Drought-Tolerant Cactuses, Succulents, & Plants for Your Lush Garden Design

Written by Kelsey W.

The huge, arid vistas of California’s epic deserts contain some outstanding sights. The drought-tolerant plants that inhabit those deserts are a great addition to your Southern California home when you’re xeriscaping or creating an eco-friendly landscape.

However, your landscaping design plan doesn’t need to look like Death Valley in July with nary a cactus flower or stem of greenery around. You can create a beautiful, lush landscape around your home using drought-tolerant succulents, cacti, and plants that might make you think you’re in a tropical garden in Florida rather than Southern California.

Did you know much of Southern California isn’t actually a desert? Sure, we label some of the regions just outside Los Angeles County as the “high desert” and the “low desert.” Still, the weather of Los Angeles offers its residents a Mediterranean climate, which generally means a bit of rain in the winter and a dry summer.

Here are a few plants to consider if you’re interested in a landscaping plan that doesn’t require lots of water and will remain healthy throughout the driest months of the year.

Sticks on Fire Gives Your Garden Beautiful Color

If you were to glance at a picture of sticks on fire (Euphorbia tirucalli), you might think you were looking at some coral on the bottom of the ocean floor. They’re aptly named with their bright red and orange color and can grow into a thick bush anywhere from four to eight feet tall. They like full sun, which means they’re an ideal member of your lush Southern California landscaping.

Not only are they an excellent pick because of their stunning visual appeal, but they’re also tolerant of pests, disease, and drought. Like other drought-tolerant plants, sticks on fire enjoy well-draining or rocky soil. You can place them in a pot if you’re short on space and only have a balcony because you live in a condo, or you can plant them in your yard and watch them take off.

Tip: If you want to make your landscaping design plan pop even more with color, pair your sticks on fire alongside blue chalk sticks (Senecio mandraliscae). The sticks on fire will grow into a big, bright orange display surrounded by a foot-tall carpet of the silvery-blue leaves of the chalk sticks. Epic color and easy care!

Flower Your Garden with Echeverias

Planting echeverias in your garden is like having flowers all year long. Their beautiful shapes always look like a flower. Plus, they send out shoots of flowers in the spring in colors like pink and tangerine. Gorgeous! Like other succulents, echeverias only need water every week to ten days. You can leave for a vacation and come back to your garden, and they’ll be fine.

The term echeveria actually refers to a whole slew of different plants (echeveria is the name of the genus, which is in the plant family of Crassulaceae), which means you can choose them in a vast array of colors. Common colors include grayish-green and bluish-gray, but you’ll also find variegated and bright green options, too.

If you allow your echeverias to grow without restraint, they’ll eventually produce pups and turn into lovely, thick clumps of friendly succulents. They grow pretty slowly, but some echeverias can grow larger than a foot in diameter. 

Plant your echeverias in full sun. They’re not too tolerant of sitting indoors, so they’re an excellent option for your lush Southern California garden. They’re certainly one of the friendliest succulents out there. They’ll reward you with their beautiful, geometric forms all year as long as you give them well-draining soil and sparse watering.

Make a Statement with Agave Blue Glow

If you love the elegant rosettes of your echeverias, you might consider an agave blue glow for more impact. Like echeverias, agave tolerates high heat and sun. Still, it’s fine to give them a little shade if you live in an area of Southern California with true desert temperatures. Technically, they’re drought-tolerant, but they might need an extra drink when the temperatures soar above 90 or reach the century mark.

Blue glow agave can grow up to two feet tall and three feet wide, and they’re a magnificent plant when they reach their full size. Like most succulents and cacti, agave blue glow grows slowly, and it might take more than a decade for the plant to flower. They can create a beautiful large statement in your garden, but you can also plant them with a few friends in groups of five or six plants.

Hardy Yellow Ice Plants: Give Your Yard Grass Without Actually Planting Grass

A well-tended lawn of lush green grass is inviting, but it’s not always the best choice for a drought-tolerant landscaping display. If you don’t want to cover your yard in mulch, stone, or sand, you can opt for a ground cover like the hardy yellow ice plant (delosperma nubigenum). These ornamental plants actually flower from late spring and continue blooming all the way until late fall.

The plants feature fleshy green leaves that create a thick ground covering as they spread, but the quantity of flowers that appear in the summer is usually so thick that it looks like a yellow carpet. Hardy yellow ice plants are the way to go if you’re looking for a ground covering that might look nice under your taller plants. They only grow up about three inches tall.

Like all the other plants on this list, ice plants like well-draining soil. In fact, they grow better when their soil is kept relatively dry, so it’s essential that you don’t water them too often. You might see butterflies converging around the plants when they flower, but they’re generally resistant to most pests.

Make Your Landscape Colorful with a Rainbow Hedgehog

Although they don’t grow terrifically large, one of the most beautiful cactuses in the world is the rainbow hedgehog (Echinocereus rigidissimus). The rainbow hedgehog might look like a regular barrel cactus if you just glance at it quickly, but it’s actually an incredibly colorful plant. Look closely at its skin, and you’ll notice it’s actually a magenta-colored plant.

If you want some cactuses in your garden but you want something that’s a little unusual, you’ll definitely want to try a rainbow hedgehog. These small cactuses even produce beautiful flowers that are often as tall as the plant when they emerge in the spring. They’re easy to keep alive when you forget to water them, and it’s best to refrain from watering them at all when the weather gets humid.

Create Your Southern California Tropical Paradise with Palm Trees

More than 150 species of palm trees grow around Southern California, but virtually every one of those species was imported at one time or another. The Washington palm (Washingtonia filifera), which produces a chunky trunk and large fans of palm leaves at its top, is the only native palm species in Southern California. However, all sorts of non-native palm species grow well in Los Angeles. 

Some historians suggest early settlers in the area brought palm seeds for trading and selling, but others say many of the palms of Southern California came from Catholic missionaries who needed the leaves for their Palm Sunday celebrations. Whatever the reason for their appearance, palm trees are an excellent addition to your lush garden, but it’s essential to choose carefully because some species do need a lot of water.

If you’re looking for an incredibly tall and majestic palm, you might want to plant some queen palms, which grow to enormous heights and feature soft, waving palm leaves at their crowns. A queen palm can grow up to 50 feet when it’s fully grown. 

Queen palms do well with far less water than king palms, which are another popular palm type in Southern California that is also beautiful but not so friendly to your water bills. You usually have to soak king palms a few times a week to keep them vibrant and healthy.

If you’re searching for the best drought-tolerant palms, you might consider a Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) for your landscaping design plan. They grow in a vibrant blue-green hue and can withstand just about anything the Southern California weather can throw at them, whether it’s some fierce Santa Anas blowing in from the desert or a blisteringly hot sunny day in August.

Tip: Placing a layer of mulch around the base of your palm trees can help the ground retain water and reduce the evaporation that may occur when you water your palms. Watering your palms at dusk, dawn, or night also helps reduce evaporation and water waste.

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