One of the biggest complaints about water-responsible gardening is that sometimes the garden just looks and feels "dry." This has been one of my stumbling blocks on the way to gardening more carefully with this resource, because I love a lush, verdant garden. So imagine my delight to find a whole chapter on creating the illusion of water in Pam Penick's well-researched and attractively photographed new book The Water-Saving Garden: How to grow a gorgeous garden with a lot less water. I've read a number of books on gardening during drought and this is easily my favorite, coming as it does from both a designer's perspective as well as a practical one. Here are my favorite tips from Penick on how to evoke the look and feel of water in the landscape, without using much of it.
Create a flowing sea of ornamental grasses. Evocative of ocean waves, the billowing movement of a large drift of ornamental grasses winding its way through the landscape adds life and motion to the garden. And, as Penick notes, "Choosing dry-adapted plants to accomplish this sleight-of-hand makes the illusion even more satisfying." While Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is the most commonly used selection for achieving this effect, I'm also keen to try planting drifts of California native grasses, like nodding needlegrass (Nassella cernua) and purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra).
Grow a swirly, tufty green eco-lawn. These "no-mow" (or, more accurately, "low-mow") lawns have a shimmering, rich green color that make them look as though they're getting tons of water, when they actually thrive in low-water conditions. The tussocks move gently in the wind like ripples of water across the surface of a lake, and have a softer appearance than the tightly shorn American lawn we are all so familiar with. High Country Gardens sells a "low work and water dwarf fescue grass seed blend" on its website, or you can bulk-order plugs of different kinds of dwarf fescue at most local nurseries. Many Californians recommend a native mix of Festuca rubra, F. occidentalis and F. idahonensis.
Plant tough "spillers" in pots. When we think of the classic "thrillers, fillers and spillers" container recipe, the spiller is often there to cover up the side of the pot. However, Penick suggests that cascading plants can also create the illusion of a spilling waterfall. Dry-tolerant plants that drape include silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls'), the "mossy-green drip" of string-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) and grasses with a weeping habit like Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa).
Use succulents for an "under the sea" garden. "Plants with an otherworldly form or fantastical foliage or color can create a magical underwater mood," Penick writes. "Succulents are especially good for this, which is ironic because they are wonderfully water-thrifty plants." Try clamshell-shaped paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae), frilly Echeverias to mimic coral, blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens) for sea anemones, and the aptly-named octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana). If planted in containers, you can avoid the worst frosts by bringing your underwater display indoors as needed.
Emulate a stream with a dry creekbed. Dry streambeds can be built purely for aesthetic benefit, or can capture rainwater from downspouts and direct the water into a rain garden with plants that can handle the moisture. Before finalizing your design, Penick advises paying attention to how rainwater naturally flows through your garden, and taking inspiration from the way water meanders gently around obstacles like trees and rocks, and how it puddles and widens in low spots. Any larger stones around the edges of the streambed should be partially buried for a more natural look, and make sure you carve out a good border around the sides to house plants; aggressive turfgrass can make a mess of a dry creekbed over the course of a single season.
Build a tiny oasis ... In the Persian tradition, gardens were built around a symbolic display of water which visually cooled the hottest day. Even something as simple as a birdbath, copper bowl, or a galvanized steel stock tank filled to the brim with water suggests that water is abundant, even when it isn't, says Penick. For ease of maintenance, she recommends a recirculating fountain, also known as a disappearing fountain, which consists of a glazed ceramic pot filled with water that spills over the rim and into a hidden reservoir buried in the ground, with a pump recirculating the water up through the center of the pot.
... Or try a mirage. "Water is a natural mirror; think of how a still pool reflects the sky," Penick writes. In the same way, "a circular or rectangular mirror placed flat on the ground can make an eye-fooling faux pond." To try this trick, prepare the ground by digging down a few inches and laying a bed of sand as a foundation for your mirror. Arrange river rocks of varying sizes along the edges of the mirror to obscure the corners, then plant a variety of low-growing plants that convey the idea of water without needing much themselves. I'd envision California natives like Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) and lush clusters of alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) in shadier spots.
You can see from these ideas that it's possible to unlock the symbolic and aesthetic power of water in your garden without using extravagant amounts of it, or even any at all. As Penick points out, "No matter where you live, whether challenged by drought or blessed with abundant rain, making a water saving garden is about respecting the value of water. It's about using water judiciously and thriftily, and honoring the place you live by creating a garden that belongs there."