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Desert Gardening: Xeriscaping Is the Only Way to Go

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

When it comes to gardening in the Desert Southwest, xeriscaping makes the most sense. It’s all about creating beauty with water-wise plants.

A lush and colorful front-yard xeriscape

By Scott Calhoun

When I work with new clients on a garden design, one point I try to drive home early is xeriscaping is not a style of gardening but a conservation strategy. You can have a xeriscape cottage garden, a xeriscape pollinator garden, a xeriscape Mediterranean garden, a xeriscape wildflower garden, or any number of other styles of water-efficient garden. A xeric landscaping can be more than a moonscape of rocks and cactus. Below are the basic principles of xeriscaping.

Design. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, drawing out a plan helps prevent wasting water. An effective plan clusters the oasis (thirsty) plants in one area — usually close to a patio or outdoor living area where they’re easiest to tend — and the water-thrifty plants in another area.

Small turf area adjacent to children’s play equipment.

Limited turf. Many desert gardens have no turf at all. If you must have grass, keep the area small, regularly shaped (for efficient watering), and close to outdoor living areas, where you can benefit from the evaporative cooling effect. This is illustrated in the photo, where a small circular turf area is near children’s play equipment.

Efficient irrigation. As mentioned above, a water-saving garden groups plants according to their watering needs. In most situations, drip irrigation is the gold standard for water conservation. You can irrigate trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers with drip emitters. Because trees and large shrubs need deep and infrequent watering once established, they should have their own control valve. Similarly, turf needs its own valve to control pop-up sprinkler heads.

Native perennials and cacti mingle in a low-water-use garden.

Improved soil. Generally, breaking up compacted desert soil and adding organic matter improves your dirt’s water-holding capacity.

Mulch. Rock mulches or organic mulches reduce the soil temperature and decrease evaporation.

Low-water-use plants. Most thirsty evergreen plants have appropriate low-water-use substitutes from a desert region. While you might include an area with some high-water-use plants, the bulk of the garden should use plants that can get by with less.

Maintenance. A well-implemented xeriscape garden doesn’t need as frequent maintenance as a high-water-use garden but still needs attention. Especially during establishment the garden needs weeding, and attention paid to the watering of new plants. One of the easiest ways to save water is simply adjust your irrigation timer seasonally. In the winter months (December–February) most desert plants are dormant and require little to no irrigation.

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