Xeriscaping 101: Landscaping with minimal water

If you want your garden to use zero water, a xeriscape might be right for you. XÄ“ros is the Greek word for “dry”. A xéripaisage is therefore a dry landscape. For many people, the word xeriscape conjures up a harsh, sterile image. But a dry landscape doesn’t have to see to dry. Even a true desert landscape can be much softer and greener than a simple scattering of cacti sprouting from a strip of gravel or lava rock. In fact, a good xeriscape won’t always look very different from any other garden to the casual observer. But it will use a lot less water.

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Xeriscaping is not an aesthetic style. Rather, it is a water-friendly approach to maintaining a healthy garden with minimal additional water. Ideally, a xeriscape would only require watering to help establish new plants, during droughts or in unusually hot and dry weather. Whether you live in a perpetually dry climate or with a defined wet / dry seasonal pattern, occasional deep watering during the rainless months will expand the available plant palette and allow for a much more lush garden. Whatever the climate, xeriscape relies on careful planning and intelligent plant selection, supported by water-friendly landscape maintenance practices.

Complete your climate

The most important principle of xeriscaping is to understand your local climate and to work with it, rather than against it. If you live in a desert, most of the plants used in a traditional cottage garden will struggle to survive even with a lot of extra water. Instead of struggling to grow moisture-loving plants in the desert or to keep tropical plants alive in a dry summer climate, look for plants that match the conditions where you live.

Natives are the obvious choice, but natives can broaden your palette. You can even look for exotic species from regions with similar climates. For example, the rainy winters and dry summers of the Pacific northwest coast echo the growing conditions of the Mediterranean and New Zealand. If you really like a particular garden style, you can always use some of its design principles with appropriate local species, for example, planting native perennials in slightly trimmed drifts to evoke a cottage garden.

Smart design

The principles of xeriscape go beyond plant selection to include design, soil maintenance, irrigation and maintenance. While your plant selection is site specific, smart design strategies will work in a variety of situations. Place plants with similar requirements together so that any additional watering can be concentrated in fewer areas. Hardscaping can be used for direct rainwater also to planted areas. Careful placement of rocks and decorative elements, as well as certain combinations of plants, can create windbreaks and shade to develop microclimates that promote plant growth with less water. In most cases, it is not possible to maintain a lawn without adding water. So, no matter what climate you live in, xeriscaping requires you to remove the lawn. However, it isn’t always necessary to replace your entire landscape – a gradual change may be the best choice.

Floor solutions

Similar to dry gardening and any other sustainable approach to gardening, soil health is essential to xeriscape. Healthy soil is able to store large amounts of water for an extended period, thus eliminating the need for additional irrigation. Although it is very difficult to change the texture of the soil with amendments, they can help clay or sandy soils retain water. Whatever type of soil you have, mulching is one of the best things you can do for the health of your soil. It also helps prevent evaporation from the soil.

Water maintenance

If you can’t give up your entire lawn, at least let it turn golden in the dry season – it will come back with the rains. If you need to water, do it infrequently, but deeply. Saturate the soil to a depth of a few inches, rather than just wetting the surface. For the most efficient watering, use weeping pipes rather than sprinklers or just spray from the hose.

To learn more about the xeriscape, books like the Manuel Xeriscape and Xeriscape gardening for beginners are useful resources. You can also visit your local municipality’s website and county extension office for the specific plants and techniques that work best where you live.

Terri S. Tomasini