Xeriscaping for a Water Wise Garden

Xeriscape garden designed with a variety of grasses and wildflowers

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Xeriscaping was a term coined back in the 1970s in Denver, CO, to mean water-wise or water-efficient landscaping. The term xeriscape is derived from the Greek word xeros, which means dry. Don’t let that mislead you into thinking we’re talking about deserts and cactus or even a drought-plagued, barren landscape. Xeriscaping is a method of gardening that involves choosing plants that are appropriate to their site and creating a landscape that can be maintained with little supplemental watering.

Xeriscaping is not a style or category of garden design. It is a common sense guide to gardening in harmony with your site. It can be applied to any type of garden design.

Why Is Xeriscaping Important?

The obvious answer is that we only have a finite amount of water on Earth and some years even less than others. By grouping plants by their water needs, using mulch, and choosing drought-tolerant plants, you will be conserving water usage.

You will also have healthier gardens and landscapes and less need to use fertilizers and pesticides. Consider that everything you do in your yard and garden will eventually affect your water source and from there, any nearby bodies of water. We hear a lot about pollution from industry and factories. These are considered “point sources”. Homeowners and individuals are considered “nonpoint” sources of pollution. While you may not think the fertilizer and bug spray you use on your plants is excessive, the combined runoff from all of us “nonpoint sources” is considerable.

By applying these simple xeriscaping techniques you will be conserving water and improving local water quality—all while still having a beautiful garden.

The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping

  1. Planning and Design: Having a water-wise garden takes planning. Instead of considering aesthetics first, take a look at your garden’s topography, exposure, and soil. Don’t try to fight your site. Create planting zones and group your plants by their needs. For example, group tough, drought-tolerant plants in areas exposed to full day sun, give less tolerant plants some partial shade, and keep the more delicate or demanding plants for a spot near your water source.
  2. Choose Appropriate Plant Material: You may choose to incorporate a few plants that will need to be coddled, but for the most part, selecting plants that thrive in your area during low water conditions will give you the best results. This often includes native plants that we so often take for granted. The choice of plants will vary by region, even within a single yard. You may be surprised to see how many plants are considered xeric once they are established and receive proper care.
  3. Soil Improvement: The adage that if you take care of the soil, the soil will take care of the plants, is very true here. The key, as always, is incorporating generous amounts of organic matter. This will improve water penetration and retention in any type of soil. Rich, loose, water-holding soil will encourage good root development and lessen the plant’s need for supplemental water. It is best to amend your soil before planting and to regularly use organic mulch.
  4. Mulch: Mulching is a naturally occurring process, but as gardeners, we tend to want things tidy and we rake away all the leaves and debris that coat and decay into the soil. Instead of using free leaf mulch, we bring in what we consider more aesthetically pleasing mulch, such as shredded bark or pine straw. As long as it is some type of organic matter, mulch is a great tool in a water-wise garden. It moderates soil temperature, holds moisture, slows erosion, and suppresses weeds that compete with your plants for food and water. It also gradually decomposes and feeds the soil. Apply about four inches of mulch at the initial planting and check it each season to see if it needs to be replenished.
  5. Practical and Appropriate Turf Grass Areas: Most of us still want some areas of lawn in our landscape but many of us want way too much lawn. Think about how much water, fertilizer, and fuel it takes to keep your lawn green throughout the summer. Where to place the lawn should be part of your initial design plan, as well as how you plan to use the lawn. Choose an appropriate grass seed for the lawn’s exposure. Consider options other than grass. There are ground covers that are less labor and water-intensive.
  6. Efficient Watering: Not all plants need the same amount of water and those needs may change with the seasons. If you’ve followed the steps above, you have your plants grouped by their water needs, including your lawn, and can water only where it’s needed. Drip irrigation systems allow you to control when and how much water a plant gets and to direct the water only to the plants that need it. Base your watering schedule on the needs of the plants and not on an arbitrary schedule. All plants will require more supplemental watering for the first year or two that they are becoming established. However after they have acclimated and developed a good root system, supplemental watering should become much less frequent.
  7. Appropriate Maintenance: Yes, even a xeriscape garden will require some maintenance. Watering, weeding, pruning, deadheading, and sensible pest management will all factor into the quality of your garden.

Drought Tolerant Plants for Gardens

Many plants will continue to grow just fine in drought conditions if they have been selected wisely and were allowed to establish themselves before being stressed by drought. No plant will survive forever without some water and different plants will thrive in different regions and conditions, but here is a list of drought-tolerant plants to get you started.

Drought-tolerant Grasses

Drought-tolerant Shrubs

Article Sources
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  1. Xeriscaping: Creative Landscaping. Colorado State University Extension