How to Grow a Water-Smart Landscape

As California approaches its fifth consecutive year of drought, we all need to take responsibility and actively conserve water. For many plant lovers and homeowners alike, transitioning to a drought-tolerant landscape often means planting cacti and fleshy succulents. But the horticulture experts at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park want you to know that attractive, colorful shrubs and perennials are also great solutions and, once established, particular species are not only easy to maintain, but also drought-tolerant.


We’ve recently embarked on a project to remove and replace a portion of the lawn near the entrance to the Safari Park with a low-water landscape. Keep reading for tips on how you can create a sustainable landscape that promotes water efficiency and conservation.

How To Grow a Water-Smart Landscape by the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Horituculture Experts

Step 1: Kill and remove grass.  
The first step in transitioning from grass to a water-smart garden involves getting rid of the existing lawn. Spray the area with herbicide and allow the grass to fully die. Water the dead grass until it beings to sprout again and then hit it with another round of herbicide. You might be wondering why any rational person would water dead grass, but this step is extremely important if you want to completely eliminate your water-wasting vegetation. Remove the dead lawn and you’re ready for Step 2.

How To Grow a Water-Smart Landscape by the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Horituculture Experts

Step 2: Arrange water smart plants.
Like any design project, think of your landscape as a blank canvas. You’ll want to map out your arrangement on paper before you start digging the holes. Organize and incorporate different plant heights and densities to add visual layers to your garden. Group plants by color to give your design a uniform look while also allowing the plants to stand out. Use an odd number of plants and do not place them in straight lines. Read up on the plants and be sure to space them so that they have enough room to grow as high and wide as they should. Large boulders and rocks add dimension and texture.

How To Grow a Water-Smart Landscape by the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Horituculture Experts

Step 3: Dig and sow.
Plant your colorful shrubs and perennials in their designated places. Our experts say to pre-soak the area that you will be planting and water plants immediately after you put them in the ground. Check the soil moisture levels often and water daily. It’s important to not let the new plantings dry out while their roots are establishing. Instead of using rocks to fill in empty spaces, use mulch; it will not only keep the weeds down, but also helps the moisture stay in the soil. San Diego County offers free mulch to its residents, so a quick Google search can save you money on this step.

Our plant experts used the following species at the Safari Park because they’re non-invasive, long-term performers, and scaled for residential landscapes:

•    Dasylirion longissimum – Mexican Grass Tree
•    Colenema pulchellum ‘Sunset Gold’ – Golden Breath of Heaven
•    Kniphophia – Red Hot Poker
•    Woodwardia fimbriata – Giant Chain Fern
•    Callistemon ‘Bottlepop Neon Pink’ – Neon Pink Bottlebrush
•    Callistemon citrinus – Crimson Bottlebrush
•    Leucophyllum frutescens nube ‘Heavenly’ – Texas Sage
•    Leucophyllum frutescens nube ‘White’ – Texas sage
•    Leonotis leonurus – Lion’s Tail
•    Lavandula ‘Provence’ – Blue Lavandin
•    Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Brakelights’ – Red Yucca ‘Brakelights’
•    Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Red’
•    Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Yellow’ –
•    Caesalpina pulcherrima – Mexican Bird of Paradise
•    Salvia clevlandii ‘Winifred Gilman’ – California Blue Sage
•    Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ – California Lilac
•    Sphaeralcea ambigua – Desert Globe Mallow
•    Salvia leucantha – Mexican Bush Sage

These species are readily available at local nurseries, but if you’re having trouble finding them, reach out to our experts at

The San Diego Water Authority has published a Nifty 50 plant guide that promotes water-use efficiency and offers additional information on recommended low-water plant species.

Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 10 Tiger Vines for Global Tiger Day.