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8 Steps to a Water-Wise Garden

With many parts of the country under drought restrictions, this flowery garden leads by example and shows how low water can still produce high color.

In its best year, David Salman's Santa Fe garden gets about 12 inches of precipitation. This high desert area is currently experiencing its driest decade in recent history, yet David's garden has never looked better. His secrets benefit all gardeners: Save water, and grow native plants. He funnels rooftop runoff underground so no water is lost to evaporation. This allows him to grow a bigger garden without spending much on watering. He also digs deep to find the right plants. As the chief horticulturist of High Country Gardens nursery (, he breeds and develops colorful, textural beauties that thrive in poor soil and drought. "Just because a garden isn't watered a lot doesn't mean it needs to be barren," he says.

1. Direct the Water

David uses a dry stream bed (a path of small and medium smooth stones) to direct rainfall where it is most needed.

2. Plant for Color

David plans for color throughout the season and uses only a few annuals. He mixes woody plants, perennials, culinary herbs, grasses, and cacti for texture. Groundcovers between flagstone pavers cover the clay soil and add to the lush feel.

3. Bring in Rocks

David uses rocks of all sizes throughout the garden to add height, build berms, and define spaces. Without them, his yard would be flat. "I love them for the topography they create. They are my own mini mountains," he says.

4. Attract Nature

Nectar-rich flowers welcome birds and bees. Among the plants David picks to make his yard more appetizing for pollinators are prickly cacti like claret cup, which puts out a dozen or more scarlet saucer-like blooms the hummingbirds love. "They need an oasis to maintain their population," he says. His garden has certainly become one: David watches about 24 hummingbirds feed and fight.

5. Shop Small

Visit local nurseries to find lesser-known plants for your garden. "Mass retailers sell a limited plant palette," David says. "To find unique plants, shop nursery catalogs, websites, and growers in your Zone."

6. Be a Plant Pioneer

David's masterful mix of native plants is punctuated with a few global growers that have similar needs and tolerances. South African cold-hardy Ruschia, for example, is one he added to his front garden and nursery offerings. 

7. Think About Shape

Sculptural plants, such as the tree yucca, add height, shape, and texture to the garden even in snowy winter months.

8. Let It Bee

Bold desert purple sage attracts native bees and honeybees. "I love to share the bounty of my yard with pollinators. But rabbits and deer are on their own," he says.

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