Xeriscape: A to X

Welcome, Soon-To-Be Xeriscape Experts

Even if you have never heard of xeriscape before now, this article will provide you with all the info necessary to confidently execute a xeriscape project, whether its for your client or in your own back yard.

For those of you already familiar with the concept of Xersicape, don’t worry! This post covers not just the basics, but also gives great details on elements of xeriscape with which you may not have been familiar.

 

What is Xeriscape?

zeroscape crop

Lets get this out of the way first. It is not ZEROscape! “Xeriscape” is a combination of the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry, and the word “landscape.” “Zeroscape” is a common mispronunciation and misconception that we will discuss more later in the article.

Xeriscape Definition:

Xeriscape is a system of principles to create gardens and landscapes that reduce, or even eliminate, the need for additional irrigation. Xeriscape is not a garden style, and it does not mean just rocks! Xeriscape principles can be applied in any region across the world.

Xeriscape History:

While Coloradans did not invent water-conscious landscaping, we did invent “xeriscape!” Denver Water, Colorado’s oldest and largest water utility, coined the term ‘Xeriscape’ in 1981 as part of an effort to make water-wise landscaping a recognizable concept. At the same time they assigned 7 simple, accessible principles to xeriscaping so that anyone creating or maintaining a landscape could incorporate water-conserving techniques.

Xeriscape Principles:

  1. Plan and design
  2. Plant zones
  3. Alternative turf grasses
  4. Soil amendment
  5. Mulch
  6. Efficient irrigation
  7. Maintenance

What is NOT Xeriscape?

Misconceptions

Xeriscaping has been growing in popularity across the country as a way to utilize water resources more sensibly, and create landscapes than can be beautiful and resilient in periods of drought. But misconceptions consistently stand in the way of many people’s acceptance of the concept.

 Misconception 1: Xeriscape is Just Rocks

Not ROcks

As we mentioned before, xeriscape is NOT “zeroscape”. Xeriscape does not mean replacing your lawn or traditional landscape with rocks or hardscape! A field of pavement or gravel does just about as much for your property value as dead grass, and provides even less environmental benefit.

Instead, xeriscape emphasizes:

  1. choosing plants adapted to the rainfall of your region
  2. grouping plants with like water needs
  3. reducing (not eliminating) turf area
  4. using efficient watering techniques to achieve beautiful landscapes

 Misconception 2: You Can’t Have Lawn

Xeriscape does not mean no lawn.

As the popular saying goes, xeriscape does not mean lawn-less, it just means less lawn.

We LOVE our lawn here in the US. While the total square footage of lawns is decreasing, a study done by a NASA scientist in 2005 suggests there are “three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn” (approx. 49,000 square miles of lawn), which makes it the largest irrigated “crop” in the US by surface area. The lawn has been soliloquized as an aesthetic expression of Manifest Destiny. Whole collegiate majors are devoted to turf grass. This American love of lawn is one of the most prominent barriers to adopting xeriscape principles in residential landscapes.

But fear not! You can still have that patch of emerald green grass for your kids to play on, or even just for your dog to whizz in, by:

  1. carefully placing turf grass only where it will be used
  2. choosing grass species best suited to your climate
  3. watering efficiently

 Misconception 3: Xeriscape is all cactus and pokey things

Xeriscape is not just cacti

 

Just as xeriscape does not mean replacing your lawn with rocks, it does not mean only planting cacti. (Although check out this article to see how cacti can be beautiful in any landscape!)

Xeriscape entails selecting plants of all kinds that will thrive without requiring much additional irrigation. It is important to remember that this is based on the part of the country in which you are planting. Xeriscape plants for Colorado, which receives an average of 15 inches of precipitation per year, will be different than those for Arizona at 8 inches of precipitation, or Florida at 64 inches!

No matter what part of the country or state you live in, there is a large palette of plants, yes even non-pokey ones, which you can use to create a beautiful xeriscape in any style.

Misconception 4: Xeriscape Yards look Shaggy and Unmaintained

Xeriscape yards can be beautiful

The truth is that you can achieve almost any design aesthetic, from formal to cottage to meadow, using xeriscape principles and a combination of native and regionally adapted plants. There are myriad reasons to want a beautiful yard, from HOA requirements, to property values, to the all-important question “What will the neighbors think?!” When many people envision xeriscape, even if they aren’t thinking cactus and gravel, they think of a tangle of unkempt natives.  But in fact, a well-executed xeriscape project can be the envy of the neighborhood!

 

Why should I consider Xeriscape?

Beautiful Landscapes without the Extra Water

Yard Drought

The EPA estimates that outdoor water use (landscape irrigation, etc) accounts for 30% of our national water consumption. CSU estimates that in the arid west it can be as much as 55% to 60% of household water use, with most of that going on lawns.

Why is this important?

Whether or not you live in an arid region, droughts happen somewhere in the country every year. During droughts outdoor watering can be severely curtailed, and it can take a heavy toll on the beauty and diversity of home and public landscapes. By planting plants that are already adapted to the natural rainfall of your region, and that are also drought tolerant (can maintain their vigor during periods of less than normal rainfall), you can have a landscape that thrives even during water shortages.

A five-year study (YARDX) of 357 residential landscapes conducted by Metro Water Conservation, The Bureau of Reclamation, and 7 Colorado front range municipalities worked to quantify the water savings of xeriscape. It found that homes which utilize xeriscape principles, halve their current lawn, and plant ¼ low water use plants and ¼ medium water use plants reduced their outdoor water usage by an average of 30% and up to 50%.

Time and $$$$$$!

Water Value

Unless you are fortunate enough to be on a ditch or well, reduced water consumption directly results in money savings!

Another financial benefit of xeriscaping is increased home value. A study by the Virginia Cooperative Extension found that a beautiful landscape increased perceived home values among buyers by an average of 11%, and the numbers were highest for landscapes that were not exclusively lawn.

Finally, xeriscape requires less input of time and money (fertilizing, seeding, mowing, aerating, etc) than a lawn of comparable size. Why not free up those weekends for something other than lawn maintenance?

Let’s Get to Xeriscaping!

Now that you have a basic idea of what Xeriscape is and is not, and some idea of the benefit, lets dive deeper into the principles of xeriscape and how to take a xeriscape project from beginning to end!

Principle One: Plan and Design

Understand What You Want

As with any project, you’ll get a better product (and save a bit of money) if you take some time to flesh out the goals first. The initial design process for a xeriscape project is just like the process for any other landscape project:

  1. Create the program.
  2. Pick a style. As mentioned above, xeriscape is not a garden style. You can achieve any landscape style you like using xeriscape principles!
  3. Create a plan of hardscape and other improvements, and block out planting areas.

Principle Two: Plant Zones

Definitions:

Low water use plants – Plants that require no additional irrigation after establishment, based on the region’s rainfall.

Medium Water Use Plants – Plants that require a moderate amount of irrigation after establishment, based on the region’s rainfall. (One deep watering every 4 days in warm weather)

Step 1: Establish your Water Use Zones

Although xeriscape emphasizes plants whose water needs are in line with regional rainfall, this does not mean you can’t have higher water use plants and lawn in your landscape. Xeriscape groups medium- and low-water-use plants together maximize watering efficiency.

Spend your water where you spend your time

  • Focus higher-water-use plants in high-use areas such as decks, patios, paths, etc.
  • Also place higher water use plant in areas where water typically collects such as adjacent to downspouts, in low lying areas, or along ditches or ponds.
  • Concentrate lawn only where feet will be using it, and make it only as big as you need.

A good rule of thumb for many back yards is 1/3 low-water-use plants, 1/3 medium-water-use plants, 1/3 lawn. If feet aren’t using the front lawn then don’t include it! An appropriate front yard is more like 2/3 low-water-use plants, 1/3 medium water use plants. But the more you skew your ratios to low water use plants the more water you will save!

Based on your design, decide where to cluster water uses and where your lawn will be located. This will correlate directly with the irrigation system design, if one is being installed.

Xeriscape water use zones diagram.

Step 2: Pick Some Plants!

After you establish your water use zones, it is time to flesh out the planting design. Appropriate plant selections are not only key to saving water, but also to completing your design vision. This is where criteria-based plant design can really be an asset. Take some time to review this great article on how to make the best plant selections using criteria-based plant design, then use water use as one of your primary plant selection criteria.

Each state and region has resources available to help individuals and professionals choose plant material for xeriscape, many of which are easily searchable online. Several states have programs such as Plant Select, EarthKind, and Texas Superstar (part of EarthKind), and that help identify and introduce the best plants for specific regions. Or check out this list of resources from the EPA to get you started.

 

Principle Three: Alternative Turf Grasses

Alternative Turf Grasses vs. Turf Grass Alternatives

There are two distinct ways to treat lawn areas in xeriscape designs, based on your desires and the amount of foot traffic your lawn will receive.

If you want a true lawn for entertaining, playing, etc. explore your best regional alternatives to standard bluegrass. There are many varieties that will provide you a beautiful lawn with 30% to 75% less water.

If you like the idea of a space that you can occasionally walk across or just put a bench in you might consider turf grass alternatives. There are many that work well in each region and that require significantly less water and maintenance than traditional turf.

Xeriscape thyme lawn

Principle Four: Soil Amendment

We all know that the health of the plants in our landscapes largely depends on soil quality. So before you pop those new plants in the ground remember that almost all types of plants will benefit from the use of compost! Organic matter in compost helps sandy soils retain water better, and helps clay soils release water more effectively and drain more freely. In addition, compost will help replenish the nutrients in soil without the need for fertilizer.

The standard recommendation is 1 to 2 inches of compost over the area to be planted, tilled to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.

 

Principle Five: Mulch

Now the plants are in and looking beautiful, but don’t leave that ground between your new plants exposed! Mulch is a crucial part of any landscape or a variety of reasons. First, it looks much better than bare dirt.

Second, and more importantly, mulch:

  • keeps your soil in place
  • keeps your plant roots cool
  • prevents soil from crusting
  • minimizes evaporation
  • reduces weed growth

Organic and inorganic mulch.

Mulches come in two types: organic, such as fiber, bark, pine needles, etc; and inorganic, such as rocks and gravel. Both types serve the same ultimate purpose and have their own advantages, so your ultimate choice should depend on the desired landscape style.

Organic mulch should be applied 4 inches deep, and inorganic mulch should be applied 2 inches deep.

Principle Six: Efficient Irrigation

The purpose of xeriscape is to reduce the amount of water you need to apply to your landscape. In some cases, you can even eliminate watering altogether! But almost no freshly-planted landscape can thrive in its first two years without additional water.

Establishment Irrigation

Because they have not established a mature root system, transplanted plants almost always require supplemental irrigation during for the first two years after planting. This is true for all transplanted plants from trees to groundcovers. If done correctly, providing your landscape with some additional water during these first two years ensures long-term vigor and the growth of a healthy root system.

While your plants will need slightly more water in these first two years, remember not to kill them with kindness! Keep in mind the overall water use requirements of your planting areas (your plant zones) Low water use plants need only small amounts of supplemental water in their establishment phase, whereas your medium-water-use plant areas will need more.

There is a Wrong Way to Water

Whether manual or automatic, the most important things to remember about irrigating any landscape, but especially xeriscape are:

  • Respect your zones
  • Choose the right delivery method
  • Water at the right time

Zones

Your xeriscape will only use less water if you give it less water! Don’t throw your work creating plant zones out the window by watering everything equally. If a new irrigation system is being included in your project make sure it is zoned according to your water use plan.

Water Delivery Method

Xeriscape can be irrigated efficiently by hand or with an automatic sprinkler system. Regardless of how you water, it is important to choose the most efficient water delivery method.

Fundamentally, the best irrigation:

  • Waters deeply and slowly, allowing water to soak in rather than run off.
  • Delivers large drops of water close to the ground, thus reducing water loss due to evaporation.

Avoid watering systems that throw water high in the air or release a fine mist.

Below are common recommendations for each planting area type:

  • Grass: Use gear-driven rotors or rotary/high-efficiency spray nozzles that have larger droplets and low angles to avoid wind drift.
  • Trees, Shrubs and Perennial Beds: Use low sprays, drip lines or bubbler emitters

For much more in-depth information about watering systems and calculations check out this article from the “Water – Use It Wisely” conservation campaign.

Examples of efficient irrigation methods for xeriscape.

Timing

The following principles apply to frequency and duration of watering your xeriscape to maximize efficiency and create the most robust root systems:

  1. Never water between 10 am and 6 pm, when water loss due to evaporation will be the highest. Watering late at night or early in the morning reduces this loss, and gets the plants ready for the day.
  2. Water more deeply but less often. Frequent shallow irrigation encourages shallow, less vigorous root systems, and leaves the plant more susceptible to drought stress. Conversely, reducing watering frequency and making sure that the water penetrates deep into the soil encourages more vigorous and robust root systems in all your plants, but especially trees and shrubs.
  3. Water-rest-water. As part of allowing water to penetrate more deeply, water each area in intervals. By taking a “water-rest-water” approach, you allow more water to soak into the root zone, and loose less to runoff.

Weather

Don’t forget that you are not the only source of water for your plants! If it has been rainy, cool, or cloudy, your plants will have taken up and lost less moisture, and will therefore need less irrigation. If you have an automated irrigation system, install rain and soil moisture sensors to prevent excess irrigation. If you are watering by hand, you can get tensiometers or use the time-honored “poke a finger in the soil” trick.

Don't be this guy.

Principle Seven: Maintenance

Depending on the design style, xeriscape can be very low maintenance. But we all know there is no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape!

If you have chosen to include it, the lawn will likely still require the most input of time and materials in your xeriscape. Turf requires spring and fall aeration along with regular fertilization every 6 to 8 weeks. To reduce the amount of weeds in your lawn, and reduce its water needs:

  • keep the grass height at 3 inches
  • allow the clippings to fall.

Incidentally, according the NASA study, this also dramatically increases the carbon storage capacity of your lawn!

Aside from the lawn, there are the normal chores of weeding, pruning, trimming, etc that are inherent in any landscape. The intensity of these tasks depends most on your landscape style, but don’t forget to compost the yard waste for reincorporation into your landscapes each fall!

 

Ta Da! You’re an Expert

Now you know: xeriscaping is not mysterious or difficult. With a little bit of forethought, you can have a beautiful landscape and use less water while you’re at it! Go forth and xeriscape.

 

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