One of gardening’s largest recent trends is xeroscaping, the all-natural approach to garden and landscape design. Contrary to popular belief, xeroscaping is not solely focused on water conservation, although reduced watering is often an added benefit. Many people, when they think of xeroscaping, envision simply plunking a handful of drought-tolerant plants in a rocky hillside and forgetting about them, but while low levels of required maintenance are also a benefit of xeroscape gardens, there is more to it that either of these two components. Simply put, xeroscaping is using native plants and natural materials to create a garden that adapts perfectly to its environment without coddling or special requirements. It is a non-invasive way of creating a pleasant outdoor environment, a way to connect with the feel and flavor of your region by living with the land, not on it.
Why use xeroscaping as a design principle? First, there are the obvious benefits mentioned above: low maintenance, since plants are naturally suited to their environment, and low water requirements, since you will not be importing non-native plants that are used to dryer or wetter climates. Additionally, native plants are disease and pest-resistant to the problems in their native region, generally having built up immunities to diseases and developed strategies for discouraging bugs, while non-native plants often require spraying or systemic fungicide/pesticide application to keep them healthy. Xeroscaping encourages local growers to buy and raise native plants instead of importing expensive non-native plants that can introduce pests and diseases to an region, potentially threatening the non-adapted native foliage. It is also an environmentally conscious and spiritually enriching way to approach gardening, since it advocates avoidance of ostentatious, unnatural landscapes and, consequently, taking advantage of the natural harmony of native plants with native soils and conditions.
The basic principle of xeroscaping says that native plants should be used to create a look close to that of the surrounding natural landscape. For example, in America’s Pacific Northwest, pine forests full of ferns and thick, low-growing bushes abound. A xeroscape for this region might include a backdrop of pines, with native bushes planted in gradations around their bases, and ferns and other native woodplants used for accents. Certain berries – raspberry, blackberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry – also grow wild in the forests of the Northwest, so adding clumps of attractive and productive berry bushes would be a creative touch. Thimbleberries are particularly beautiful plants, with broad, soft maple-shaped leaves, but they are hard to find through conventional nurseries. Local farmer’s markets are a great place to find native plants, or if you know someone with uncultivated property who doesn’t mind you taking a few native plants, you may experience some success with transplanting. In general however, native plants, especially woodland species, don’t like to be moved, and you will probably hae better luck with seeds gathered and germinated yourself. That said, I have on occasion bought plants at the market that had been dug out of someone’s pasture and plunked in a pot without much effort to hide the fact – and they’ve done superbly.
A good way to get ideas for your xeroscape design is to drive to wild or undeveloped areas and look at the countryside, then imitate what you see on a smaller scale. Note that by smaller I don’t mean smaller plants – in small yards especially, a few large plants and a big boulder are a better choice than a lot of small plants, which make the whole yard look miniature. Larger yards can support a greater variety, and more mixing of plant types. If you’re at a park with natural terrain, notice little groupings of nature – a fallen log with moss over it, a tree stump with ferns growing in the rotten center – that you can reproduce in your yard at home for that refreshingly unsculptured look. Also, as the trend gains momentum, more and more cities have xeroscape projects, usually open to the public, where you can browse for ideas and plant types that are just right for your area.
In today’s world, especially in America, convenience has been deified at the expense of natural beauty everywhere you look. With a minority of notable exceptions, buildings are square, practical, and depressingly unnatural in color and construction. Wild nature is disappearing before the onslaught of steel and concrete, and the burgeoning need for nature is finding expression in an increased loosening of structure in landscape designs, epitomized by earth-friendly, user-friendly approaches such as xeroscaping.