12 Xeriscape Gardening Ideas

A terraced rock garden at Kew gardens, London UK
Terraced rock gardens, like this one at Kew Gardens in London, are perfect for xeriscaping

Peg Aloi 

Xeriscape gardening is gaining popularity as we face climate changes that affect rainfall amounts. Even the lush, green gardens of the Northeast U.S. have had to deal with more drought in recent years. Xeriscaping is appropriate for many garden situations, including rocky soil, slopes, rock gardens, salt spray environments, bright sun, and harsh winds.

There's an assumption that xeriscape gardens are mainly succulents, grasses and stones, but there are many creative approaches to this method of gardening. A number of elements should be considered when designing xeriscaped gardens, such as grouping plants according to their water needs, creating irrigation systems, and choosing the best type of mulch. There are many options for choosing plants to help you create gorgeous, dynamic xeriscape gardens.

  • 01 of 12

    Rock Gardens Make Xeriscaping Easy

    Lush terrace rock garden
    This terraced rock garden at Kew Gardens, London allows plants to conserve water by holding moisture in rock crevices

     Peg Aloi

    If you have rock walls or terraces on your property, you're already halfway to creating a xeriscaped garden. Rocks that are fitted closely together allow moisture to stay in place and evaporate more slowly. Also there are many ground covers and low growing plants that flourish in tight crevices with little soil, allowing them to spill over rock surfaces and create a natural, cascading look, like creeping thyme, creeping phlox, bell flowers (campanula, like 'Dickson's Gold'), lamium and many others.

  • 02 of 12

    Succulents in Containers

    Colorful succulents in a ceramic planter


    Container gardening can be challenging for the xeriscape gardener, because as soil dries out, plants need frequent watering. The solution: succulents! Succulents, which include sedums, cacti and a wide range of other forms, are hardy and require very little water or care. They do need plenty of sun. Terra cotta pots are perfect as they help retain some moisture and the color is a true garden neutral. But you can choose clay, ceramic or resin pots of any style you wish. Being able to move pots around allows you to have maximum freedom for designing your garden space.

  • 03 of 12

    Add Mediterranean Plants

    Herbaceous border with lavender and salvia


    Mediterranean plants, like those native to Italy, France, and Spain, like plenty of sun and sandy soils, making them a desirable choice for the American xeriscaped garden. Most Mediterranean gardens have plenty of herbs growing, useful for culinary and household purposes, like rosemary, thyme and oregano. Lavender (lavandula) grows well in temperate Mediterranean climates.

    Powerfully fragrant, its use in aromatherapy and perfumery is legendary, and it's a main ingredient in the seasoning mixture "Herbes de Provence." The plant's name comes from the Latin meaning "to wash" because of its use to scent linens (it repels mildew and insects too). There are English and French varieties; check the hardiness zones for winter survival. Saxon Holt of Gardening Gone Wild recommends it for California gardens. Many gardeners like lavender as an annual, but it will perennialize with some effort. Prune it back at the end of the season to promote new growth. Plant lavender near your favorite relaxing spots in the garden, and let the flowers' essential oils, known for promoting calmness, lull you into a soothing reverie.

  • 04 of 12

    Cottage Gardens Can be Xeriscape-Friendly

    Sprays of perennials in a cottage garden bed


    Cottage garden designs and xeriscaping are surprisingly compatible. Traditional cottage gardens have plants in close proximity by design, so any extra space where water might be wasted is eliminated. Many classic cottage flowers are also very drought tolerant, and can be selected to bloom for three seasons of color. Include sedum, dianthus, iris, caryopteris, lupines, heuchera (aka coral bells), yarrow and helenium for colorful, beautifully textured cottage garden look and easy care. Deadheading spent blooms helps the flowers conserve moisture and encourages a second round of bloom.

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  • 05 of 12

    Drought-Tolerant Perennial Plantings for Pollinators

    Pink bee balm with honeybee


    Many gardeners are concerned about helping pollinators these days. There are many perennials well-loved by pollinators that are suitable for xeriscape gardening, including echinacea, coreopsis and dianthus. Many plants from the salvia and mint families also fall into this category, including hummingbird mint, lemon balm, and flowering perennial salvias like 'May Night' or 'Caradonna.' Bee balm, true to its name, attracts honeybees, butterflies and hummingbirds in droves. It has an herby, minty fragrance. Older heirloom varieties like 'Cambridge Scarlet' or 'Raspberry Wine' grow vigorously and reach up to five feet tall, but newer cultivars are bred to be more compact and less prone to spreading. They're easy to grow in a sunny, well-drained spot and can be used to create glorious swaths of color during their long blooming season.

  • 06 of 12

    Choose Drought-Tolerant Annuals

    Colorful annual flowers in a meadow setting


    Annuals need constant watering, right? Wrong. There are plenty of gorgeous annuals that do just fine with minimal watering. These include portulaca (aka moss rose), cosmos, Mexican sunflowers, cleomes, petunias, dusty miller, marigolds and zinnias. If planted in pots you'll need to water more often, so tuck them into your flower beds for minimal watering.

  • 07 of 12

    Pine Bark Mulch Is Natural, Beautiful, and Effective

    tropical garden plants with pine bark mulch bed


    Mulch can be very effective for conserving moisture, as well as keeping down weed growth. Some mulches contain chemical dyes, herbicides or pesticides, which in the long run aren't good for soil ecology or wildlife (or gardeners). Natural mulches like cedar are effective for keeping insects away. Pine bark mulch is often sold as nuggets, but the shredded form covers better and looks great throughout the season. Unlike dyed mulches, it decays fairly quickly, enriching soil over time. It may increase the acidity of your soil slightly. Watering in early morning or at dusk is the best bet for making the most of the moisture-conserving properties of natural mulch.

  • 08 of 12

    Woodland Shade Gardens Can Be Drought-Tolerant

    woodland shade garden with wrought iron table and chairs


    Shade gardens can be worry-free zones for the water conscious gardener. While some shade plants, like hosta, need plenty of water, many are drought tolerant, especially ground covers like pachysandra, vinca, and lamium (aka dead nettle). If you have a shady woodland area that is overgrown, consider using mulch to conserve moisture and protect tree roots. You can pop in some colorful annuals to create an unexpected bright surprise in your woodland areas, or add sculptures or found objets for visual interest.

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  • 09 of 12

    Lawn Alternatives

    garden with thick ground cover surrounding stone pavers


    Green lawn maintenance is a thirsty business. There's a reason why areas prone to drought are moving away from lawns as the landscape focus. Eliminating your lawn need not mean everything has to be a manicured flower bed. You can create walkways with gravel, small patio areas with pavers, or Zen gardens with sand, stones and planters. Slope gardens are slightly more ambitious, but in the long run, think of the effort saved not having to mow these tricky areas. You can also create "carpeted" areas in your garden or around pavers with low, soft ground covers like creeping thyme, creeping phlox, sweet woodruff, or low-growing sedums.

  • 10 of 12

    Groupings of Colorful Drought-Tolerant Plants

    autumn garden with vibrant colors


    Planting large areas of the same drought-tolerant plants side by side means they'll have similar watering needs; this is also known as planting "irrigation zones." This method can also lend a dynamic aesthetic to your garden, especially if you use bold color themes. Try large groupings of 'Purple Emperor' sedums alongside bunches of Russian sage or lavender, gold yarrow, orange echinacea like "Tiki Torch" and blue ageratum, and don't forget creeping ground covers for added texture. Choose plants for a long blooming season to keep a constant kaleidoscope of color happening, and note which plants give a whole new array of colors in the autumn.

  • 11 of 12

    Woodland Shade Offers Color in Xeriscape Gardens

    woodland garden setting with bright red leafed heucheras and bench


    One sometimes overlooked method to conserve moisture is to make use of shade; plants living beneath the shade of trees or shrubs will not need as much water as those exposed to bright sunlight. It's also important to consider when sunlight hits certain areas: afternoon sun is brighter and hotter than morning sun. Colorful shrubs like Coppertina (aka Ninebark) or oakleaf hydrangea, or even smaller specimens like amsonia or baptisia, can provide shade to smaller plants, creating small, cool microclimates within your garden. To plant beneath them, look for perennials that do best in shade to partial shade, like colorful heucheras, astilbes, and anemones. You can plant them in containers for flexibility.

  • 12 of 12

    Create Paver Designs That Maximize Water Usage

    Garden with natural slate paving stones and river rocks.


    Most garden designs employ walkways of some kind, whether of stone, gravel, or brick. There many styles of pavers available, both natural and manufactured. By placing your pavers in ways that allow a bit of grass or ground cover to grow between them, you allow rainwater to reach soil in a more diffused way, rather than pooling on your paver area. This also allows beneficial insects and microbes to permeate your soil, creating a healthy environment for your garden. Natural stone, such as slate or bluestone, tends to hold up better over time than manufactured concrete pavers.