Margaret Lloyd, Stephanie Ingraham

15 Thrifty Tips for Low-Water Landscapes

These 15 thrifty landscape tips are from a consultation I did for a popular wedding venue in Santa Barbara. They incorporate---but are not limited to---succulents. Apply my simple, economical fixes in your own low-water, mild-climate garden too!

Rockwood's Dilemma

Imagine having 2-1/2 drought-stressed acres that have to look good for guests and visitors, but almost no money to make it happen. Such is the dilemma of the Santa Barbara Woman's Club at Rockwood, a historic Spanish-colonial building near downtown. Members are valiantly trying to keep the grounds looking good, despite minimal rainfall and a budget severely reduced by Covid.

Debra's Suggestions

1. Don’t try to tackle 2-1/2 acres all at once

Focus on a few special locations, and make them picture-perfect. Continually evaluate these spots from visitors' (and photographers') vantage points. To help you fine-tune, pose a friend where guests might stand and take your own photos.

Rockwood, from parking lot (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

This is what visitors see from the main parking lot. Margaret Lloyd, shown here, was grounds chairman during Covid. Her successor is Stephanie Ingraham (top photo, with Margaret).

2. Aim to create a set-apart ambience

When guests enter the grounds, whether on foot or by car, they need to feel like they're leaving the world behind. Keep that ambience in mind as you prioritize and enhance various locales, especially the entry drive and pathways from parking areas.

3. Repeat successful plants

In gaps, add more of those succulents that are already doing well: Agave parryi ‘Truncata’, Agave attenuata, aeoniums, yuccas, aloes, Portulacaria afra (elephant's food), and jade. This will lend design continuity and minimize maintenance. Do not, however, be tempted to add Agave americana.

Succulents that work (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Certain agaves, yuccas, aeoniums and other succulents that are already doing well at Rockwood are worth repeating

4. Add rocks of all sizes

You can never have too many rocks in a low-water landscape, especially one named Rockwood! Cluster boulders, and fill gaps with crushed rock. See: Why You Really Need Rocks.

5. Maintain existing plants

To look their best, Agave attenuata rosettes atop exposed trunks need to be surrounded by similar agaves or cut back and replanted. Pull out leggy aeoniums and replant as cuttings (keep the top growth and discard roots and stems). See: How to Refresh an Overgrown Succulent Garden. 

A prominent area near the parking lot needs more agaves and aeoniums, plus crushed-rock topdressing.

6. Refresh the soil

To make it easier for cuttings to establish roots, dig and turn the soil, and amend with compost.

7. Tackle eyesores

An awkwardly chopped tree trunk ruins what would otherwise be a great vignette. Five seconds with a chain saw and it’s fixed. Don’t assume eyesores can simply be photoshopped---not as easy as it sounds.

Eyesore of a poorly pruned tree (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Removing the truncated limb of a poorly pruned tree is a fast fix.

8. Control and prevent weeds

In garden beds and those areas that guests see first or are likely to linger, be vigilant about weeding. Before winter rains, spread pre-emergent herbicide to minimize the number of seeds that sprout.

9. Add decomposed granite

After removing weeds from the woodland’s sunny areas, spread a golden decomposed granite to lend a finished look. It’s less expensive than gravel and suits the natural setting.

10. Check irrigation

To look their best, succulents need regular water during hot, dry spells. Make sure focal-point areas have efficient irrigation so plants stay lush and green.

Rockwood entry sign (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

High priority: Remove weeds surrounding the clubhouse entry sign

11. Use fallen leaves

Don’t bother to rake and remove fallen oak leaves, except from paved areas and pathways. Let leaves create a natural mulch that holds moisture in the soil and helps prevent weeds.

12. Pay attention to leading lines

Horizontal tree limbs, pavement curves, and even handrails all have lines that lead the eye. Keep them in mind when preparing focal-point, photo-op areas.

13. Add color and texture

Plant more bougainvillea. It’s colorful, romantic and low-water once established. Use it to soften walls and hard edges, thereby making the clubhouse more integral to its setting. As budget allows, add low-water flowering trees such as jacaranda and palo verde.

Bougainvillea brightens the front driveway garden (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Bougainvillea brightens the front driveway garden

14. Add flowers in pots

Place pots of flowering plants along the top of the long, low rock wall in front of the clubhouse. Pick ceramic pots in sage, dark brown or bronze to blend in. Fill with succulent cuttings or trailing red geraniums that repeat the red of bougainvillea. Water and refresh as needed.

15. Obtain free plants

During Covid, members of the Santa Barbara Woman’s club generously donated succulents from their gardens. If you live in the area, do let the group know if you have Agave attenuata and other large succulents to share (see "Repeat Successful Plants" above). If you own a nursery, donating plants to a worthy organization is a great way to be noticed and appreciated by its members and the community.

Santa Barbara Woman's Club June 2021 (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

In June, 2021 I spoke on the subject of "Designing with Succulents" at the Santa Barbara Woman's Club. 

If you're an intelligent, friendly woman in the Santa Barbara area who enjoys pleasant social camaraderie, luncheons, teas and interesting and informative speakers (!), do consider visiting and/or joining the Santa Barbara Woman's Club. If I lived nearby, I would.

Contact the Santa Barbara Woman's Club at Rockwood, 670 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, CA; 805/682-4546


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