UC Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA
University of California
UC Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA

Water Wise Plants

Here's a full list of all our water wise plants. You can also view an image gallery, or view the plants by categories.

Calamagrostis acutifolia 'Stricta'

Pronunciation
kal-ah-mah-GROSS-tiss ah-kew-tih-FLOOR-ah
Common Name
Feather Reed Grass
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2-3 ft.. tall and wide, flowers to 6 ft.
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Taupe
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Calamagrostis is a wonderful vertical accent in the garden. We have used two plants to mark an entryway to the garden. They can also be massed to make a low growing screen.

In late winter we have cut these grasses back to several inches above the ground to renew the plants. Other years we have simply raked out the old growth in the spring. Either way, these grasses are extremely low maintenance plants with a big impact in the garden.

Carex divulsa

Pronunciation
KARE-eks dee-VOOL-sah
Common Name
Foothill Sedge
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. tall and 1 ft. wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Foothill sedge is one of our water wise winners! It makes a lovely informal ground cover in shady areas. With occasional water this plant stays green over the entire summer. Foothill sedge will survive full sun, but can begin to look ratty in the summer.

This plant was once considered a California native, but that has recently been disproven. The new name is Carex divulsa, but you will still find it sold as Carex tumulicola in nurseries.

At the end of winter, many people cut this plant back to several inches above the ground, but we have not had to do that. Because our plants are in the shade, they never seem to get tattered looking.

We have not had a problem with Foothill sedge reseeding. This may be because we mulch extensively with bark and use drip irrigation in the water wise garden.

Chondropetalum tectorum

Pronunciation
kon-dro-PET-al-lum tek-TOR-um
Common Name
Cape Rush
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
4-6 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Tan brown bracts
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Chondropetalum is a low water plant from South Africa that has a nice reed-like look. In the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden we've used it on the edge of a dry creek bed. Many garden designers favorite it as a specimen for its strong architectural lines. It is often use in modern designs and in pots as the "thriller".

Overwatering the plant will make it floppy. We carefully remove old stems to highlight the new growth. Chondropetalum can also be sheared to ground just as new sprouts start to show.

We also tried planting Juncus, a similar looking plant, but found it did not do well with once every three weeks watering.

Festuca californica

Pronunciation
fess-TEW-kuh kal-ih-FOR- nih-kuh
Common Name
California Fescue
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. high and wide, with inflorescence 2 - 3 ft. high
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Golden
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Festuca californica is a commonly planted California native. It is larger than many of the Festucas, reaching two feet or more in height. It has a softer more arching habit. We have found it goes summer dormant with infrequent summer watering.

This plant is tough and resilient. Unlike many California natives, this plant can take moderate water and will stay green and lush with regular watering.

To keep this plant from reseeding, be sure to deadhead in early summer.

Festuca glauca

Pronunciation
fes-TOO-ka GLAW-ka
Common Name
Blue Fescue
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
1 ft high and 10 in. wide
Water Requirements
Moderate: water weekly until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Blue-green
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Blue fescue is a small, evergreen bunch grass with narrow blue-green leaves that form a mound. The fairly insignificant flowers appear in early summer.

This grass needs occasional water and good drainage. It tends to brown out in the middle, but can be divided and replanted to renew it. In a low water garden, these grasses seem to hold their blue green color better in the shade.

In the Water Wise Garden we have removed most of these grasses. We had hoped to use blue fescue as an edging plant throughout the garden beds, however, in our opinion, only a few looked good enough to keep in the garden.

Festuca idahoensis

Pronunciation
fess-TOO-kah eye-duh-ho-EN-sis
Common Name
Idaho Fescue
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
1 ft. to 2 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Shade
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Idaho fescue is common native grass in California and many other western states. We have planted a number of Festucas, including Idaho fescue, in full sun and they look brown and scraggly during the summer months. Festucas seem to perform much better in dry shade. In the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden we are in the process of removing Festucas from sunny areas of the garden and transplanting them to shadier spots when we have room.

Miscanthus, another type of grass, does better in full sun. It is not a perfect substitute for Festucas because of its larger size. The Palo Alto Demonstration Garden is still searching for a grass that is low growing and does well in full sun with limited water.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Yaku Jima'

Pronunciation
mis-KAN-thus sih-NEN-sis
Common Name
Silver Grass 'Yaku Jima'
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. to 3 ft. wide and tall with plumes rising 4 ft. to 5 ft.
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Striking golden plumes in fall
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Miscanthus 'Yaku Jima' is a favorite of Roberta Barnes, one of the founders of the Palo Alto Water Wise Demonstration Garden. She has found Miscanthus to be one of the best looking grasses for full sun and low water. There are many cultivars of Miscanthus on the market that vary in size and foliage color including silver and reddish brown. The cultivar 'Yaku Jima' is a U.C Davis All Star plant.

From a design perspective, the delicate foliage and showy plumes of Miscanthus add movement and texture to the garden. The plumes look especially lovely in the fall afternoon light.

We have not experienced any problems with this grass reseeding in the garden. To keep a fresh look, cut Miscanthus to the ground in winter and divide every few years. That is the only maintenance needed for these trouble-free plants. We have found that sometimes Miscanthus takes a year or so to get established in our water wise garden.

Muhlenbergia dubia

Pronunciation
muh-len-BER-jee-ah DOO-bee-uh
Common Name
Pine Muhly
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. to 3 ft. wide and tall with plumes rising 4 ft. to 5 ft.
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Muhlenbergia dubia from the southwest U.S. is one of our favorite grasses for the summer dry garden. It looks very similar to the more common Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass), but it is a third of its size. That makes this plant a better choice for pots and small spaces.

Like most grasses Muhlenbergia dubia really shines in the fall when its graceful leaves add movement and texture to the garden.

In the spring we like to rake out the older growth to encourage new green leaves. Every three years we shear this plant down the ground. That is the only maintenance we do on this plant.

Muhlenbergia emersleyi

Pronunciation
muh-len-BER-jee-ah e-MERS-lee-eye
Common Name
Bull Grass
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
1 1/2 ft tall and 3 - 4 ft wide
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Muhlenbergia emersleyi is a wonderful grass to include in perennial flower beds because it doesn't get too big. In the late summer and fall this grass has attractive reddish flower spikes on green foliage. The winter form is lovely as well. Some describe the winter color as cream or tan. We say let's call it brown.

We have a single specimen in the Demonstration Garden, but we think this grass would look attractive planted in a larger group or even in a meadow.

This grass is extremely low maintenance and unlike many other grasses doesn't need to be divided every couple years. To keep this grass looking good, we rake out the old foliage to make room for the green spring growth.

The only downside of this plant is that it can be hard to find in nurseries. It is well worth requesting from a nurseries as a special order.

Muhlenbergia rigens

Pronunciation
muh-len-BER-jee-ah RIG-ens
Common Name
Deer Grass
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
3 ft. wide and tall
Water Requirements
Low: water every three weeks until the root ball is wet
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Grasses are the backbone of late summer and fall dry perennial gardens. We love the movement and texture they add to gardens. The graceful leaves of grasses look particularly beautiful when highlighted by the late afternoon sun.

Muhlenbergia rigen is a reliably pretty California native grass. The flower stalks are persistent and look attractive year-round. We've used it as an accent plant in our native and non-native beds with good results. The UC Davis Arboretum, which has selected Muhlenbergia as one of their "All Stars", suggests using it as a low informal screen.

Muhlenbergia requires very little maintenance in our water-wise garden. UC Davis recommends shearing Muhlenbergia a couple inches above the ground in the early spring every three years to encourage new green growth. California Native Plants for the Garden suggests periodically raking out dead foliage with a fan rake. Otherwise, this is a maintenance-free plant.

The Palo Alto Demonstration Garden also grows Muhlenbergia dubia, a smaller cultivar. We have found this to be an attractive low-water plant, although the UC Davis Arboretum suggests giving M. dubia slightly more water than M. rigen

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