a magical place for small children, but leave them at home for this trip. You will be walking the fine line between reverie and scrutiny, taking in beauty, then allowing your mind to trip quickly from fascination to hard calculus. Your toddlers will be off at college while you are still living with plants spotted on this trip.

When reconnoitering, be clinical. If you are suddenly taken by a stand of woolly blue curls, salvias or penstemons, don’t let it go with a sigh. Stop. Read the plant tag. Write down the plant name -- the full name. Botanical Latin is a royal pain, but it is also a vital tool.

In a botanical name, the genus of plants is the first term, then the species name and/or the words for the nursery-bred cultivar. By using these terms correctly, we are guaranteed to get the plant we want and not some big, wrong cousin. Within one genus, different species often range from trees to groundcover.

As foreign as it seems at first, we classify things this way all the time. If this were a trip through IKEA, we would automatically note the difference between a dining chair versus an arm chair. In a garden, it’s exactly the same process, except in Latin, and backward. That makes it hard, but it’s worth it. The most insufferable of us become very good at it.

While noting the exact names, also note the sizes and the spacing afforded the mature plants. Next time you see one of the plants, it may well be a juvenile in a 6-inch nursery pot.


If you like how two plants have been partnered, write down both names and note the placement and spacing. (This is where you will be glad that you printed out the map.)

Finally, as you list the plants you like, note whether they are trees, woody shrubs, more herbaceous soft-limbed shrubs, vines, grasses, flowers, succulents, cactuses or groundcovers. Also describe their growing habit, particularly if they are prostrate. The ability to droop is a beautiful thing in a ledged garden.

Once you get home, it will be time to redo the list, except this time group the plants by categories (tree, shrub, vine, etc.) instead of the order in which you encountered them.

Now you are ready for the next step. It’s time to hit the books to study the plants on your short list. Are they right for your microclimate and site? Once you understand their needs and habits, it will be time to think about layout and how to furnish your new garden with plants that were caught in springtime and became your first loves.

Other places to tour:

Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden, Manhattan Beach

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden


Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Santa Barbara

Shipley Nature Center, Huntington Beach

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on water-wise gardening appears here weekly.

Upper photo: A manzanita at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Center photo: A redbud tree and blooming California poppies at Rancho Santa Ana. Credit: James Erin de Jauregui / For The Times

Lower photo: Some of Rancho Santa Ana’s ceanothus, blooming in blue. Credit: James Erin de Jauregui / For The Times