Tips on Xeriscaping – It’s Not Zero-Scaping!

I always recommend that my potential landscaping clients consider xeriscaping their property because a xeriscape uses less water and is easier to maintain. They usually look at me as if I have sprouted a second head and say “but I want flowers and trees and a lawn for the kids to play on, not rocks and cactus”. They confuse xeriscaping with zero-scaping. Look at the picture: That is a zero-scape on the left and a xeriscape, with flowers and trees, on the right.

So, what does xeriscape mean? The word xeriscape was created in 1981 by the Denver, Colorado water department. The water restrictions of a long drought were killing traditional urban landscapes and the city wanted to promote a new, water-sensible approach to landscaping. The Greek word for dry (xeros) was merged with the word landscape, creating a new name – xeriscape – for the new approach.

Who can benefit from xeriscaping?

We all benefit. Most urban and suburban landscapes are watered with the purified water that comes from a municipal water treatment plant – the same source as the drinking and cooking water. As the area’s population grows, demand for water can exceed the treatment plant’s capacity. This means water rationing even in non-drought years or tax increases to pay for new water treatment plants. Xeriscaping decreases the amount of water that is used for landscaping, leaving more water for household use.

Homeowners and businesses with xeriscaped property benefit if water restrictions are required. Their properties will continue to look good as the water-guzzling landscapes around them wilt and die. They also benefit because a well-planned xeriscape is less expensive to maintain because it uses less water, may require no fertilizer, and requires less mowing, pruning and raking.

How do you xeriscape?

To keep the goals of xeriscaping in mind, just visualize two groups of landscapers, standing on opposite sides of a garden, chanting “Looks great!”, “Less water!”, “Looks great!”, “Less water!” at each other like in that stupid old beer commercial.

Xeriscaping takes more planning than the usual method of taking a trip to the nursery to buy pretty plants and planting them where you feel like planting it. You have to research which plants will do well in your climate and soil, plan their placement according to their water needs and your landscape needs.

Carefully design your landscape and irrigation system.

  • Analyze your soil, and use soil amendments only if needed. You don’t have to spend a fortune on compost to turn desert dirt into Ohio topsoil, but even die-hard xeriscapers like me will add soil sulfur and iron supplements to make the desert dirt more hospitable.
  • Select plants carefully. Choose low water-use, drought-tolerant plants that can survive your climate. Plants native to your area or from areas with similar rainfall patterns are best.
  • Design practical turf areas. Grass areas should be minimized because grass uses a lot of water, but there is no good substitute for grass in play areas. If more than one species of grass grows well in your area, pick the most water-thrifty one.
  • Plant in groups. Plants in groups shade each other’s roots and use less water than the same plants spaced widely. Sun-loving plants that get afternoon shade need less water than the same species in all-day sun.
  • Group plants according to their water needs. You wouldn’t think of putting shade-loving ferns and sun-loving zinnias in the same flower bed. Think of water needs too, and place plants with similar water needs in the same area.

    The typical xeriscape has three zones: the “oasis” zone with plants that need the most water, the “low-water use” zone with plants that only need supplemental water during dry spells, and the “living on rain” zone where the really tough plants are. In all water use zones, the plants will need supplemental water for the first year or two, to get established.

  • Automate the watering. Automatic irrigation controllers save you time, water, and money. Drip irrigation systems don’t water what doesn’t need it, and they put water in the plant’s root zone where it is needed most. Automated sprinkler systems for lawns deliver the right quantity of water at the right time to keep the lawn healthy but not soggy.
  • Harvest the rainfall. Instead of letting rain water run into the streets, corral it with low berms and let it soak into your soil. You might be able guide roof runoff to the plants that need the most water.

Maintain your landscape.
Xeriscapes require less

  • Water wisely. Don’t over water. Use a soil moisture meter to ensure you don’t water until it is needed. Water only as often as necessary, and when you water, water deeply. Plants that are watered frequently with small amounts of water never develop deep root systems that can protect them from drought.
  • Monitor your automated watering system. As the seasons change, so will the plants water requirements. You don’t have to adjust the controls for every rainstorm, but adjusting for wet and dry seasons is reasonable. In Arizona I recommend ignoring the season and watering according to the temperature.
  • Use mulch. Mulches not only look better than bare dirt, they keep the soil cooler, keep water in the soil for the plants, and as they decompose, they improve the soil’s ability to hold water.
  • Weed regularly. Weeds compete with the desirable plants for water.
  • Fertilize lightly, if at all. If you selected the right plants, they will require little fertilization. Some might thrive without any fertilizers at all.
  • Prune lightly. Again, if you selected plants carefully, thye will not overgrow

Does xeriscaping mean re-landscaping?

No. Some of the principles of xeriscaping can be applied to existing landscapes. The two principles you can apply immediately to any landscape are: water wisely and use mulch. If you water too often and too much, slowly adjust your watering schedule until you are watering deeply, but less often.
Over the course of several years, you could replace some of your lawn area with shrubs, perennials or ground-covers that require less water. You could also replace any plants that die with plants of similar appearance that require less water.

Where can someone learn about xeriscaping?

The best resource in many areas is the city agency that is responsible for running the water treatment plant. They may have lists of water-thrifty plants, watering guidelines, and landscaping ideas. The public library will have books on landscaping, native plants, and xeriscaping. Local nurseries may have a variety of plants suitable for xeriscaping, or they may even specialize in plants that flourish with small quantities of supplemental water.

On the Internet, search for xeriscape and the name of your state, city, or county to find your local resources. If you are not in the USA, but you know which part of the USA has a climate that is a close match to your area, look up the advice for the USA and adapt it. Your plant selection will be different, but the principles will work in any climate.

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