Although the term ‘xeriscape’ may conjure up a bleak and lifeless landscapes, the practice of xeriscaping is a highly desirable landscaping endeavor in arid or semiarid regions that can result in lush and beautiful gardens. Denver, Colorado supported xeriscaping when there wasn’t a name for it. Denver Water, the city’s water municipality, coined the phrase by combing “landscape” with the Greek word xeros which means “dry” back in 1981. A concerted effort was made to encourage homeowners to lower their use of city water for lawns and gardens and to incorporate xeriscaping principles into their landscaping.
However, xeriscaping didn’t start in the 1980s, but has been in use for centuries by farmers and gardeners.
Water is a precious commodity, especially in regions of the United States that have experienced prolonged droughts or receive minimal annual precipitation. In the United States, xeriscaping has caught hold mostly in western states with dry climates, high water rates, or in areas with an eye towards water conservation. Irrigation water is mainly put to use growing crops, but the agricultural community has also embraced water-saving concepts or equipment to minimize waste. Incorporating a drip irrigation system into a landscape project is one of the key aspects of xeriscaping, but not the only key.
At its core, xeriscaping incorporating water-saving techniques through the use of specialized drip irrigation equipment and incorporating drought-tolerant plants and soil amendments. Instead of picking a fight with Mother Nature, gardeners can utilize basic landscaping techniques and work with the local climate to create award-winning colorful gardens that are the envy of the neighborhood.
There are several aspects to xeriscaping that include: appropriate vegetation such as drought tolerant or native species, efficient water-delivery systems that minimize waste, enhancing soil conditions, group plantings with similar water needs, or using alternative ground covers such as rocks or gravel that don’t require any irrigation. A lush-looking lawn may be a typical addition to a home garden but it may be impractical in terms of the maintenance and cost needed to keep it green.
Selecting appropriate plants to include in a xeriscape garden will rely upon choosing from species native to the area or those that are drought tolerant. Native plants have an advantage in that the are already adapted to local environmental conditions such as soil type, hardiness, or drought resistant. Mother Nature has provided years of testing and many of these species produce beautiful flowers, colorful fall foliage, or structure that other plants do. Many native plants have reduced leaf sizes, waxy cuticles on the leaves to prevent moisture loss, shallow root systems to absorb rainfall, or no leaves at all such as cacti.
Nurseries and garden centers either specialize in plants native to a region or have sections that include plants from other regions or countries that would be suitable to include in your particular zone. These plants may be selected for their drought-tolerant nature, as well as showiness. One example would be Russian sage or Perovskia atriplicifolia. Native to Central Asia, this member of the Mint family is a low maintenance drought- and heat-tolerant shrub that produces beautifully fragrant bluish flowers. Often incorporated into xeriscape gardens, the plant is also deer-tolerant and attracts butterflies.
Alternative Ground Covers
Lawns can require a lot of maintenance and resources to keep them looking good. They can also be removed and replaced with alternate ground covers to create an attractive and practical alternative. Crushed rock, cobblestones, or volcanic rock may replace a typical lawn and include the installation of a drip system to provide water to any plantings. In areas like Phoenix, Arizona where traditional irrigation systems are too expensive or impractical to operate, rethinking the idea of a lawn has led to water conservation and financial savings for homeowners.
Appropriate addition of soil amendments or surface mulches can also contribute to retaining moisture, lowering surface temperatures, and providing nutrients to root systems that spread laterally versus the deep tap rooted species.
Planning is a key component when installing a new xeriscape garden or altering a current site. Grouping plants with similar water and soil needs helps determine the type of delivery system needed. Removing a lawn to install a wildflower meadow could utilize any underground sprinkling system already in place. Adjusting the amount of water needed to keep the wildflowers growing can be accomplished with a water timer to provide a predetermined water amount, as well as delivery during cooler hours of the day or night to minimize evaporation losses.
Installing a row of shrubs could benefit from a drip irrigation system. Although drip irrigation systems have been used for centuries, modern-day systems that incorporate plastic pipe and emitters was developed within the last 75 years in Germany, Australia, and Israel. These systems provide water close to the root zone to minimize waste. Drip or spray emitters deliver a pre-determined amount of water, such as 1 gallon an hour, to the plants. Connectors and microtubing allow gardeners to deliver water to widely-spaced plants or those in a cluster.
Drip systems may require some long runs of ½” flexible black tubing that emitters can be attached directly into or that will accept smaller connectors to be used with ¼” or ⅛” micro tubing. The tubing comes in rolls and can be easily cut with garden scissors or a specialized knife for a nice clean edge. Connecting the tubing to the fittings can sometimes be a challenge because the fittings have a flared lip that helps hold the tubing to the fitting. Softening the end of the tubing with heat allows the now more pliable tubing to slip over the flare. Sprayers and other drippers can then be connected to the end of the micro tubing. Like irrigation sprinklers, the sprayers come in full circle, 180 degrees, 90 degrees, or adjustable to direct water where needed.
Determining the water needs of plants is a bit of a challenge, but perennials need about 2 gallons per week. Trees and shrubs have higher water needs and require water to be delivered over a wider area that just at the base. Several rows of tubing and emitters may be required to deliver water to trees and shrubs with extensive root systems; trees taller than 25 feet will probably require some other or additional water deliver to meet their growing needs.
Another aspect of these drip systems is the incorporation of soaker hoses or emitter tubing where the emitters are already placed into the tubing. Just lay out the tubing before planting so that the water is going directly to the plants and not the spaces in between.
Depending upon the extent of a xeriscape garden, water savings may be 50 to 75 percent. Some municipalities offer residents incentives like lower bills to conserve water. Just think about how much water a lawn requires through the summer. In the Southwest, that may translate to 60 to 80 percent of a monthly water bill. Plus, there is less time spent fertilizing, mowing, and irrigating a lawn or water-intensive landscape.
Gardeners don’t have to live in an arid western state to take advantage of xeriscaping principles. With a little change in the mindset of what a landscape should look like, along with some planning and research, gardeners anywhere can take advantage of xeriscaping ideas to enhance their gardens and save some time and money in the process.