People from around the country travel far and wide to catch a glimpse of Utah’s natural wonders, red rock laden landscapes and wide desert views. Yet, one trip to the city and suddenly the native flora adapted to our arid climate is replaced with vast lush lawns and excessive foreign blooms. So why, exactly, is the second driest state in America so apprehensive to bring these indigenous water-wise plants into their own backyards? Much of the hesitation is rooted in water-wise misconceptions. All too often the thought of a drought-friendly landscape procures images of threatening cacti and zero-scaped gravel pathways. For some homeowners, the concept of transforming their yards into drought-friendly spaces insinuates a complete overhaul of existing plantings—an unsettling notion for a green-thumbed caretaker. 

Widespread misunderstanding of water-wise practices puts Utah at further risk of an oncoming drought crisis, but it also limits the public’s conception of what is considered beautiful. The idea that alluring outdoor areas must adhere to one set of standards is a barrier that experts at Red Butte Garden are trying to break. Alongside other themed gardens and collections, Red Butte offers an expansive Water Conservation Garden. The unique space features a variety of appealing blooms, fruit trees, rainwater terraces and, yes, cacti. The garden is as inviting and vibrant as it is informative. While drawing in viewers with its utter beauty, the Water Conservation Garden aims to educate the community on simple approaches to drought-friendly practices. 

The team at Red Butte spent nearly a decade building and perfecting the water wise garden, but implementing drought-friendly practices in your yard doesn’t have to. Lead Horticulturist for the Water Conservation Garden Guy Banner and Landscape Architect/Project Manager Kevin Jensen offer professional insight on water-wise outdoor approaches— and do some myth busting along the way. 

water-wise misconceptions
Star of Persia (Allium Christophii) Photo courtesy of Red Butte Garden

Myth #1: Barren and Boring 

Drought-friendly gardens are often mistaken for zero-scaped yards. And while a landscape of gravel and dirt does in fact require little irrigation, a water-wise yard is capable of supporting vibrant blooms and unique floral species. The Water Conservation Garden is a shining example of this. “There’s the misconception that a [water wise] landscape is barren and dusty and dry; where we have just the opposite on the hillside,” says Jensen. “We have a beautiful lush garden that is super inviting, super colorful and super pollinator friendly that just happens to utilize a lot of these water saving design techniques.” The Water Conservation Garden offers California poppies, shrubs, various rose species and even Yucca Trees. During a wet spring, a lucky visitor may even witness a super bloom similar to those occurring in Utah’s natural desertscapes. 

Photo courtesy of Red Butte Garden

Myth #2: Dry All Year Long 

Instead of imagining water-wise landscapes as perpetually bone-dry, consider them opportunistic guzzlers. Some plants store winter moisture in bulbs, resulting in an explosion of color in the spring followed by dormancy during a dry summer. “Our moisture is very seasonal here [in Utah],” says Banner. Utilizing flora that take advantage of Utah’s natural wet seasons culminates in a vibrant garden display that requires little watering.

water-wise misconceptions
Variegated Soapwort (Yucca gloriosa ‘Variegata’) Photo courtesy of Red Butte Garden

Myth #3: Fruitless 

Utah is home to several desert-adapted fruit trees, including the Chokecherry tree that naturally grows in the foothills. Banner explains the key to successfully growing a water-wise fruit tree is placement. Natural depressions in your yard form basins that collect the overflow of water. “With these basins, you have the opportunity to have higher water-need plants at the base where the water naturally collects,” he says. Fruit trees like pomegranate, jujube and date palms do extremely well in arid climates, flourishing when thoughtfully planted where gravity delivers them more water. 

water-wise misconceptions
Red Baron Peach Tree. Photo courtesy of Red Butte Garden

Myth #4: One and Done

Once established, a water-wise garden works symbiotically to distribute water where needed. However, that doesn’t mean homeowners can simply pop a few savvy plants in their yard and call it a day. In its infancy, a drought-friendly garden requires a small amount of water on a regular basis. Known as establishment watering, gardeners should expect to keep a consistent irrigation schedule for up to two years. If a new plant is introduced to an existing water-wise area, keep in mind that the established plants can be negatively impacted by frequent watering. Strategizing an irrigation approach that addresses new plants while avoiding the others takes time and practice. “Like we say, it’s not rocket science, but it is science,” says Banner. 

Dispelling myths about drought-friendly landscaping practices puts Utahns one step closer to sustainable living while shaping new notions of outdoor beauty. Above all else, homeowners should remember that mistakes are inevitable in any gardening venture, and taking each in stride is what separates a groundskeeper from a horticulturist. As Jensen says, “I mean maybe you kill a plant or two. It happens. People should feel empowered to try things.” 


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