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Xeriscape for a Water-Conserving Landscape

Xeriscaping uses the natural characteristics and tendencies of your landscape to maximize beauty and minimize impact to the environment. Properly using xeriscaping techniques also conserves water.

Gaillardia in xeriscape garden.

Xeriscaping Defined

Xeric is Greek for "requiring little water." The term xeriscaping originated in Denver, Colorado, in the 1980s and describes water-conserving landscaping techniques and practices. The philosophy does not mean no water, no grass, no greenery or no blooms. Xeriscaping is not just for arid climates. It's being practiced from Florida to Canada. So no matter where you live, you can apply Xeriscape principles.

Planning a Xeriscape

Make a plan. The key is finding the microclimates and mini-ecosystems in your yard. The perfect plan would have at least a year's worth of data on sun and shade patterns by season, prevailing winds and average rainfall. If you don't have a year to spare, here are the basics:

  1. Determine north, south, east and west.
  2. Take note of sunny and shady spots. Create and use shade.
  3. Identify slopes and drainage patterns.
  4. Note existing vegetation and architecture that you will not or cannot remove.
  5. Decide how you will use each area of your yard (whether it's used for recreation, dining, etc.).
Good to Know

When planning beds, remember that sharp angles are harder to maintain and irrigate than curves.

Using Soil and Mulch

Test and improve your soil. Determine the pH level needed for your desired plants. Add compost, peat moss or other amendments as recommended by the soil test results. Better soil improves moisture retention and oxygen supply. Water penetrates deeply into the soil to promote a strong root system that helps plants survive dry conditions.

Use organic mulch to maintain soil temperature, improve water retention, prevent runoff and control competition from water-robbing weeds.

Plants for Your Xeriscape

Ornamental grass.

One key to water-wise landscaping is the use of native (or indigenous) plants. Indigenous plants have adapted to your area and therefore require less maintenance. Native plants also supply food and shelter for animals and insects. When you visualize a landscape of native plants, it doesn't have to look like an abandoned lot. Plus you don't have to limit your selection to native plants only. Just be sure to group plants that have the same requirements for water, sun and feeding.

To increase water conservation, look for drought-resistant plants. In general, these plants have small, silver leaves and deep taproots. Succulents, such as sedum, are also able to withstand dry weather.

Compare the plant's water requirements to the microclimates identified in your plan. Plant these new communities accordingly. When planting, take into consideration the plant's size at maturity. Layer by height and bloom time for emphasis and constant color.

Established, well-rooted plants offer the additional benefit of increased pest and disease resistance. They require less fertilizer (which saves money and time).

Do not collect native plants from roadsides, parks, vacant lots or anywhere. Digging them up is not conscientious and, depending upon where you are, it may be illegal. Plus, they typically don't transplant well.

Turfgrass can also be a component of xeriscapes. Manage existing turf more efficiently through the following:

  • Mow at the proper height with a sharp blade to keep grass healthier.
  • Aerate (then top-dress with compost or peat moss) to allow water to reach roots rather than run off.
  • Replace or re-seed your lawn with one of the less thirsty turfgrass varieties available.
  • Reduce turf areas by converting parts of the lawn to mulched beds, adding groundcover or creating larger shrub beds. Areas where turf doesn't grow (under trees, for example) are candidates for mulch or groundcover. Changing these areas allows you to better concentrate your efforts into turning the remaining turf area into an attractive lawn.
  • Remove thatch if necessary.

Watering

One of the primary xeriscaping principles is efficient water use. Grouping plants with similar water requirements not only conserves water, but also allows plants to reach their full potential.

Delivering water to the base of the plant allows you to control water delivery and reduce water loss from evaporation.  Installing in-ground or drip systems with timers and moisture sensors maximize water conservation. Soaker hoses are a low-tech option for smaller areas.

Water conservation also includes collecting and using water supplies that might otherwise be wasted. Gather rain with gutter collection systems and a rain barrel. You can also use water from basement dehumidifiers for ornamental plants. 

Xeriscape is a registered trademark of Denver Water, Denver, CO.

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