Xeriscape Introduction

The word "Xeriscape," was coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981 to help make water conserving landscaping an easily recognized concept. Their efforts have been a tremendous success. The word is a combination of "landscape" and the Greek word "xeros," which means "dry."

Xeriscape is a systematic concept for saving water in landscaped areas. Xeriscape is a method of landscaping that promotes water conservation. Rather than a specific "look" or a limited group of plants, Xeriscape is a combination of seven basic landscaping principles. These principles are explained below in the order a landscape planner or property owner would consider to install the best landscape. Each principle must be considered during the planning and design phase, but the sequence of installation is also very important in assuring a successful Xeriscape.

Photo courtesy of Aquacraft, Inc.

 The seven principles of Xeriscape are:

1. Planning and Design
Trying to create a landscape without a plan is like trying to build a home without blueprints. A plan provides direction and guidance and will ensure that water-conserving techniques are coordinated and implemented in the landscape. The first step is to look at your existing landscape and create a "base plan." This is a to-scale diagram showing the major elements of your landscape - your house, driveway, sidewalk, deck or patio, existing trees, etc.

2. Soil Improvements
If you have good topsoil you can ignore this section. Many people, however, have inferior topsoil because of sand and clay. Clay soil is dense, slow to absorb and release water. If water is applied to clay soil too quickly, it either pools on the surface or runs off. Over watering heavy clay soil can actually drown plants.

On the other hand, sandy soil can't hold water. Unless irrigated frequently, plants in sandy soils tend to dry out.

To enable your soil to better absorb water and allow for deeper roots, you may need to add a soil amendment before you plant. For most soils, adding 1 to 2 inches (2.54 cm to 5.08 cm) of organic matter such as compost or well-aged manure to your soil can be beneficial. Rototill the organic matter into the soil at least 6 inches (15.2 cm) deep.

(Note: if you are landscaping with native plants, soil amendments may not be necessary, as they prefer soil that is not too rich. For many of these plants, the only soil preparation necessary is to loosen the soil.)

3. Efficient Irrigation
A Xeriscape can be irrigated efficiently by hand or with an automatic sprinkler system. If you're installing a sprinkler system or upgrading an existing system, it's a good idea to plan this at the same time you design the landscape. Zone turf areas separately from other plantings and use the irrigation method that waters the plants in each area most efficiently.

4. Zoning of Plants
Different areas in your yard get different amounts of light, wind, and moisture. To minimize water waste, group together plants with similar light and water requirements, and place them in an area in your yard which matches these requirements. A good rule of thumb is to put high water-use plantings in low lying drainage areas, near downspouts, or in the shade of other plants. It's also helpful to put higher water-use plants where it is easy to water.

Dry, sunny areas or areas far from a hose are great places for the many low water-use plants. Planting a variety of plants with different heights, color and textures creates interest and beauty.

By grouping your plants appropriately, you minimize water waste while ensuring that your plants will flourish in the right environment.

5. Mulches
Mulching is a great addition to your garden and landscape. Mulch helps keep plants roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation, and reduces weed growth. Mulches also give beds a finished look and increase the visual appeal of your garden. Organic mulches, such as bark chips, pole peelings or wood grindings, should be applied at least 4 inches (10.2 cm) deep. Because they decompose over time, they're an excellent choice for new beds. As plants mature and spread, they'll cover the mulched areas.

Inorganic mulches include rocks and gravel, and should be applied at least 2 inches (5.1 cm) deep. They rarely need replacement and are good in windy spots. However, they should not be placed next to the house on the sunny south or west sides, because they tend to retain and radiate heat. Mulch may be applied directly to the soil surface or placed over a landscape fabric. (Note: Do not use black plastic because it prevents air and water from reaching to the plant roots.)

6. Turf Alternatives
Traditionally, the landscape of choice across North America has been a carpet of bluegrass turf. Bluegrass is lush and hardy, but in many regions it requires a substantial amount of supplemental watering.

One way to reduce watering requirements is to reduce the amount of bluegrass turf in your landscape. Native or low water use plantings, patios, decks or mulches can beautify your landscape while saving water. Choosing a lower water using turf also serves the same purpose. Such choices can include buffalo grass, blue grama grass, turf type tall fescue and fine fescues.

7. Appropriate Maintenance
Preserve the beauty of your Xeriscape with regular maintenance. The first year or two, your new landscape will probably require a fair amount of weeding, but as plants mature they will crowd out the weeds, significantly reducing your maintenance time.

In addition to weeding, your Xeriscape will need proper irrigation, pruning, fertilizing and pest control. Maintenance time for a new garden is similar to a traditional landscape, but it decreases over time. In addition to weeding, proper irrigation, pruning, fertilizing and pest control will keep your landscape beautiful and water thrifty. When your garden is well taken care of, you can sit back and enjoy it.

Water Savings Associated with Xeriscape