Originally developed for drought-afflicted areas, the principles of xeriscape today have an ever broadening appeal. With water now considered an expensive and limited resource, all landscaping projects, residential or commercial, can benefit from this alternative.
Xeriscapes Do Not Have a Single Look: Almost any landscaping style can be achieved. The principles can be applied to all or part of a yard, in any geographic region of North America.
For most of North America, over 50% of residential water used is applied to landscape and lawns. Xeriscape can reduce landscape water use by 50 – 75%.
Aside from occasional pruning and weeding, maintenance is minimal. Watering requirements are low, and can be met with simple irrigation systems.
No Fertilizers or Pesticides
Using plants native to your area will eliminate the need for chemical supplements. Sufficient nutrients are provided by healthy organic soil.
Improves Property Value
A good Xeriscape can raise property values which more than offset the cost of installation. Protect your landscaping investment by drought-proofing it.
Fossil fuel consumption from gas mowers is minimized or eliminated with minimal turf areas. Small turf areas can be maintained with a reel mower.
Provides Wildlife Habitat
Use of native plants, shrubs, and trees offer a familiar and varied habitat for local wildlife.
The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping
1. Water Conservation
The fundamental element of Xeriscape design is water conservation. Landscape designers constantly look for ways to reduce the amount of applied water and to maximize the use of natural precipitation.
Before setting pencil to paper, familiarize yourself with the seven principles of xeriscaping and take a tour of your local nurseries to see what drought-resistant plantings are available locally. Using graph paper, draw an aerial view of your property and begin your plan with the following considerations:
- Orient the plot by marking down north, south, east, and west. Include any limiting features such as trees, fences, walkways, or structures. Note areas of sun and shade, which will help you establish zones of differing water needs. You’ll want to group plants with similar watering needs for most efficient water use.
- Study the natural contours and drainage patterns of the land. These contours can be easily developed into terraces, which add visual interest and help reduce soil loss and erosion due to rain or irrigation. Terraces can be as little as 3″ and still offer visual appeal; terraces over 12″ will require considerable support, such as rock walls or timbers reinforced with steel stakes.
- Consider the planned use of each area within the plot. Areas for seating, walkways, visual barriers, dining, or play should be defined and incorporated into your plan.
- Areas to be left as turf should be designed to be easily mowed. Curved swaths are usually better than straight runs with sharp turns. Narrow swaths can be difficult to water with conventional sprinklers.
- Larger plantings, such as shrubs and trees, can be positioned to provide natural heating and cooling opportunities for adjacent buildings.
2. Soil Improvement
The ideal soil in a water-conserving landscape does two things simultaneously: it drains quickly and stores water at the same time.
This is achieved by increasing the amount of organic material in your soil and keeping it well aerated. Compost is the ideal organic additive, unless your xeriscape contains many succulents and cacti. These species prefer lean soil.
It may be worthwhile to have your soil tested at a garden center or by using a home test kit. Most Western soils tend to be alkaline (high pH) and low in phosphorous. Adding bone meal and rock phosphate will help.
3. Create Limited Turf Areas
Reduce the size of turf areas as much as possible, while retaining some turf for open space, functionality and visual appeal. When planting new turf or seeding existing lawns, ask at your garden center for water-saving species adapted to your area.
4. Use Appropriate Plants
For best results, select plants that are native to your region.
- Use drought-resistant plants. In general, these plants have leaves which are small, thick, glossy, silver-grey, or fuzzy – all characteristics which help them save water.
- Select plants for their ultimate size. This reduces pruning maintenance.
- For hot, dry areas with south and west exposure, use plants which need only a minimum of water. Along north and east-facing slopes and walls, choose plants that like more moisture. Most importantly, don’t mix plants with high- and low-watering needs in the same planting area.
- Trees help to reduce evaporation by blocking wind and shading the soil.
Cover the soil’s surface around plants with a mulch, such as leaves, coarse compost, pine needles, wood chips, bark or gravel. Mulch helps retain soil moisture and temperature, prevent erosion and block out competing weeds. Organic mulch will slowly incorporate with the soil and will need more applied from time to time. To be effective, mulch needs to be several inches thick. There should be no areas of bare soil.
Water conservation is the goal, so avoid overwatering. Soaker hoses and drip-irrigation systems offer the easiest and most efficient watering for xeriscapes because they deliver water directly to the base of the plant. This reduces moisture loss from evaporation. They also deliver the water at a slow rate which encourages root absorption and reduces pooling and erosion. In general, it’s best to water deeply and less frequently.
7. Maintain Your Landscape
Low-maintenance is one of the benefits of xeriscape. Keeping the weeds from growing up through the mulch may require some attention. Thickening the layer of mulch will help. Turf areas should not be cut too short – taller grass is a natural mulch which shades the roots and helps retain moisture. Avoid over fertilizing.
Here are some popular xeriscape plantings; this listing is by no means complete. Consult with your local garden center for recommended local (native) varieties.
- Arizona Columbine
- Baby’s Breath
- Blue Pineleaf Beardtongue
- Lamb’s Ears
- Perennial Flax
- Poppy Mallow
- Purple Coneflower
- Red Valerian
- Scarlet Hedgenettle
- Sweet William
- Texas Hummingbird Mint
- Tulips and Crocuses
- Yellow Black-Eyed Susan
- Desert Dragon
- Desert Pea Ganzania
- Mexican Sunflower
- Pentas New Look
- Portulacca Sundial
- Red Plume Blanket
- Rose Campion
- Vinca Passion
Before planting flowers, improve the soil to foster root growth. Most perennials and annuals require full sun; only a few will flower in partial shade. Most flowers do poorly in heavy clay, due to lack of oxygen to their roots. Sandy soils may have poor water-holding capacity and be low in available minerals.
If either extreme is true in your yard, do not plant perennial flowers the first year or two. Improve the soil with sphagnum peat or compost until the soil is easily worked and does not compact. Perennial flowers may then be planted.
Shrubs and Trees
- Smoke Tree
- Washington Hawthorne
- Japanese Black Pine
- Fragrant Sumac
- Mountain Currant
- Witch Hazel
- Rugosa Roses
- California Lilac
- Bottle Tree
- Gray Birch
- Common Pater Mulberry
- European Hackberry
- Monterey Cypress
- Osage Orange
- Common Olive
- White Poplar
- Black Locust
- Siberian Elm
- Gray Dogwood
- Amur Maple
Succulents (Leaf Color):
- Aconium arborium: Green
- Cotyledon orbiculata: Gray-green, red-edged
- Crassula argentea: ‘Sunset’’, yellow, tinged red
- C. ‘Campfire’: Green, turns orange-red with maturity
- Dudleya brittonii: Chalky blue
- Echeveria agavoides ‘RubyLips’: Green, tips reddish brown
- Kalanchoe pumila: Lavender
- Sedum adolphii: Lrange, bronze
- S. rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’: Pink to bronze
- Sempervivum tectorum: Gray-green, tipped reddish brown
- Senecio serpens: Blue-gray
- S. mandraliscae: Blue-gray
Succulents (Flower Color):
- Aconium floribundum: Yellow
- Aloe aristata: Orange-red
- A.saponaria: Orange to pink
- A. vera: Yellow
- Bulbine cuulescens: Lemon
- Crassula falcata: Deep red
- C. multicava: Pink
- Delosperma cooperi: Purple
- D. nubigenum: Golden yellow
- Echeveria elegans: Pink
- E. imbricata: Orange-red
- E. pulvinata: Red
- E. Set-oliver: Red and yellow
- Kalanchoe pumila: Lavender
- Lampranthus productus: Purple
- L. aurantiacus: Orange
- L. spectabilis: Pink, red, purple
Tips for Growing Succulents
Provide Good Drainage: Well-aerated, unscreened gritty soil works best for succulents.
Water More Often in Hot Weather: Although succulents can tolerate neglect, they will look better when well-watered during the hottest weather.
Choose Plants Which Match Your Climate: Consult your local garden center for plants which favor your growing environment: damp coastal, cooler mountain, or hotter desert climates.
Use Fertilizers Sparingly: Fertilizing once or twice a year is usually adequate.
Ornamental grasses are drought-resistant and low maintenance. When choosing ornamental grasses for your yard, consider the characteristics of each variety. They are categorized as:
Cool-season grasses grow best at temperatures ranging from 15 to 24 degrees centigrade (59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit). New growth starts as soon as temperatures rise above freezing in spring, in temperate climate zones. Growth slows and flowers bloom by early summer.
Warm-season grasses prefer temperatures ranging from 26 to 35 degrees C (78 to 95 degrees F). New growth begins after the soil warms up to 16 degrees C. Growth slows and flowers start to bloom by mid-summer, and continuing through fall.
Running-Growth Habit: Ranging from slow creepers to aggressive spreaders, running grasses are useful for erosion control on slopes or as ground cover.
Clumping-Growth Habit: These grasses grow in tufts. They make fine specimens and are also effective planted in groups or masses. Most ornamental grasses commonly used in gardens today are clump-forming.
Tips for Growing Ornamental Grasses
Sunny Spot: Most grasses prefer a sunny area, especially the more brightly colored varieties.
Water New Plantings: Drought-resistant grasses still require watering while getting established.
Space Generously: When planting, allow room between clumps for movement.
Trim: Clump grasses can be cut back with a shears each spring to allow for fresh new growth. Grasses which turn brown in winter (deciduous) can be cut back to a few inches of the ground. Evergreen grasses, however, should not be cut back too drastically.
Divide: Clump grasses may need to be divided if they get too big or have die-back in the center of the clump. Use a pointed spade (or a hand trowel for smaller clumps) to cut larger divisions; pull apart by hand into smaller sections. Be sure to water replanted divisions.
- Check your local ordinances for landscape bylaws before starting. Some communities also have restrictions on turf grass plantings.
- For best results with drought-resistant plantings, use regionally-specific, native plants. Exotic species can be extremely invasive and can spread into natural ecosystems by birds and other wildlife.
- Find out what the annual natural precipitation is for your region, and how that precipitation is spread throughout the year. This will help you select plantings.
- Windbreaks help keep the plants and soil from blowing dry. Use trees, hedges, shrubs or tall ornamental grasses as natural windbreaks.
- Avoid watering during the hottest, windiest time of day. Early morning is usually best.
- How much to water? Your plants should begin to wilt during the hottest part of the day, yet perk up as soon as it starts to cool.
- Minimize the number of young plants. New plants need water more often than mature plants, which have deeper root systems. They also require more pruning.
- Keep faded flowers picked or clipped off to prolong blooming time.
- Practice “cycle” irrigation on turf areas. This refers to watering just to the point of seeing runoff, then pausing to allow the turf to absorb the water. Resume watering when needed.
- For related information, see our pages on drip-irrigation, lawn care and lawn alternatives.
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