Frugal, drought-tolerant landscaping

This is very unusual for me, a post with a lot of photos!

We lived in this house for five years before we did one speck of landscaping. This first photo is from the day we planted the first plants in the front yard, after my husband had built the tile walkway and done an entire drainage system around the house . My parents helped us clear the front yard of the bits of old grass, turn the ground and add Amend to it. Then we planted grasses along the windows and clover around the tree. So this isn’t really a “before” photo, but it’s as close as we’ve got.

I made this simple plan after walking around the neighborhood, taking photos of plants I liked and looking for them at the nursery. I learned some of the names and got ideas for plants that would be simple to keep watered without a sprinkler system and without a lot of rain, since we live in Los Angeles. The reason I’m doing this post now is that if you live in the southwest, this is exactly the time of year we started these first plants, and I think it’s ideal to plant before the rainy season. Even drought-tolerant plants need a lot of rain their first year and so nature takes care of things. In the spring, you’ll already have blooms if you plant some of these choices. We stuck mostly with native grasses and sedum, which is a ground cover similar to iceplant.

Here are some photos of how the front yard looks now, three years later. It’s still not quite finished, but it’s come a long way.

These plants were planted just a year ago. From the left along the front, the plant with orange flowers is called lion’s tail, next to it is flax, then sticks on fire and a couple of succulents, with two lavender bushes behind.

The ground cover behind these plants in the foreground with tiny white flowers growing out of it is a type of sedum called Brevifolium. I absolutely love it, it’s very Suess-like, it grows quickly and fills in, and it’s very hardy.

Along the front of the window are various native grasses starting with fountain grass, oat grass, and ending with the plant with white flowers called the Matilija poppy, or Romneya coulteri. Around the tree is clover, with more Sedum Brevifolium in front. The tree was already here when we moved in, we’re not sure what it is. The other tree is a rare orange tree that the previous owner imported from South America (!!) which has terrible bitter oranges. Next year a friend is going to help me make them into marmalade. Way off in the back behind the orange tree is rosemary, which is the closest thing to a weed I’ve ever seen. I don’t think rosemary dies once it starts growing, and it can get to be a very large bush.

These photos were taken in June, a very pretty time for our yard, especially after such a rainy winter.

And here are some of the blooms up close:

The aforementioned Matilija poppy, my very favorite. This grows so fast that we had big blooms like this the first spring, just five months after we planted it. It grows like a weed and needs almost no water. I highly recommend it for hillsides, but it will try to spread so it’s best along the side of a yard and next to a wall or driveway that will stop its growth. It only blooms like this for two or three months, but I think the plant itself is quite pretty.

This is Goodwin Creek Lavender, or Lavandula, but almost any type of lavender is easy to grow and needs very little water. I love watching the bees buzz around this one, and it smells wonderful.

And this is Lion’s Tail. This was another plant that grew quickly and bloomed the first spring, this April, after being planted last November. It’s a hardy bushy kind of plant.

Before this project, I had only grown a few basil and other herb plants. I am most definitely not a gardener, by talent or inclination. So if I could do this, so can you! I recommend taking photographs of plants or flowers you like and looking them up online or going to a nursery. People who work in nurseries are usually happy to help you and give you suggestions for drought-tolerant plants that will work in your yard. After the first day with my parent’s help, I’ve done the rest of it myself with a bit of digging help. And I lost a few plants along the way, especially before I tested the soil, which I highly recommend. It was nitrogen deficient and needed an additive.

I don’t know the total cost, but I’m estimating around $500 with all the plants, ground cover, and Amend. I could have done it even cheaper if I’d kept an eye out for free plants on freecycle or from friends, recently a woman in my neighborhood planted her whole front yard with secondhand succulents. I also could have saved a bit by doing all my shopping at Home Depot, but I bought mostly the Amend and some ground cover there, and gave my business to two different nurseries that offered so much advice and assistance with my project.

Many of these plants attract a lot of bees, which makes me very happy, especially the clover and the lavender. I’m not an expert, but I think it’s at least 90% native, possibly even close to 100%. Here’s a list of most of the plants in our yard and a few other popular drought-tolerant choices:

Fountain grass, Matilija poppy, Lavender, Lion’s Tail, Oat Grass, Sedum, Clover, Sticks on Fire, Rosemary, Butterfly Weed, Chihuahua Sage, blue fescue, and wild onion.

If you get these plants in by Thanksgiving, they will do great, and you’ll have a beautiful yard next spring. And if you live in the north, east, midwest, or anywhere it’s already winter, I’m sure this seems insane, and I apologize and promise to do a post more likely to be relevant to all of you next time.

Do you have drought-tolerant plants? What are some of your favorites? Please leave your landscaping tips and any questions about our front yard project in the Comments section.


  1. Cynthia says

    I love the lion’s tail plant! Your choice of plants is fantastic. I would love to remove my lawn. I’m slowly replacing it with edible landscaping as much as I can. You place looks great!

    • Angela says

      Cynthia- Yes, I loved that plant in someone else’s yard, but I haven’t seen it a lot. However, it is like a shrub and very easy because it doesn’t need much water and it grew really fast. The flowers didn’t last that long though, although there was a second bloom in the fall, kind of cool.

      I love the idea of edible landscaping! That is beyond me for the moment but I might try some in the back next year. Good luck. And thanks for commenting.

    • Angela says

      Thanks Nancy! We did it for simplicity and to use less water, and I’m so glad we did. I really love the native plants best now.

  2. says

    Your landscaping looks great! I love the idea of having something other than grass in the front yard, so much prettier (and frugal since you don’t spend a fortune watering it). Even though I am in zone 4, I do most of my planting in the fall. It gives the plants time to develop deeper roots before the summer heat.

    • Angela says

      Thanks Alea. We never had much grass, and both my husband and I hated the idea of planting grass in what is essentially a desert. It is a bit more work than a simple grass lawn, but it’s still pretty easy and most of these plants don’t require much upkeep- I trim some of the grasses once or twice a year, but most of it has needed nothing but water.

      Yes, I have had the best luck with November planting – more water for the roots, like you say. My mom told me that the first season is crucial, after that they’ll make it through some dry spots, but the first year they need to be soaked a lot so I prefer if it’s a natural soaking.

  3. robbiekay says

    Just because this post wasn’t “relevant” to me (living in the rainy Northwest), doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable. I loved the beautiful pictures of all the gorgeous plants and I like the style of your house, too. Nice to know, too, that lavendar is easy to grow. I’ve seen it around here, so I know it will grow in this area, but I have a black thumb.

    Alea has pointed out to me that I need to encourage my cousin or her daughter to send in a photo for Thrifty Threads. Patricia’s recent appearance there reminded me of how when my cousin’s daughter went off to graduate school she left with a classic wool skirt that her mother and grandmother had both worn when they started their professional lives. Hadn’t occurred to me until today that would have meant that my aunt brought the skirt over with her from France, so the skirt really has a history!

    • Angela says

      Robbiekey- I’m glad you enjoyed the post even though it’s past planting season in your area. Yes, lavender is close to being a weed in terms of how easily it grows.

      Yes, please do have your cousin or daughter send in a photo. I seem to remember you saying you had one yourself, maybe a wedding dress?

      Love the skirt story. I have a few of my grandmother’s and mother’s items in my wardrobe. I’ll have to put them on for a Thrifty Threads post sometime!

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. Melissa says

    I just found your website and have read every post you have available! My husband and I are going to be joining the compact Jan. 1 2011 and are so excited. This is totally in line with the direction we’ve been taking our lives. Thank you so much for such a wonderful blog and for all the other great blogs you mention. I will be checking them out, too. By the way, your new photos are great!

    • Angela says

      Hi Melissa- I’m so glad you like my blog. Good luck to you and your husband, it really is an adventure! And there is all kinds of support all over the internet. I don’t know if I could have done it without my blogging friends, or at least it wouldn’t have been as rewarding.

      I’ve been blogging for almost two years,which is probably 400 or 500 posts- did you really read all of them? If you did, wow. I can’t imagine. But I’m glad!

      Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. says

    I’m really sorry to burst your bubble, but very few of the plants you’re using are native! There are a number of resources for CA natives available online, though, so if you’re interested in supporting your local wildlife and ecosystem you can easily transition over time.

    And again, not trying to take the wind out of your sails – but it appears to me as though you’ve covered the base of the tree with mulch. You may not have, but if you can dig down and move the mulch around, then you’re covering a part of the tree that does not appreciate such and you may cause rot to the trunk over a period of years if you continue that way. Trees should never have any portion of their woody trunk covered beyond that which has actual roots. I am not seeing the trunk’s flare so am assuming it is covered with mulch.

    • Angela says

      Genevieve- I guess I used the term “native” too liberally. I got a lot of information from two different nurseries, and my understanding was that most of their suggestions were native, but my main concern was drought tolerance so that we wouldn’t need to water as often. Not so much for the money, but to save water.

      In the first photo, we had put down a very thin layer of mulch in order to stop weeds, but it has long since worn off and the tree is very healthy. It has been checked several times by a tree expert and it was trimmed last year and it is looking much thicker and healthier than it did when we moved in eight years ago.

      I made a point that I am not a gardener or an expert at any of this, but that there are choices other than a grassy lawn that needs to be watered, mowed, etc.

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