Tom Hilton

Making Gardens Beautiful and Water-Wise

For many of us, gardens are places of sweet relief that relax worn eyes, stretch out cramped limbs, and unwind taut brains with their color and tranquility. But gardens need water, and water, as Santa Barbarans are well aware, is an increasingly expensive and scarce resource.

Fortunately, sweet relief doesn’t have to be costly to homeowners or the environment. The city of Santa Barbara has teamed up with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (SBBG) to teach the public how to make a garden that is both beautiful and water-wise. Just planted this past December, the Water Wise Home Garden is now in full and glorious bloom. I took a tour of the garden with Betsy Collins, SBBG’s director of horticulture, who pointed out some top plant picks for home gardeners to grow.

Dudleya brittonii, or Dudleya for short, is a favorite of both Collins and Executive Director Steve Windhager. The plant is elegantly beautiful and extremely easygoing. “You just put them in the ground and ignore them,” says Windhager.

The rambunctious jelly bean yellow monkey flower is somewhat more high-maintenance but has beautiful, vivacious flowers that are as much fun as its name suggests. There are many varieties of monkey flowers on display, such as the Fiesta marigolds, which have flaming red and orange petals, and the Eleanors, which are more demure in buttery yellow and cream white.

De la Mina verbena and hummingbird sage are two perennials that Collins loves for their beautiful flowers and hardy souls. Both require very little water, and hummingbird sage even plays dead in periods of drought, lying dormant until rain rekindles it to life. Collins also recommends island snapdragon, a native of the Channel Islands, as a foundation plant for any garden.

In addition to showcasing easy-to-grow, water-wise plants, the exhibit demonstrates ways to store and make the most of rainwater when it finally falls. Attached to one side of a cottage is a storm-water-collection tank that needs only 3.5 inches of rain to put away 530 gallons from a 1,200-square-foot roof. Along the opposite side of the cottage runs a dry, impermeable creek bed that channels water into a series of hilly basins hollowed into the ground. These basins pool the water and support a garden inside and along their slopes that is entirely rain-fed — in other words, a rain garden!

To Collins, the real excitement of a water-wise garden lies not just in its water savings or beauty but also in the role it serves as the foundation for a richer, more vibrant community of life. Like all of the plants in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, those in the Water Wise Home Garden are California natives, and that means they support a more diverse menu of insects, which in turn attract a wider clientele of birds, lizards, and other garden critters. Beautiful and wise in more ways than one, the water-wise garden leaves its owners, and the environment, richer than before.


To learn more about visiting SBBG and the Water Wise Home Garden, go to The water-thrifty plants mentioned in this article, along with other California natives, are available for purchase at SBBG’s Garden Growers Nursery, which is free and open to the public.

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