Today’s approach to landscapes and container gardening employs waterwise plants that go way beyond desert scrub while saving dollars and your reputations well as precious water.

This year’s hot landscaping trend? Eco-friendly, water-wise, sustainable plantings and containers.

We can thank a variety of factors, like a slow economy and water restrictions that are making folks more conscious of their water use and water bills. Then there are our increasingly busy lifestyles, which make treating for pests and diseases or replacing dead plants an unmanageable time drain. Add to that Americans’ growing desire to do their small part to help the environment, and the result is a skyrocketing demand for Xeriscaping plants, or varieties that require little irrigation or watering. The 2011 Residential Trends Survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects, for instance, says drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants are among this year’s top demands.

Using water-wise plants – along with Xeriscaping strategies like mulching, soil amendments, turfgrass reduction, land contouring to catch rainfall and irrigation control technology – not only reduces the amount (and cost) of water used, it cuts down on maintenance and staff hours. Other than minimal pruning and weeding, water needs are low and can be taken care of with simple irrigation systems. Other Xeriscaping tactics, such as proper plant placement and spacing, and grouping plantings with similar water requirements together, can further streamline maintenance. And there’s a side benefit: It positions your products and services as “green.”

Blue Storm agapanthus is a water-wise choice whether planted en masse or in a container. In the landscape, Blue Storm provides a swath of enticing color; in a container, the plant’s architectural structure is highlighted.

“We’ve been using – and advocating the use of – sustainable plantings for years, but this has now become the gold standard for how we design landscapes,” says Sharon Coates, co-owner of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/build firm in Rochester, N.Y. “Water conservation and environmental issues are at the top of everyone’s minds these days, and sustainable plantings can do a lot to reduce the amount of water needed.”

Gardeners also want the same easy-care, eco-friendly plants in their containers, according to the Garden Media Group’s 2011 garden trends survey.

Colorful, drought-tolerant Flower Carpet roses are a great way to quickly fill a large bed while turning it into a more low-maintenance, sustainable landscape.

At Tesselaar, we’ve definitely seen a big movement toward sustainable container gardening as well, which means using drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants that offer season-long interest while requiring fewer chemicals and less water. And as we continue our mission of “making gardening easy” for everyone, that has come to mean not only developing plants that are low-maintenance and environmentally friendly in the garden, but also in containers.

Beyond the usual suspects

Many Xeriscaping experts suggest going native with plant selection, because indigenous plants are already accustomed to local climates. But that doesn’t mean you’re limited to these plants – or to cactus-looking, desert scrub.

The folks at Tesselaar Plants source the world for colorful, lush, drought-tolerant plants that are anything but boring. If you think roses are out, for example, think again. Easy-care, extremely drought-tolerant Flower Carpet® groundcover roses can be a great choice for low-maintenance, season-long color in beds or containers. Susan Harris, of the popular Garden Rant and Homestead Gardens blogs, wrote a post last year about how she used Flower Carpet roses to quickly fill in a newly enlarged border before a famous garden photographer stopped by for a shoot.

Flower Carpet’s Next Generation line has proved to be tolerant of extreme heat and humidity.

“I’ve admired my neighbors’ Flower Carpets for their spring-to-frost blooms and their utter lack of disease,” she wrote in her May 3, 2010, post on Homestead Gardens. “No spraying needed at all … it is also drought tolerant (once established), and requires no fancy fuss or pruning.”

When planted en masse, carpet roses (which spread more horizontally than vertically and become covered with a blanket of blooms) are also a great way to quickly fill in a large bed while turning it into a more low-maintenance, sustainable landscape.

The fundamentals

In the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, author Amy Vickers suggests following eight fundamental steps for designing and maintaining a water-efficient landscape:

  • Group plants according to their water needs
  • Use native and low-water-use plants
  • Limit turf areas to those needed for practical purposes
  • Use efficient irrigation systems
  • Schedule irrigation wisely
  • Provide healthy soil
  • Mulch over soil and around plants to reduce evaporation
  • Regular maintenance

The Flower Carpet range of roses has also won the most awards for disease-resistance; most notably, Germany’s coveted All Deutschland Rose (ADR) designation, the world’s top honor for disease-resistant roses. And if you want roses in containers, which succumb to drought even quicker, Flower Carpet’s Next Generation line offers an additional 15 years of breeding for improved heat and humidity tolerance. The group earned high marks in the Dallas Arboretum’s famous plant trials in extreme heat.

Festival Burgundy cordyline presents an ebullient fountain effect when planted in landscape masses; the extremely drought-tolerant plant is also an excellent choice for containers.

Masses of grasses

Mass planting one or just a few kinds of plants with similar water requirements can also be a good way to keep water use down, says Bruce Zaretsky, Coates’ husband and co-owner of Zaretsky and Associates.

“There is nothing more dramatic than a sweep of one or two varieties,” says Zaretsky. He particularly likes to use ornamental grasses, because the sound of them swaying in the wind adds another sense – hearing – to the garden experience.

For Xeriscaping, he says, try maidengrass, zebra grass, blue oatgrass, Northern sea oats, ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue, little bluestem (hardy to Zone 3), leatherleaf sedge, pampas grass, Oriental fountain grass, blue panic grass, muhly grass (also extremely salt tolerant and prevents sand dune erosion), Japanese blood grass (great for color) and dwarf bamboo ‘Sunset Glow’ (non-invasive).

“But mass plantings can be a two-edged sword,” says Zaretsky, “since a monoculture of plants is subject to being wiped out by a pest or disease.” So if you do use one plant, make sure it’s a time-tested, disease- and pest-resistant variety, or perhaps a native or adapted plant that has proved itself in your area.

Make a statement

There are plenty of sustainable plants offering architectural interest and texture. Jimmy Turner, Senior Director of Gardens for the Dallas Arboretum, likes mass-planting agapanthus (also known as Lily of the Nile) in tight squares or triangles within a formal garden bed. And the only agapanthus that’s survived the arboretum’s intense trials in the heat is Blue Storm. Blue Storm, says Turner, is especially good for mass planting, because of its sturdy, multiple flower stalks, uniform height and multiple flushes of blooms, each lasting six to seven weeks. Between blooms, Blue Storm still makes a statement with its freestanding cluster of straplike leaves.

“For us, however, Blue Storm is a first and foremost a container plant,” says Turner. “Agapanthus is a diva. It really shines when it’s by itself in a pot.”

Above, Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a native North American prairie grass, well-suited to sustainable landscape applications. Seen here in fall, it provides a rustic-yet elegant-element.

Fantastic foliage

Why not try blocks of colorful or textured foliage? Perhaps you could plant a tropically hued mass of the red, glossy, straplike foliage of Festival Burgundy cordyline. Not only is this selection extremely drought-tolerant and pest-resistant, but its basal branching, low-growing structure allows for fuller, more compact clumps and a gentle fountain effect. It also overwinters beautifully as a houseplant for anyone in Zone 7 or lower, so clients can replant it year after year. Festival’s growth habit also makes it a stunner in containers.

Woody winners

Don’t forget the trees and shrubs. A new favorite in northern California and the Pacific Northwest is the extremely drought-tolerant Tuxedo ceanothus (California lilac).

Called a “luxurious, water-thrifty shrub” by Sunset magazine (in October 2009), this first-ever, dark-leaved ceanothus has also been tweeted and blogged about often by leading West Coast garden designers like Rebecca Sweet, author of the new book Garden Up!, and retailers like Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond, Calif., and Pacific Coast Home & Garden in San Luis Obispo.

“Any plant with blue flowers catches our attention, and Tuxedo has us captivated because of its rich burgundy-black leaves,” offers in its “New Trees and Shrubs for 2010” special slideshow. “The clusters of lavender-purple flowers are a lovely accent and appear in late summer and fall.”

The rich, dark foliage of Tuxedo California lilac (Ceanothus TuxedoÇ) provides an ideal backdrop for the plant’s lavender-blue blooms.

Whatever you choose, sustainable landscapes are more than a mere trend. They save your money and reputation, not to mention the world around you. “We hope the idea of sustainable gardening sticks,” says Coates, “and that everyone out there thinks of sustainability like color in the garden: a must-have.”

Ornamental grasses add unique shape, movement and sound to the water-wise garden.

Anthony Tesselaar, a third-generation nurseryman, is cofounder and president of Tesselaar Plants, Anthony Tesselaar International Pty. Ltd., headquartered in Victoria, Australia. Anthony Tesselaar USA Inc., the company’s U.S. operation, is located in Lawndale, Calif. The company’s web site is