Drought Tolerant Plants in the Backyard

agave attenuata foxtail lion's tail drought tolerant yard desert modern landscape modern mid century backyardUpdate: See the backyard 1 year in here.

Following up on my long backyard post from a couple weeks ago, I’m here today with another too long post on the specifics of what we planted and why. Ripping out a fine enough yard and starting over from scratch, and doing it all yourself on a budget without any landscape experience, sounds like a bad move but we had a few compelling reasons to go down this path. While aesthetic preferences definitely came into play (minimal to the bone + cactus lover), it mostly came down to water and maintenance. We were shocked at a $300 water bill the first month we lived in this house and the upkeep that the lush yards required. We quickly made plans to ditch all the thirsty and demanding flowers that had been planted by previous owners, letting our front and side yard lawns go in the process, but decided to hang on to the patch of grass in the backyard for the kids and dog (which I talked about last time and the time before). A few hardy plants survived our cut-throat watering ban, but ultimately we gave away everything we didn’t love – which was everything back here save for one umbrella plant under our patio.

I started out simply by buying plants that I liked and, turns out, most of them worked out here. Many conveniently fit into our criteria of low water/low maintenance, which thankfully often go hand in hand. I don’t remember where I read this but it has been helpful to me: plants that drink a lot, grow a lot. And it follows that they’ll then need more care in the form of all the things I don’t want to be doing: trimming, thinning, pruning, etc. Since my dream is zero yard work but a super tidy yard, the less thirsty the better.

Our landscaping goal out here was desert modern, minimal, fun, no-water, low-maintenance, and cheap, and I think we hit em all! All told, we spent around $500 on plants back here. Not nothing, but not bad either. We’ve ended up with a lovely, though restrained, space filled with drought tolerant plants (all succulents of one type or another) that should theoretically be able to thrive in California’s central coast without help. I watered over the summer as plants established and I’ll probably have to hand water a couple times a year when the heat gets crazy. Otherwise, I’ve watered ZERO TIMES and nothing is dying, making me feel like a boss mad scientist.

I’m gonna jump right into a list of what we planted, what I know about them, and how much we paid. Basically, all the information in my brain that teenage me would have found so embarrassing…

agave attenuata

Trash agave cutting stuck in the ground, left, and same agave after rooting, right.

agave attenuata  agave attenuata foxtail lion's tail drought tolerant yard desert modern landscape modern mid century backyard
agave attenuata landscape

Agave attenuata, AKA Foxtail or Lion’s Tail Agave. I love this variety because they are so sculptural but lack the teeth and sharpness found on many other agaves. Perfect for a kid friendly space. We purchased several of these at our favorite local nursery, Los Osos Valley Nursery, for $28 each and another very large one for $75 (that one is in the front yard). That sounds like a lot, but $75 is actually a competitive price in our area. But then a few months later, my husband picked up a bunch for free in a pile of cuttings, many of them even larger than the big one we purchased. Many agave varieties will multiply by sending out “pups” from the main branch, attenuata being one of the most prolific. These can be trimmed off and plopped into the ground, where they take root and grow into its own plant. Magical! These are hearty succulents that can supposedly handle lots of water or close to none. Mine are thriving without any watering. Always easy-going, they can handle full sun to mostly shade. I have noticed that one located in partial shade has taken on a more silvery turquoise color than the brighter green of the plants located in full sun. Theoretically, these need some upkeep in the form of pup management…I haven’t experience that, either because they are still getting themselves established or don’t get enough water. But we have a huge slope in our front yard that I’d eventually like to cover with agaves, so I’m hoping these will serve as incubators and I, therefore, welcome the work.

SAN PEDRO CACTUS:san pedro cactussan pedro cactusSan Pedro Cactus. While I worked hard to put mostly soft succulents in the backyard because of the kids and dog, this little area at one end of the yard needed something tall, thin, and eye-catching…and only skinny fencepost-type cactus seemed to scratch that itch. For some reason, the spines on this variety are considered one of the least dangerous/painful of cactus types. I’m not banking on that, but my kids are great about staying out of plants that are sharp and this area is out of the way so I’m not worried about them. (My dog, however, likes to patrol the perimeter of the yard and has lost a few hair clumps while passing a bit too close…) The price was a bit steep at $19 for a grouping of 2, but I had a hard time finding any tall, thin cacti in my area, so I popped for them. Hoping they will be happy here and grow towards the sky ASAP. These are a true cactus, so they can go a long time without water and will suffer if sitting in soggy soil. Like the agaves, they turn a brighter green in full sun and a deeper blue in partial shade. As far as upkeep goes, I’m gonna say these are as close to NONE as you can get. My kind of plant.

PONYTAIL PALM:Ponytail Palm Beaucarnea guatemalensis Long Neck landscape ponytail palm landscapeBeaucarnea guatemalensis, AKA Ponytail Palm, Elephant Foot Palm or Bottle Palm.  We all can agree I have statement plants coming out of my ears and a ponytail palm wasn’t on my list of must haves. But then I found this one for $22 and I just couldn’t say no, especially when they grow into such spectacular specimens as they age. Right now this is kind of dinky for the space, but I know it will look amazing here as it grows. Ponytail palms are susceptible to rot if you overwatering in poor draining soil. Otherwise, water away. The bulb at the bottom holds water – like a plant camel! I think these can handle full sun to part shade, though full sun is ideal. These are undemanding with virtually no upkeep. Now, all I have to do is wait like 10 years…

yucca elephantipes tree cuttings propagation

Left is when we planted, right is after they took root and came alive (same leaves!).

yucca cuttings planting  wax agave

This triple bunch has really taken off. See all the babies?! Top – just after planting, left – a few months later in October, right – today.

yucca elephantipes tree cuttings propagation  yucca elephantites landscape cuttings rooted pups
yucca tree cuttings propagation

Yucca elephantites. I wanted some sculptural but tidy trees in the corners. Palm trees were considered, but yuccas have my heart. I don’t think they get the props they’re due and, though I see them all the time (in California), they are mostly limited to older yards of older homes that haven’t been updated. I don’t often see them in newer landscapes and I had a surprisingly hard time finding plants to buy. But we came upon a plan B: cuttings (literally trimmed branches from taller trees that you stick in the ground) are easy to come by, cheap, and so easy to root. We were offered a jackpot of yucca cuttings from a local nursery after they unsuccessfully attempted to special order yuccas trees for us. Best part: they were only $10 each. We purchased 9 total (pictured above), some destined for the front yard. They had to be dug out of a pile out back that some might consider gross, but many were as tall as me and that price is basically free so you better believe that even squeamish me got to digging. The cuttings had been trimmed months earlier from yuccas around the property, but the nursery owner assured me they would still root….and they did! Every single one! At her suggestion, we mixed our soil with a little fur mulch, stuck them in the ground, watered them a few times and waited. Some took longer than others (the last hold out, in our front yard, just started showing signs of life last week, nearly 6 months later!), but every one lived. Pretty amazing. We kind of haphazardly planted them just to get them in the ground and growing, trying a group of three on one side and two on the other. I really doubted their survival, but now that I know they are here for good, we need to reposition and trim.

They are sun loving and need very, very, very little water, but can handle some. From what I’ve seen, I would say these are beyond hearty, more like downright impossible to kill. They are fast growing, for a succulent, but low maintenance. If you don’t like the look of spent leaves, you can pull off the brown ones, but only a couple times a year. They will multiply with pups, so if you don’t want multiple branches, those either need to be trimmed off and tossed (or trimmed and planted elsewhere!). This video, lame jokes and all, gives a great overview of the basics of maintaining, trimming and propagating yuccas.

Dracaena Marginataacapulco chairs patioDracaena marginata. I have a favorite plant and this is it! Every time I see one in a yard or an interior, I pin that stuff up! They are so eccentric and wild. The branches will twist around looking for light. Add in a pom-pom head and it’s too Dr. Suessy not to love. Apparently, you can just lop off a head, stick that cutting in the ground (are we sensing a theme here?), watch it grow, and the stumpy branch that you cut it from will grow back in multiples. I haven’t had the guts yet. These are shade lovers. They don’t like being overwatered or sitting in wet soil. I’ve read that they hate fluoride, so fluoride water is not great. Rain water or filtered water is best (whaaat kind of fussiness is this???). I watered with our fluoridated water when I first planted, and now it’s living off rain water and seems to be doing great. Spent leaves can be removed to keep them looking neat. It’s easy and takes only a second to pull them off. Dracaenas of other varieties seemed abundant in stores around here, but the marginata has something special about it and oddly took months to find. I finally located a few at a nursery for $35 each. (Sadly, I put two in the house and both died a sad death when winter heater weather hit. They hate drafts, like I would know that, and I had mine basically sitting on top of a heater vent.) This one outside is healthy as can be, though. Yes!

sanseveria landscape shootssansevieria snake plantSansevieria trifasciata laurentii, AKA Snake Plant or Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. One of my favorite house plants that looks equally great outdoors. This one was $19 and I considered adding more here, but these spread (see all the new shoots?) so I think this will fill out the space soon enough. They are made for the shade and like well drained soil and sparse watering.

GOLDEN BARREL CACTUS:golden barrel cactusEchinocactus grusonii, AKA Golden Barrel Cactus. If I could, I would have these EVERYWHERE. So in love with their color, texture and shape. Occasionally my Home Depot will have a bunch for around $5 each, so I always stock up. I’m hoping to add a ton to the front yard, meaning I can never have too much, but they aren’t a great match for kids and pets, so I wasn’t planning on putting any in the backyard. Then a collection of succulents got tucked into the back wall, while I try to locate a massive quantity of tall fence post cacti for the location instead, so I was able to safely add a few golden barrels to the back up there. I also put a trio in a low planter in an out of the way spot on the patio…they do make me a little nervous, but I couldn’t resist the death trap.

blue acapulco chair backyardmid century desert modern landscapeBlue Chalksticks. These were so cheap one day at Home Depot – $4 for a huge pot, that I ended up splitting apart a bunch for up here. They aren’t fussy and the color is so pretty with the other turquoise wall. I don’t know the variety, but I’ve noticed that these go more blue in the shade and more purple in full sun, but both versions are gorgeous. *Chalksticks are one of those semi toxic plants to animals, my dog doesn’t eat plants and can’t reach up here anyway, but worth mentioning!

Opuntia Emerald Wave, AKA Prickly Pear Cactus. The classic cactus in a mini version. These also were $4 each at HD so I grabbed a few irresistible pots, took a few painful hits by their many invasive spikes, and put them up high so no one else would be injured.

ECHEVERIA:blue echeveria flower succulent aqua turquoiseblue turquoise succulent flowering echeveriaMystery Blue Echeveria…? A mispriced large echeveria that was $6 so I had to take it home. Not sure if it will multiply, or die. I’m waiting. It sent up the prettiest coral colored flowers right after planting so I hope it sticks around.wax agaveWax Agave, AKA Echeveria Agavoids. I bought 4 of these for $5 a piece but didn’t love them for the location purchased, and I couldn’t return them so I scattered them among the rocks over here. Not much info on them, other than they can clump and grow by sending out pups. I’ve put them through everything: blasting sun, full shade, so much water, crazy dryness and they are still truckin’. They seem as happy here as they are anywhere else.

variegated sisal agaveVariegated Sisal Agave. Not sure if it will stay here or join the agave collection happening in the front yard, but I LOVE this plant so much. So much. Sisal, the fiber, comes from these plants and the process is so cool. I once watched it on Spanish language TV program while downing a burrito in a Santa Barbara taqueria, so I basically an expert. This one was $18 and I don’t think it is very happy in this shady, confined spot. It needs to find an in ground home soon. The tips are needle sharp so I’m reluctant to plant in ground back here.

aloe barberae tree cutting propagationAt purchase:aloe barberae tree cutting propagationAloe barberae, AKA Tree Aloe . The pride and joy of my plant collection (who the heck am I even???). These are aloe trees, which are basically Sideshow Bob in plant form. I had no plans to buy these, as they are usually fancy specimens way out my price range, but when the nursery mentioned a pile of cheap cuttings that had blown down during a storm from their incredibly huge mother tree (see here), I felt like the biggest winner in the world. That pile stunk of death, but these were so worth it at $45 for double head and $25 for the single. I rooted these the same as the yuccas, but in pots and in the shade. They are actually one of the thirstier succulents but I am fine with babying them because I think they are magnificent. I haven’t decided on their final planting (or potting) spot yet, but I do know that I love them so much. The windy season was rough on them, knocking them down several times, hence some sad broken leaves, so deciding on a permanent spot is a priority.


Kangaroo Paws. So cute at the store, but they clump, spread and ended up needing more upkeep (removing dead leaves and separating and replanting regularly) than I thought. Also, they weren’t down with the low water I was dishing out even though labeled “low water”….meaning I killed some and returned the others.

Flax. I was really drawn to flax initially, but again with the clumping and growing and thirstiness that I’m not into when there are similarly shaped plants with way less needs (agaves).

Cordylines. LOVE these but they kept dying on me back here. Not sure why? The summer heat radiating off the back wall? I planted a few in the front yard instead: One round has died (rot) and I’ve now replanted in a shadier spot. You can tell I’m really dedicated to growing these work even though I’m failing! Any tips? I really want to make them work.mid century yard backyardThough this yard is minimal by design, especially so since all the plants are babies, I may add a few more plantings to areas that seem too sparse even as plants grow. And I’d still like to add a bunch of tall cactus to that back fence ledge but, for the most part, it will stay restrained and as low maintenance as we can get away with. And, I mean, that wall is carrying a ton of visual weight!

The side yard is mostly “finished”, though currently overrun with weeds after months of neglect. I hope to clean it up and share soon.

Now, if you could only see the front yard. IT IS SO BAD. I’d love to put it off for another year so we can finish up inside, but in the interest of neighborly goodwill (which we have more than used up at this point), it’s on deck.

Yikes, that was long! Gold star for you if you made it through this expansive post. Thanks for reading!


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