Low-Water Planting in San Francisco, California

by Cassandra McCullersAugust 17, 2017

The mild winters and dry summers in neighborhoods like the Richmond District around San Francisco can be a real dream, offering some of our nation’s most comfortable year-round climate for everyone from young families to retirees. While the climate can be wonderful for people, it can take a bit of planning when thinking about your garden and landscaping. Different areas of the United States get different levels of annual rainfall and daily sun, so it’s always important to keep in mind which plants are native your region and which may need to be avoided. But regardless of your local climate, plants that conserve water or are drought-resistant can make really good sense, allowing your landscaping to survive any long vacations your family may take and the normal fluctuations in rainfall over time.

San Francisco is part of the greater “Coastal Sage Scrub” plant community of Southern California, which runs from San Francisco and Lafayettedown through parts of San Diego and inland as far as Riverside. Generally speaking, most manzanitas, ceanothus, and sages do well in these areas. The climate is known for dry summers and mild, wet winters, with rainfall that can range from nearly zero inches a year to sudden downpours of six or more inches in just one hour. As a result, native plants have developed a number of strategies to cope with dry conditions punctuated by occasional flooding.

via Landscap Exclusive

Often called “xeriscaping,” or planting a low-water landscape reduces water usage by 60% or more compared to traditional gardens, reduces maintenance time and cost, reduces waste and pollution and even provides habitats for local wildlife when native plants are used! And a drought-resistant yard does not mean limiting yourself to cacti and succulents – there is a tremendous variety of lovely plants and vibrant landscaping options that really thrive in dry climates. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years specifically to exist in that exact environment. After all, they’ve survived just fine before humans showed up with their garden hoses and water sprinklers. Remember though, when selecting your plants, it’s always important to check your neighborhood and city regulations on lawns and gardens, to see if there are any restrictions.

Another critical factor to keep in mind is your neighborhood’s specific micro-climate. California has different micro-climates that often operate in close proximity to each other. Plants living in coastal areas can pick up a lot of moisture from the early morning fogs that roll in from the bay. Many inner coastal plants and some desert species have evolved as parts of a collaborative, cycling moisture among themselves for better water management over long-periods. Good lawn maintenance is very important as weeds can be a real enemy to these systems. Weeds are notoriously greedy and don’t share their water resources with neighboring plants.

In addition to selecting drought-resistant plants, there are other ways you can conserve water to keep your water bills low. These include using drip irrigation or irrigation by hand rather than sprinklers, mulching, mixing compost with the soil (although some plants will do poorly with composted soil and prefer sandy soils,) using a smart mix of companion plants that will share resources and avoiding watering during the heat of the day. Automatic systems should be set to run at night or in the early morning to minimize evaporation. Also consider using terraces or groundcover shrubs if you are on a slope to reduce runoff and erosion.

The following plants are provided to give you a starting point for planting in areas with full sun that shouldn’t require watering after the first year. These include:

enceliaEncelia via Channel Islands

  • Baby Bear Manzanita Bush (Arctostaphylos) Growing only six to eight feet high, this easy-to-grow bush has bright rose pink flowers and dark red bark and is a favorite of hummingbirds, butterflies, bumblebees and other native bees.
  • California Sagebrush (Artemisia Californica) An interesting evergreen shrub, the California Sagebrush grows only three to four feet high and is a favorite hiding place for local fauna including quail.
  • California Aster (Corethrogyne Filaginifolia) Asters are a stocky and very drought resistant perennial with lovely violet flowers with yellow centers that resemble daisies. A favorite of many different butterfly species, these plants can be popular resting place for Swallowtails, Skippers and Dusky Wings.
  • California Buckwheat (Eriogonum Fasciculatum) A particularly hardy shrub with white flowers that bloom in late spring, slowly turn pink in summer, then graduate to a deep rust color in fall. Like all buckwheats, these plants are an important part of local ecologies, with flowers, leaves, and seeds all used by area insects and small animals.
  • Coyote Brush (Baccharis Pilularis) If you are looking for a good ground cover, Dwarf Coyote Brush is a popular dark-green option with small white flowers, growing only one foot tall and up to twelve feet wide. This is a great option for slope stabilization that local insects and butterflies will love, but deer won’t bother.
  • Encelia (Encelia Californica) A handsome evergreen sunflower shrub, Encelia grows three to four feet high and features a lovely two inch yellow daisy-like flower.
  • Fuchsia-Flowered Gooseberry (Ribes Speciosum) This beautiful four foot evergreen shrub has the most interesting red fuchsia-like flowers that appear the first five months of every year, after the foliage emerges. Complimenting its glossy green leaves, the fruits hang down like red jewels and the thorned branches make a wonderful shelter for local hummingbirds.
  • Harmony Manzanita (Arctostaphylos Densiflora) An adorable evergreen shrub with pink flowers that commonly only grows two or three feet high and six feet wide.
  • Monkey Flower (Mimulus Aurantiacus/em>) A fun perennial with adorable one inch orange flowers that likes partial shade, Monkey Flowers grow to be three to four feet tall and are fairly cold tolerant. They will freeze to the ground in a hard freeze but typically come right back the following year.
  • Purple, Black or White Sage (Salvia Mellifera, S. Leucophylla, or S. Apiana) Sages are an important part of local landscapes, literally central to the region’s designation of “Coastal Sage Scrub.” Growing from three to six feet tall, sages typically flower in the late spring and early summer, love dry areas, and are a favorite with hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees.

If you’re a horticultural homebody or the garden-on-the-go type, the City by the Bay offers a multitude of xeriscaping options that will satisfy any green thumb! So don’t beat around the bush, if you’re planning a move to San Francisco!

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About The Author
Cassandra McCullers
Cassandra is a writer with a background in engineering, enjoying the rural life in the Virginian Appalachians. When not working, she enjoys writing fiction, running a blog, camping, working in the garden, and tending to her flock of chickens! In addition to writing, she has a passion for art and graphic design. Her interests include disaster preparedness, homesteading, landscaping, cooking with natural ingredients, history, and animal husbandry.