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Creating a Drought Tolerant Landscape Plan

Kimberly Madrigal of has generously shared her essay on drought-tolerant landscaping with us.  The original post can be read here.

Comprehensive Drought Tolerant Landscape Plan

Landscaping often accounts for up to 30% of a property’s water consumption, but with proper maintenance and planning you may be able to bring that percentage closer to zero. Before considering what every property manager should do, let’s say a word about what you should not do: don’t pave over green space in an effort to conserve water. Paving over previously green spaces disrupts the natural cycle of water and sends water into the sewer system instead of allowing it to percolate or filter through to the natural underground aquifer from which the city draws a portion of its water. Put simply, sending water off of your property into the streets where it’s funneled into the city’s sewage system is a recipe for higher water bills.

Los Angeles receives an average of 12 – 13 inches of rainfall per year, concentrated during the winter months. We receive virtually no rain for at least six months of the year; therefore, the best type of landscaping here is drought tolerant or xeriscaping that requires little to no water once it is established.

Observe Your Property

The first step of any landscape plan is to take a look at your property and what you’ll want to take note of are changes in elevation: does your lot have a slope to it? If so, remember that water travels downhill and the plants at lower elevation will receive more water than the plants higher up. What is the orientation of your building to the sun? You might wish to draw a diagram of your property. Could you plant trees along the South and West sides that provide shade in the summer, but allow the sun to warm the building in the winter?

Observe What Grows Naturally Nearby

You might consider taking a hike in the nearby hills or state parks to see what flowers, shrubs and trees grow well with no irrigation. Visit public gardens with drought tolerant installations. Take a camera with you to help you remember, research and communicate your ideas to others who may become involved in the process.

Make a Plan & Start Small

You may wish to contact your local nursery or a qualified landscape architect to help you map things out. Start with small, manageable plants. They will be less expensive and you can move them, if necessary.

Keep Water Where It’s Needed

Be aware that trees should not be planted on mounds but rather in “wells” that allow the water to seep down to the roots instead of running off. Drought tolerant plants that are watered regularly by sprinkler systems do not develop the deep root systems they need to actually be drought tolerant. Therefore, once the plants have been established, water them deeply every two weeks at most.

When heavy rains arrive, plan to trap the water onsite by making sure your tree “wells” are sufficiently large and interconnected through many pathways. Provide small water barriers in a zigzag pattern and this will force any uncollected stormwater to meander. Remember by slowing it down, you give it a chance to sink into the soil and water your landscaping.

Keep Moisture from Evaporating

Be sure to mulch and use groundcover where appropriate. This will help ensure moisture retention when it’s dry and helps water infiltrate better. Never leave a patch of dirt if you can avoid it, because water tends to pool, not sink, on bare earth.

You may also feel ready to contact a landscape architect and ask for a free consultation. Local nurseries generally have good referrals, by the way, as they are the ones who get the complaints when a poor plan promotes landscaping struggles.

Choosing a professional that can guide you toward drought tolerant garden that requires no water after the first year or two may pay for itself in the long run. It may also help you meet current and future water reduction mandates.


Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol.1 by Brad Lancaster from which much of this material was adapted. Brad Lancaster lives and works in Tuscon, AZ which receives about as much water as Los Angeles does.

The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Environment by Olivier Filippi goes into depth on types of plants one should choose.

What has been your experience with climate-appropriate gardening?

Kimberly Madrigal, CSBA, LEED GA brings over a decade of experience in property management to bear as an educator and consultant. She is also the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of, an on-line resource dedicated to sustainable multi-family operations and property management.