If the drought continues this year, we shouldn't be planting much of anything, but that doesn't mean we can't daydream and plan for our gardens or have a backup plan just in case the drought kills off our landscape.
Azaleas, camellias and spring-blooming trees including dogwoods, deciduous magnolias and redbuds will be in flower soon as winter ends and our very early spring arrives. Visit a few local nurseries and garden centers in late January and early February to make note of flower colors and shapes and bush and tree sizes at maturity to add to your planting list. Local nurseries tend to stock species that are most suitable for our climate zones (zones 8 and 9 in the Central Valley and zone 7 in the foothills). Monrovia and Nuccio (camellias and azaleas) are reputable California growers and are widely available locally.
Southern Indica azaleas and sasanqua camellias tolerate drier soil, heat and sun better than other types; some of their labels even claim "full sun." Remember, though, that our brutal full sun in summer can fry eggs on the sidewalk. Except for redbuds (which are truly drought and heat tolerant) most early spring bloomers need shade in the afternoon and do best with dappled shade as well in the morning. White and light-colored camellias need more shade than those with darker flowers. Make sure to include the most sun-, heat- and drought-tolerant varieties in your plans.
Start protective measures now for your existing spring bloomers. If the roots are exposed, they can be burned by sun and heat. Use a spading fork to gently turn soil amendments into the root zone and then cover the root area with a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch. Peat is often recommended as a soil amendment or mulch for spring bloomers. However, because peat dries out rock hard and is difficult to rewet, better choices for amendments in our arid climate would be leaf mold (hard to find, easy to make yourself), redwood compost or an azalea, rhododendron, camellia planting mix. Read labels to verify the components in the planting mix and avoid those with high percentages of peat.
You'll want to revamp the irrigation systems in your garden soon to conserve water. Remove overhead sprinklers in planting beds that contain early spring bloomers and replace them with drip irrigation, micro-sprinklers or soaker hoses. The root systems of azaleas and camellias should be kept consistently moist, but not wet. Micro-sprinklers placed evenly around the root zones will provide the most even coverage. Keeping existing spring azaleas and camellias alive during a drought will entail a combination of soil amending, mulching, very efficient watering and very light feedings (a tablespoon or two) with a fertilizer specifically formulated for them from March to September.