Xeriscape Landscaping: Meaning, and How It Can Save You Money

A Smart Way to Fight Drought, Save Water

Lewisia cotyledon Rainbow Mix provided me with light pink and darker pink flowers.
Lewisia cotyledon Rainbow Mix is a drought-tolerant plant. David Beaulieu

Xeriscape landscaping or, simply, "xeriscaping," by definition, is landscaping designed specifically for areas that are susceptible to drought, or for properties where water conservation is practiced. Derived from the Greek xeros meaning "dry," the term means literally "dry landscape." 

Note that "xeriscape" is pronounced as if it began with the letter, Z, which sometimes leads to the misspelling, "zeroscape" (as if it signified "zero landscaping").

This is unfortunate, because the word, "zero" leads the mind to think of "nothing" -- in this case, a landscape with nothing in it (or nothing pretty, at least). But xeriscape landscaping techniques need not result in a "big zero" for landscape design aesthetics.

In fact, as most people employ the term, xeriscape landscaping need not be limited to desert plants that are about as attractive as barbed wire (for example, certain kinds of cactus and succulent plants). Rather, the practice allows you (in non-desert climates, at least) to use a wide variety of attractive plants but insists on common-sense measures that will help conserve water, such as grouping plants with similar water requirements together. Not only does this practice save you money, but it can also save your plants, since many a plant is killed through over-watering. So even if you are not trying to save water, it makes sense to segregate "thirsty" plants from those that want far less water.

A common element in xeriscape landscaping is the reduction of lawn grass areas, since lawn grass is often one of the worst offenders against water conservation. Another widespread tactic is the deployment of native plants, since they are adapted to the local climate and consequently require less human-supplied water.

How to Practice Xeriscape Landscaping

To summarize, then, we can think of the practice of xeriscaping as zeroing in on the following:

  1. What plants you choose to grow.
  2. What plants you avoid growing (most notably, lawn grass).
  3. How you organize your plants.

Plants most suited to xeriscape landscaping are sometimes referred to as "xeric" plants. These are plants with low water requirements and that therefore handle drought well. Of course, drought-tolerance is relative. A plant considered drought-tolerant in the Northeastern U.S. might be baked to a crisp in desert country. So your options will be increased in the former region and reduced in the latter. Keep that consideration in mind as you browse the following resources on drought-resistant plants:

  1. Drought-tolerant trees
  2. Drought-tolerant shrubs
  3. Drought-tolerant ground covers

Here are some colorful choices from these and other plant categories:

  1. Sunburst honey locust (tree)
  2. Red bird of paradise (shrub)
  3. Angelina sedum (ground cover)
  4. Zebra grass (ornamental grass)
  5. Rainbow (perennial)

Here are ideas for a bed of flowers suitable for xeriscape landscaping across most of the northern USA. This example could be used, as is, to compose a flower bed (up against a fence, for example) that is 12 feet long by 8 feet deep, or it could be expanded (lengthwise) to make up a foundation planting.

The plan calls for three loose rows of perennials. Bluebeard, a tall plant (and, technically, a shrub, but often treated as a perennial), will dominate the back row, where it will not obscure shorter plants (the back row would be the one up against a fence or a house wall). The middle row is staggered with drought-resistant perennials of intermediate heights: Moonbeam coreopsis, coneflowers, and Autumn Joy sedum. At its back, and punctuating the whole ensemble as a focal point, is a tall ornamental grass, such as maiden grass. Finally, mounds of a shorter, drought-resistant ornamental grass (such as blue fescue grass) variety are staggered with lamb's ears to comprise the front row.

If you found this article useful, you may wish to learn about more water-saving ideas and access another list of xeriscaping plants in this article.