Tough Plants for Northern California
I have grown all of the plants on this page in my yard. I have found them to be not only hardy sun-lovers, and tolerant of dry conditions, but distasteful to deer. That doesn't mean that deer won't take a nibble, but these are not the plants they prefer.
I'm in northern California. We are several years into a severe drought. Most California communities are under water restrictions, and only allowed to water on designated days of the week. Many cities are offering incentives for residents who remove their thirsty lawns in favor of more sustainable plants.
Plants That Grow in Zone 8
Here in the foothills of the Sierra mountains, we're in zone 8, the most extreme cold does not get below 15° F. I live in an area that gets about 55" of rain and some snow in the winter, and is hot and dry during the summer months. In the sunny parts of the yard even plants that are claimed to grow in "full sun" sometimes can't take it.
Plants that Grow in Poor Soil
I have poor clay soil. I do add some amendments when I first plant, but thereafter feeding is infrequent. I've planted a lot of plants that could not handle the environment, and some that survived and are thriving. If you're anything like me it's best to focus your gardening efforts more on plants those plants that do well in your area without too much pampering.
Most plants do better if they are well established in the spring, after the last frost, but before the weather gets too hot.
What About Water?
Even the most resilient plants need some water
A drip system is not only the most efficient way to water, but it avoids wetting the flowers and foliage. Some flowers become too heavy and the plants topple over if they get wet. Also, wetting your plants can cause mold and mildew problems.
I prefer the Raindrip system. Even for the novice, they are pretty simple to set up.
Shasta Daisy is very easy to grow. They need good drainage, but thrive in a wide pH range and don't need especially rich soil. In fact, if the soil is too rich the plants tend to get "leggy" and fall over.
The plants should be set out in early spring. They need to be kept well watered the first year, and they won't flower the first year, but once they are established Shasta Daisies are drought tolerant and will bloom for many years to come. Shasta Daisies and are self-seeding perennials so they will usually multiply. In a few years you'll probably have some to give away to your friends.
The plants grow from 3 to 5 feet tall, and sometimes require support. If you have a mixed planting Shasta Daisies look better behind other plants because of their height.
Shasta Daisies will begin to flower in late spring, and if you cut the spent flowers off they will continue to flower throughout the summer. A wonderful addition to a cut flower arrangement, Shasta Daisies last a long time after being cut.
Sweet William comes in a wide variety of colors ranging from scarlet and magenta to pink and white. Many varieties have multi-colored flowers with pink and red or red and white. They have a lovely smell and modern strains bloom all summer.
Most varieties I have encountered are low-growing, about 6 to 10 inches, and make great border plants. Sweet William also looks fabulous in containers or rock gardens. It needs at least 6 hours of sun each day. Sweet William prefers not to have its foliage wet.
Dianthus are hardy annuals, or bi-annuals.
Purple Coneflower is a stunning perennial. A hardy and drought tolerant prairie flower, it can be grown in most parts of the US. The purple Coneflower grows 2 to 4 feet tall and likes well drained soil and lots of sun.
The Purple Coneflower likes conditions similar to what the Shasta Daisy prefers, and they look great together, it also is a good candidate for a cut flower arrangement. In my experience, Purple Coneflower does not spread quite so readily as Shasta Daisy. You may want to save the seeds for replanting.
Many types of Lavender do well in my yard, they are generally a hardy plant, but this Spanish Lavender (also called French Lavender) is my personal favorite.
This type of Lavender is more of an ornamental plant than an herb. It is very attractive to bees.
Spanish Lavender is tough and drought tolerant, it thrives in the hot sun.
(Eschscholzia californica )
California Poppies prefer rocky terrain, they will grow out of a craggy hillside or even cracks in the sidewalk. They prefer fairly dry conditions, if pampered in a flower bed you could kill them with kindness. The ones in this picture are growing on the outskirts of my flower bed.
I actually had trouble getting California Poppies to grow. I tried planting them from seeds without much luck. I bought a couple of plants from a local nursery, and planted them on the edges of my flower bed. They have spread their seeds and now I get new California Poppies every year. They grow between the rocks and even in the gravel driveway, but do not spread into the soft moist soil in the flower bed.
Nandina always has something interesting going on. The new leaves are pink or red, as they mature the leaves turn green. It gets white flowers in early summer, which turn into bright red berries that last all through the winter. The berries are a mild poison, not considered toxic to people but can harm your cat if he eats them.
There are many varieties of Nandina. Some are dwarfs that only get about 3 feet tall, but this one at the corner of my garage has reached all the way to the rafters. Most years the snow breaks some of the branches off, otherwise it would probably be taller than the house.
Rock Rose is a very low maintenance plant which will grow in poor stony soil with very little organic matter. This hardy plant requires very little water.
About all Rock Roses need is good drainage and plenty of sunshine. I gave this one to my mom for Mother's Day about three years ago; she scraped out a hole barely big enough to hold the roots, and this plant has done fine ever since.
White Spirea is a very hardy plant, it can tolerate a wide range of soils. This one in my yard survives on very little supplemental water. It gets these profuse flowers on its arching branches in early spring, the rest of the year it's an attractive bush with dark blue-green foliage, it stands about 5 feet tall. It is very attractive to bees and butterflies.
Firethorn is a dense thorny bush. It is an attractive ornamental, and grown as a hedge it can be an effective barrier to keep out intruders.
Firethorn also provides excellent protective shelter for wildlife.
It has white flowers in early summer which soon turns to red, berry-like fruit. Although they are bitter, the berries are not toxic.
I think this is possibly the hardiest plant in my yard. It has grown back after being run over by tractors and having boards thrown on top of it. Besides all that, it gets hardly any water. The blue-green foliage is very attractive; the small button-like yellow flowers bloom in early summer.
Santolina looks wonderful at the edge of a wooded area. In the fall the woody stems die off and need to be removed for it to look nice the next year. Other than that it needs very little care.
All of These Plants Were Stress Tested by Me
Idiot Proof Plants
I am not really the kind of person who is known to have a green thumb. A plant that must be carefully nurtured will not live in my garden. However, I do love plants, so I keep trying until I find something that fits. Besides surviving poor soil and hot, dry summers, the deer have not eaten these. All of these plants have been successfully grown by me, if you have similar conditions I believe they will work for you.
A Tip for Protecting Plants from Deer
Deer are a huge problem in my yard. I have some plants that they do like to eat, so here are some things I do to discourage them.
Deer don't like to walk on some surfaces. I discovered by accident that if you lay wire fencing down on the ground, they won't walk over it.
When the fencing is laid flat on the ground you can hardly even see it, especially after a few plants have grown up through it.
I had several bushes that would do well for a while, then get eaten down overnight by deer. Since I've been using this trick, the deer leave them alone.
© 2014 Sherry Hewins
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on June 17, 2017:
Hmmm...Pyracanthus! LOL The birds love the berries, and overindulge, and get drunk!
It's true! My mother had one of these plants, and it was quite comical to see birds all up in the bush, and then several of them just sitting on the ground afterwards, kind of wobbly, or walking crookedly. Apparently, they couldn't fly right away, as their balance or internal compass was affected.
Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 27, 2015:
Thanks tirelesstraveler - Keeping anything alive in my yard is a struggle right now because of the drought. Thank goodness for drip irrigation.
Judy Specht from California on July 26, 2015:
I enjoyed this hub very much. I can grow all these plants even through I am closer to the bay area. You have definitely given me some ideas for revitalizing my yard.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 12, 2015:
I am always looking for drought tolerant plants as our weather here in Florida is unpredictable. We can have lots of rain for weeks or NO rain for the same length of time.
I was familiar with most of these but the Rock Rose and Spanish Lavender caught my eye. Now I must research them to see if I can find any nearby or if I can order plants or seeds to grow my own.
So glad I discovered your pages again, Sherry.
Hoping all is good in your little corner of the planet.
Angels are on the way to you this morning, early. ps Voted up++++
Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on March 08, 2014:
That wooden deck is a great tip too teaches12345
Thanks DDE - Shasta Daisies are so cheerful looking aren't they?
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 08, 2014:
Beautiful flowers I have Shasta Daisies they have bloomed throughout winter. Your tips are most helpful and interesting. I enjoy gardening.
Dianna Mendez on January 13, 2014:
I think the Spanish Lavender is so beautiful. We had problems with deer eating our container plans until we discovered they would not walk across our planked deck. Great trick putting down fencing. It does work. Thanks for the tips on these sunny area plant guides.
Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 10, 2014:
You are welcome VVanNess I hope it works for you. Happy gardening.
Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on January 10, 2014:
Oh, thank you! I have the hardest time growing plants out here in Arizona. I had such a beautiful garden out in Texas, but I just haven't been able to grow anything here. I love that this is not just informative, but that you have also tested each of these plants yourself.
I'm going to have to give it another try with this rich resource of new drought tolerant, stress-tested plants! Thank you!!
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on January 09, 2014:
This is an awesome assortment. It sounds like I have many of the same types of growing conditions you do, just with humidity thrown in. I think these would work for me. Thanks!
RTalloni on January 09, 2014:
Well, thank you! This is timely since I was just this morning wondering what to do in a sunny spot this spring. I don't want to have to do a lot of work there and this post is a good reminder of some great plants. Also, thanks for thoughts of warmer days coming in a few months!
Donna Herron from USA on January 09, 2014:
I have the opposite of a green thumb, whatever that may be :) But last year, we planted coneflowers and they really did well in our little planting areas. They also attracted goldfinches and hummingbirds! We definitely plan to plant more this year, but I'd like to add some of the other flowers from this list. Thanks for sharing! Voted up and pinned!!
Claudia Mitchell on January 09, 2014:
Nice to see this hub during this cold weather. I need easy care plants so this list is helpful.
Mackenzie Sage Wright on January 08, 2014:
Beautiful, great selections here. I'm definitely going to look into a few of these for my spring planting next month.