Gardeners, dry those tears -- or maybe collect them to water your hydrangeas.

Yes, we're looking at drought-induced water restrictions in the coming months despite the recent rain, and reality soon will place California home landscapes on a permanent water diet -- reducing liquid-loving lawns and moisture-gluttonous plants and instead bulking up on water-wise vegetation that's fit for the future.

But that doesn't mean we will be left with rock gardens and cactus -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Experts say we can use this as an opportunity to get creative, think outside the boxwood, reimagine lawn areas and go wild with the abundant beauty of natives, succulents and even, yes, cactus in its many colors and structural shapes.

"Daffodils don’t want summer water," says Patrice Hanlon,  garden manager at The Gardens at Heather Farm in Walnut Creek, Calif., Tuesday,
"Daffodils don't want summer water," says Patrice Hanlon, garden manager at The Gardens at Heather Farm in Walnut Creek, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

"We're going to have to live with our new reality," says Kathleen Norris Brenzel, garden editor at Sunset magazine and editor of the latest edition of "The Sunset Western Garden Book of Landscaping."

"Droughts are gonna keep coming. So we might as well change our mindset and even have some fun with what we can do," she says. "The key to a beautiful garden is not just the plants you buy, but how you put them together to make them sing."

At Sunset's test garden in Menlo Park, Brenzel points out the design elements of grouping lower plants in front, taller farther back and bringing in a spectrum of colors. "You can get a punch of plum with a phormium 'Black Adder,' set off with the silvery foliage of some compact astelia," she says. "Loropetalum is fragrant, with great pink spider-like flowers that bloom in spring.


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"Once you get that mindset of wanting drought-tolerant plants, it opens up a whole new world of what you can do," she says.

Indeed, a drought year "is not the end of the world, and it's not the end of gardening," says Chris Woods, this year's director of the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, coming up March 19-23 at the San Mateo County Event Center. "We are one of the five Mediterranean climate regions in the world, so there are thousands of beautiful, easy-to-grow, low-water plants to choose from."

Jessica Kolman, of Pinole, made the shift in mindset for her home garden a few years ago. "Once I defined my 'palette' as Californian plants only, I felt freed to reimagine the whole landscape," she says. "The area shaded by existing trees is now under-planted with a green carpet of local woodland perennials. The sunny areas have shrubs and perennials from hot, dry parts of the state, as well as wildflowers that reseed annually.

"Many people think of xeriscaped gardens as sparse, with lots of dry grass, cactus and stone," Kolman says. "But in springtime, the native garden is pure flower power."

Jon Gibbens, of San Jose, sheet mulched his languishing lawn, built berms to provide better drainage, then planted the frontyard garden with natives -- some manzanita, ceanothus, hummingbird fuchsia, sage and more. His home has been part of the Going Native Garden Tour the past four years.

"Our garden has been giving us lots of enjoyment, opportunities to observe nature -- and greatly decreased water bills," he says.

Nurture patience

Either pick up some new plants right now, or wait until fall.

"After these last days of rain, the ground is moist, there's enough time for plants to get established before the summer weather sets in," Woods says. "I'd go grab some up and put them in right away."

The water-wise garden at Leanne Grossman’s Oakland home.
The water-wise garden at Leanne Grossman's Oakland home. (Leanne Grossman)

However, some experts say that if you're going to completely replant, it's better to wait and plan ahead for fall.

"Fall is actually California's spring, and is the best time to plant," says Patrice Hanlon, garden manager at The Gardens at Heather Farm in Walnut Creek, where Master Gardeners demonstrate sustainable growing and water conservation practices.

"You can rip out some plants and your lawn, if you want, but don't go crazy on new plantings," she says. "Even succulents or natives take more water to get established. The way the climate works here, when summer ends and there's less daylight, plants are not working as hard to get rooted. The soil is still warm to stimulate root growth.

"If someone is going to be doing a complete makeover, spring and summer are not the times to do it."

As to vegetable gardens, "If you love edibles, plant them," Brenzel says. "But do it wisely. Only grow what you're going to eat. Snake drip irrigation through the beds, and mulch. If you're not so techie with drip, soaker hoses work just fine.

"Spring is not the time to plant in California, but it's a great time to get ideas of what you want to plant going forward," she adds. "Take advantage of the many garden tours out there, look at the native vegetation where you live and see what thrives."

Lose that lawn?

Not necessarily.

"Everybody's targeting the lawn, but there's so much more to consider when it comes to garden water use," Brenzel says. "Are your sprinklers working as they should? Are you taking the hose and just letting it run? Cover your swimming pool. Mulch."

While a brown lawn may become a badge of civic responsibility, completely replacing it isn't always the answer. For children, for instance, very few plants are as good as grass on which to play. "The key is to keep the lawn small, only for what you need," Brenzel says. "Keep it geometric, so it's easy to water and not overshoot onto sidewalks."

Woods, who now lives in Fairfield but hails from England, where lawns are expansive and lush, says he wouldn't spend money watering a lawn in California. However, he stops short of telling people to rip theirs out.

"There's a psychological history to lawns," he says. "They make people feel safe, prosperous, comfortable. But here, I'd go for alternatives like a chamomile or thyme lawn."

Or consider a meadow instead. Brenzel suggests carex and creeping fescues or a dymondia "lawn," which provides a visual silver-hued carpet.

Garden artistically

Leanne Grossman planted a native garden among spheres of multicolored Talaveras tiles at her home in Oakland. "It feels like an urban retreat," she says. With help from Walking Tree Essentials, she dug out the tough, thirsty grass and planted colorful natives such as Douglas Iris, heuchera, Western columbine and California fuchsia. "The purple and white baby five-spots have been blooming for months, finally dying back just as the bright yellow coreopsis emerges," she says.

Some gardeners have added graphic elements such as sculptures, benches and paths. At the Sunset test garden, a pathway of decomposed granite surrounds a recirculating fountain, which provides the cooling effect of water with no waste.

"If you do let your lawn go over the summer, keep it mowed and neat, and maybe throw in some artistic elements," Brenzel says. "And celebrate what you can grow. Maybe use big containers of beautiful succulents, artistically placed on the brown lawn. Whatever you do, get creative."

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.