Book review: The Drought-Defying California Garden

The longer you garden, the more you learn. That goes without saying. But with that experience sometimes comes a certain arrogance. Usually you’re not even aware of it. It may express itself in rolling your eyes when you hear or read something that you think is obvious. Occasionally, you may also have an overinflated sense of how much you actually know. In truth, you most likely know less than you think. A reality check is not a bad thing.

I had my own reality check recently when I read The Drought-Defying Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren (Timber Press Inc., 2016). I live in California and have been gardening in drought conditions for years. Plus I have a good knowledge of California natives.


At least that’s what I thought.

When I received the book, I thought I’d get a nice refresher of what I already know without learning much else. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Drought-Defying Garden is a compact book, just 207 pages, half of which are plant profiles. But it contains a wealth of information based on the authors’ many years of experience in the field. (Greg Rubin is the owner of a landscape design company and Lucy Warren is a Southern California gardening professional.) The practical information shared by Rubin and Warren is what makes this book so useful for anybody who is considering installing a California native garden. No need to make your own mistakes when they’ve already gone through it all—simply follow their recommendations.

The book is laid out in four major sections: “Introduction,” “Plant Selection,” “Installation,” and “Care and Maintenance.”


The introduction summarizes the current water situation in California and makes a case for using native plants in residential gardens. The savings in water and money alone are a compelling argument; drought-tolerant natives cost about 85% less to irrigate than a lawn.

Rubin and Warren use a “basic palette of 70-80 percent evergreen trees, shrubs, and perennials [for] native landscapes […] to look lush and colorful year-round.” The resulting design gives you a sense of place, requires minimal maintenance, provides erosion control, offers fire safety, and promotes habitat preservation.

Instead of mixing California natives with plants from elsewhere, they recommend setting aside areas in your garden dedicated exclusively to California natives. This was a concept I was not familiar with. After all, my own garden is based on mixing and matching with abandon. The reason is detailed in the “Plant Selection” section. California native plants come from harsh environments, and their primary mode of survival is to live in cooperative plant communities. They keyword here is “cooperative.” Instead of competing for resources (water, nutrients),  these symbiotic communities share what few resources there are. Soil organisms (mycorrhiza) help extract, transport and distribute moisture and minerals.

To replicate this system at home, it is essential to combine plants from the same (or compatible) communities. The book lists 11 communities, ranging from the coastal strand and coastal sage scrub to chaparral and different types of forest to the desert. These communities require different organic or inorganic mulches. The book gives detailed information on what to use at home.


In “Plant Selection,” the authors recommend using plants that are native to where you live and suggest you get in touch with your nearest California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter. The CNPS also operates a handy website called that lets you input a street address and then shows you which plants are native to that area. For Davis, for example, Calscape list 420 native plants.


“Plant Selection” is broken down into “Native Trees,” “Native Shrubs,” “Native Groundcovers,” and “Native Perennials, Vines, and Monocots.” The tree and shrub sections are further divided by size (large, medium and small). Each plant profile contains of a detailed description and indicates the plant community the plant belongs to and how it can be used in the landscape. While the size of the book limits the number of plants that can be included here, the authors did a good job listing a representative sample of California natives that are both gardenworthy and available in the trade (at last in nurseries specializing in natives).


While the “Plant Selection” section is the “meat” of the book, for me the real treasure trove of information is found in the next two sections: “Installation,” and “Care and Maintenance.” This is where I learned quite a few things I hadn’t been aware of.

Just a few examples: Don’t add amendments, fertilizers or compost to the soil. That’s the opposite of what so many of us do when planting. The goal is to create conditions that emulate nature. California natives are used to grow in low-nutrient, low-water situations. That’s what they want and need.

In addition, stay away from drip irrigation systems. While they are efficient, convenient and eminently suitable for so many other plants, they create wet zones (“localized hypersaturation”) that may cause California natives to rot. The authors recommend irrigation every 10 to 14 days using low-volume rotary sprinkler heads on 12-inch pop-up sprinkler bodies or risers. If that’s not option, an old-fashioned garden hose is a perfectly good alternative.


Other useful tips and tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book. Don’t waste money on buying larger plants, for instance. 1-gallon plants are ideal. 1- and 15-gallon plants of the same species typically reach the same size in 9 to 12 months. In addition, plants in larger pots are more likely to die. This is the kind of information rooted in decades of practical experience.

The “Care and Maintenance” section goes into topics such as watering, trimming and pruning, ant control, and weed control, including the use of pre- and post-emergent herbicides. An appendix lists useful resources such as the regional chapters of the California Native Plant Society as well as specialist nurseries.


What looked like a small book that might refresh what I already knew turned out to be far bigger on the inside than its compact format suggests.

Disclaimer: Timber Press provided me with a complimentary review copy of this book.


  1. Oh! Wow! What can I say that you haven't? I learned from what you learned. This is a great book without repetitive information and with new ideas -- plant in communities, stay away from drip, buy 1-gallon pots. Yes, I want lushness. Yes, I want color.

    I am the editor of the newsletter for the San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of CNPS. I would like to reprint your review in its entirety in the next issue that comes out in September just before our plant sale. I think your review is so informative and so important it needs much wider distribution to locals. I, for example, had never heard of this book.

    Would you give your permission to me to reprint (no payment) this review along with one or two photos?

  2. You're becoming my go-to guy for garden books! I just placed an order for the book. As to the 1-gallon vs larger nursery pots, I wholeheartedly agree. I only wish more garden centers would get with that program.

    1. Kris, I do love garden books and I've vowed to better about posting reviews. Next up: The Australian Native Garden by Angus Stewart and AB Bishop. It was primarily written for Australian gardeners but I find it very interesting--and full of cool photos.

  3. While all the while remembering this book is written for your part of the world not mine I was still nodding my head at many of the points made. What a great hands-on primer! I hope others will benefit from your review.

    1. This book does deserve widespread recognition. The information it contains is so useful for gardeners who want a California native garden.

  4. The Las Pilitas nursery website has most of this info on line, the owner of this southern california native plant nursery pioneered a lot of this info. Still, it's nice to have this in book form. BTW Gerhard, I have many of these natives in quart pots, which will be available at Woodland Community college's fall sale, for just a few dollars, compared for ten dollars or more for a gallon at the UCD botanical garden's sale, or the Sacramento chapter of the Native Plant Society. Just saying... Sue

    1. You are absolutely right! Bert was my main mentor and really gave me the strong, hard advice which ultimately helped guide my successful business. Las Pilitas protocols work! And, after over 700 native landscapes, we have been able to put these to the test and expand on them in some cases. The Argentine ant issue is huge, BTW. Number one cause of mortality in our native landscapes here in Southern California and elsewhere. Anyway, my company would not exist were it not for Bert, which is why the book is dedicated to him. Greg Rubin

    2. Sue, please let me know the dates for the Wood Community College plant sales and I'll post them. I agree, your prices cannot be beat--and your plants are grown with love :-).

    3. Greg, I had NO idea that the Argentine ants caused that much damage. I've noticed a huge uptick in ant activity in the last two years here in Davis, but I don't know what kind of ants they are. I had better look into it!

  5. Wow sounds like such a great book. I need to expand my knowledge of other drought resistant plants besides succulents. Might have to get this one! Thanks!

    1. I think planting complementary plants makes succulents shine even more!

  6. I agree about the 1 gallon size or smaller--they catch up to larger sizes in a few months at most. There are a few plants that have done better when purchased at a larger size (Leucadendron!) but no CA natives in that list. Drip--have had zero problems with it, but the soil here is not clay.

    1. Instinctively I always want the largest specimen possible but I'm usually able to reign myself in. But sometimes you don't have a choice. It seems that the premium brands, like Monrovia, don't sell certain plants in sizes smaller than 5 gallon. All for extra profit, I'm sure.

      I've never had any problems with drip either *BUT* I don't have a 100% California native garden. Knowing what I know now, the requirements are quite different from the kinds of plants I have.

    2. Utilizing rain-like water delivery at levels consistent with drip grid systems is really about a general approach that tries to emulate native ecology to the best of our knowledge while limiting the introduction of foreign variables to the greatest extent possible. This is a general philosophy pioneered by Las Pilitas as a response to the often poor outcomes experienced by those utilizing natives in landscapes. The truth us that native ecology is impossibly complex and poorly understood, so it's impossible to predict how non-native inputs might affect plant mortality. We are just trying to minimize risk and create the right conditions for these ecosystems to develop naturally in landscape situations. And, since rainfall or fog drip are the most common forms of watering in the natural world, light overhead irrigation is consistent with most plant communities. I started out with drip initially; switching to overhead dropped my mortalities from 40-60% down to less than 5% in most cases, which has been a main factor in our success. How did I learn so quickly? By guaranteeing our plants!�� BTW, riparian and marshy natives LOVE drip!


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