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Just say yes - to drought tolerance

I've always loved the traditional, drought-resistant trees and shrubs associated with old California. A garden of lofty palms, sprawling lantana, flowering oleander, fiery quince, gnarled fig, bamboo, bottle brush, loquat, pomegranate, pepper and olive trees and cactus - these are the plants that composed our gardens in the early part of this century. Today, with water-rationing always on the horizon, they make more sense than ever.

Add a few pots of geraniums and succulents for color and texture, and you will still be water-wise. Our not-so-ancient Peninsula history featured this kind of garden when homeowners had to store their own water in private tanks after pumping it from beneath the earth.

But beyond the environmental and rational reasons to choose drought-tolerant plants, there's an almost spiritual motivation, as well. The longevity of these traditional California plants assures a long-term relationship between them, you and generations to come. Recall what you see around abandoned old houses or in the gardens of obscure California missions - palms, pomegranates, olives, bamboo and quince survive decade after decade without automatic sprinklers or sacks of fertilizers.

It is true that traditional California shrubs and trees require regular watering in their early years, but eventually (except for those planted in pots) they can survive on what nature provides. As they and their roots grow older and larger, underground moisture and evening dew supply enough moisture for survival. The wise homeowner, whether planning an entirely new garden or planting just one tree, should definitely remember these oldies but goodies. To me, they also give a garden character and gravity, traits strangely lacking in many of today's pretty but bland landscape designs.

Other classic additions to drought-tolerant landscapes might include a garden pergola, for dining, covered with grape vines or wisteria and a centrally-located fountain (re-circulating, of course) surrounded by pots of succulents, prostrate cotoneaster, lavender, rosemary and other herbs. These are the garden features and plants that Mediterranean cultures have enjoyed for centuries because they are appropriate and refreshing in climates where there is no rain for at least six months of the year.

The next time you visit Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, notice the Duveneck family's outdoor dining "room" to the left of the front porch of the main house. A permanently-installed, large round table is located near the door to the indoor kitchen/pantry and the magical dining area is completely sheltered by a 75-year-old wisteria vine. Also visit the native and drought-tolerant plantings around the Los Altos History House, behind the main library. The front and side gardens were replanted a few years ago and now demonstrate that water-saving plantings can nonetheless create a refreshing oasis for hot summer days.

Barnes covers home and garden stories for the Town Crier.

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