Tired of spending tons of money to keep your lawn green in the summer? If you’re wondering what is xeriscaping, you’re on the right track to a beautiful and resilient garden with less water usage and lower bills.
Xeriscaping uses drought-tolerant plants and water-efficient irrigation systems to design colorful, low-maintenance landscapes. You can save up to 60% in watering costs while enjoying a beautiful mix of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. In this article, we discuss all the benefits of xeriscaping and the principles that go into it. You’ll also read about landscape design ideas and water conservation tips you can try right now.
- What is Xeriscaping About?
- Xeriscaping vs. Traditional Lawns
- Benefits of Xeriscaping
- Xeriscaping Materials
- The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping
- Xeriscape Design Ideas
- Types of Xeriscaping Plants
- Fertilizers and Soil Amendments for Xeriscaping
- Water Conservation Tips for Xeriscaping
- Xeriscaping Costs
- Xeriscaping Case Studies
- Xeriscaping Legal Issues
- Start Your Xeriscaping Garden Today!
What is Xeriscaping About?
Xeriscaping is all about creating beautiful, drought-resilient gardens that use less water. The name comes from adding the Greek word “xeros,” meaning “dry,” to the English “landscaping.” Roughly translated as “dry-scape,” xeriscaping is also referred to as:
- “Smart scaping”
- “Drought-tolerant landscaping”
- “Water-conserving landscaping”
Due to spelling or speaking errors, the terms “xeroscaping” and “zeroscaping” are also used. “Zeroscaping” is often chosen to refer to a form of garden design that uses little to no plants, focusing on mulch, gravel, and rocks.
The idea of xeriscaping was framed in the early ’80s by the Denver Water Department as a solution to cut down water consumption during droughts. It’s based on replacing thirsty, grassy lawns with drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and rocks and using water-wise irrigation systems.
Xeriscaping vs. Traditional Lawns
Lush, green turfgrass lawns are a cultural symbol for the traditional American home. Covering over 128,000 square kilometers, they are the most irrigated nonfood crop in the U.S. But with more persistent heat waves and droughts, they are no longer the best way to use land and money.
With up to 60% less water usage and increasing in popularity, xeriscaping gardens can be the answer to this problem. Let’s take a closer look at the main differences between the two options for your yard.
|• Uses drought-tolerant, native plants requiring less water and fertilizers.|
• Limits turfgrass, replacing it with native ground covers, mulch, or gravel.
• Has a more wild, rocky aesthetic.
• Drought-resistant – keeps its colors and vitality during heat waves.
• Uses up to 60% less water than traditional landscapes.
|• Typically uses imported, non-native grasses that need more care, water, and fertilizers.|
• Includes large areas of thirsty, grassy lawn requiring frequent irrigation.
• Has a lush, soft, uniform look.
• Plants often dry out during droughts, leaving the garden brown and bare.
• Nationwide, traditional lawns use about 9 billion gallons of water per day.
Reducing water consumption is the center of xeriscaping, but the benefits of this gardening style don’t stop there.
Benefits of Xeriscaping
Xeriscaping isn’t only for times of drought. It has plenty of benefits for homeowners and the greater environment beyond conserving water. Learn about the many benefits of xeriscaping below.
Did you know that nearly one-third of the residential water consumption in the U.S. goes to landscape irrigation? By using drought-tolerant plants and efficient irrigation methods, xeriscaping can reduce the amount of water needed to maintain a landscape by up to 60%.
In the town of Novato, California, municipalities offered incentives for converting traditional lawns into xeriscaped yards. The properties that took the deal registered 120 gallons less in daily water consumption.
Xeriscaping can create a variety of habitats within a single yard. Using native plants has multiple benefits for the local wildlife, such as providing shelter and food for:
- Beneficial insects (i.e. ladybugs, green lacewings)
- Local pollinators (i.e. bees, butterflies, ants, wasps, hummingbirds)
- Songbirds (i.e. blue jays, cardinals, titmice)
Using fewer pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, xeriscaping is also an effective strategy in the effort to protect the bees.
Xeriscape gardens are easier to maintain than traditional gardens. The low-maintenance is mostly due to:
- The use of native, drought-resistant plants that require fewer fertilizers and pesticides than imported grasses and plants
- Replacing turf grasses with ornamental grasses that need less mowing (or none at all)
- Using targeted irrigation and mulch, which prevents weeds and reduces the need for herbicides
Overall, with xeriscaping, you can expect to save up to 60% in yard maintenance costs compared to traditional landscaping.
Focused on using the local soil and climate as natural strong points, xeriscaping comes with huge benefits for the environment:
- Less toxic chemicals – Water, soil, and wildlife are less exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
- Prevents runoff – Runoff is reduced by the use of mulch and xeric ground covers such as sedum or blue fescue.
- Creates resilient natural habitats – Xeriscaping promotes native, drought-resistant plants, often neglected in traditional landscaping. They create resilient, complex wildlife habitats supporting biodiversity.
Contrary to popular belief, xeriscaping design can be breathtaking, and the options are countless. You can go for a rock garden, playing with different colors, shapes, and textures of stones and just a few plants. Or choose a cottage design that fills the space with colorful plants of all sizes and shapes, from short grasses to tall shrubs and trees filled with flowers.
Xeriscaping can reduce maintenance costs and water bills by up to 60%. Such landscapes don’t require mowing and need fewer fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. They will still require some trimming and pruning to keep the plants healthy, but that’s something you can do yourself every once in a while with a few inexpensive tools.
Low Risk of Pests and Disease
Drought-tolerant plants are less prone to pests and diseases. You can improve their resistance by mixing plants that support and protect each other. Talk to a horticulture expert (perhaps from your local county extension service) to find out more about this.
Xeriscaping benefits are hard to ignore, but how exactly do you get from a traditional landscape to a xeriscape garden? Let’s start with the materials you’ll need and then see how you put them all together.
A successful xeriscaping structure uses a few essential components and materials. These are:
- Xeriscaping plants: herbs, shrubs, trees, or wildflowers that need minimal water, either native or from climates similar to yours
- Mulch: bark chips, grass clippings, dried leaves, straw, gravel, and small rocks used to cover the soil
- Landscaping rocks: pea gravel, lava rock, river rock, cobblestone, decomposed granite, pavers, and other types of rocks that add structure, color, and volume to the landscape
- Drip irrigation system: an alternative to traditional sprinklers that waters the roots of plants directly, wasting much less water
- Rainwater harvesting system: barrels, swales, or cisterns that some xeriscaping designs use to collect rainfall
Back in the ‘80s, the Denver Water Department defined 7 principles to guide homeowners to create functional xeriscape gardens with these materials. Let’s see how these simple and practical guidelines look today.
The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping
Focused on the main changes you need to make to a traditional landscape, these principles can help you successfully manage a xeriscaping project from start to finish.
1. Plan and Design
Start by drawing a diagram to scale, including all the elements already in your outdoor space that you intend to keep. Include:
- The house and driveway
- Walkways, patios, gazebos
- Trees, bushes, and other native, drought-tolerant plants already on your property
Divide the remaining space depending on what purpose you want to give to each section. For example:
- A screen view to make the yard more private and keep dust at bay
- A xeric perennial garden with flowers or aromatic plants
- A play area for your children
- Trees for shade
In the locations reserved for planting, draw each plant at maturity to scale and indicate its name. Now you have your planting plan.
2. Test and Amend the Soil
Successful xeriscaping needs well-drained soil that is also able to absorb water efficiently. Good soil allows trees and plants to grow deep roots and access moisture from the lower layers of the ground. It also reduces irrigation and fertilization needs.
To prepare the soil for xeriscaping:
- Test the soil in a lab.
- Use the proper amendments to improve texture and nutrients.
- Till the soil thoroughly to aerate, improve the structure, and blend the amendments deep enough.
3. Plan and Set Up an Efficient Irrigation System
Since reducing water use is the main objective of xeriscaping, using efficient irrigation systems to avoid water waste is a must. How can you use water wisely? There are three things you can do at this stage:
- Install drip irrigation or soaker hoses where possible (for trees, shrubs, and flower beds).
- Where you need to use sprinkler systems, plan for spray nozzles with large droplets and lower angles to reduce wind drift.
- Group together plants with similar sunlight and watering needs.
4. Use Mulch
Mulch is a layer of organic and inorganic material spread on top of the soil. It’s essential in xeriscaping because it:
- Keeps the plant roots cool
- Prevents water evaporation
- Reduces topsoil crusting
- Promotes water absorption
- Decreases runoff
- Limits weed growth
You can use wood grindings, bark chips, rocks, and gravel as inexpensive mulch. You can even find some mulching materials for free.
5. Put the Right Plants in the Right Place
From a planting point of view, a successful xeriscape design requires two things:
- Choosing the right plants for your local climate and soil
- Planting them in the right spot
Drought-tolerant plants that do well in the hot deserts of Arizona might not be suitable for the milder climate of Wichita. Search online for native plants specific to your region or go to the local greenery and ask for recommendations.
Another way to preserve water is by grouping plants with similar water and light requirements together. Grow:
- Drought-resistant species with low-water needs in the areas that are exposed to the sunlight the most, on slopes and hilly areas
- Plants that require more water in the shadow of trees, the house, or other tall plants and near downspouts where water collects during rainfall
6. Limit Turfgrass Surfaces
Since turfgrasses need a lot of water to keep their green, fresh look, xeriscaping limits their presence. You can replace them with drought-tolerant grasses or xeric low-growing ground covers.
7. Xeriscaping Maintenance
Xeriscaping requires less maintenance than traditional landscaping, but it still needs to be cared for. Here’s what you need to keep an eye on:
- Irrigation system – check it on a regular basis to make sure it’s working properly and without any leaks.
- Mulch – make sure the layer is thick enough to prevent water evaporation.
- Plants – trim and prune periodically to avoid overgrowth and keep water requirements in check.
While these xeriscaping principles are common to all types of xeriscaping gardens, designs can vary a lot. Let’s see some of the most popular examples.
Xeriscape Design Ideas
Xeriscaping design varies with soil, climate, and how you want your garden to look. Popular xeriscaping design ideas include:
- Gravel and rock gardens – mimic a natural rocky outcropping using gravel and rocks of different sizes, colors, and textures, plus cacti, succulents, and other drought-tolerant plants.
- Cactus gardens – are designed around a variety of cacti and other succulent plants, looking like a desert landscape with rocks, gravel, and other drought-resistant plants.
- Rain gardens – include a shallow depression in the landscape that collects and stores rainwater to irrigate plants without wasting water.
- Mediterranean gardens – are xeriscaping designs with plants and design elements typical of the Mediterranean climate, such as olive trees, lavender, and rosemary.
- Prairie gardens – have colorful designs that feature a variety of native grasses, wildflowers, and other xeriscape plants that are typical of the prairie ecosystem.
- Xeriscape lawns – feature lawns of low-water grasses, such as buffalo grass and fescue grass, which can be used for turf instead of traditional lawn grasses.
- Pocket forests – ultra-dense planted areas with indigenous trees and shrubbery meant to promote biodiversity. They are drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, and suitable for large properties such as public spaces, schools, etc.
These are just a few examples of xeriscaping design ideas to consider. To create a successful project, it is essential to choose the best combination of native plants for your climate. Here are some examples to consider.
Types of Xeriscaping Plants
Choose xeriscaping plants that suit the climate and soil of your outdoor space. Mix various species to create a rich ecosystem and have flowers from early spring to late fall. Here are the main categories to consider.
Cacti and Succulents
Succulents and cacti can survive with minimal water. They are common in gravel and rocky gardens and in cactus gardens.
Some beautiful examples are:
- San Pedro Cactus
- Whale’s Tongue Agave
- Red Yucca
- Beavertail Cactus
Colorful wildflowers are an essential part of cottage designs and prairie gardens. They can also add diversity to rocky gardens. Choose native species such as:
- Sonoma Sage
- California Sagebrush
- Purple Coneflower
Drought-Tolerant Grasses and Groundcovers
Groundcovers and ornamental grasses can replace traditional thirsty lawn grasses to conserve water. Some popular options are:
- Buffalo grass
- Fescue grass
- Hardy yellow
- Shore juniper
Use shrubs to add vertical layers and depth to your garden. They provide structure and create eco-friendly habitats for wildlife. Consider drought-resistant species such as:
Plant Joshua tree, desert willow, mesquite, and other drought-hardy trees. Xeric trees can provide shade to insects, birds, and plants less tolerant to direct sunlight. Consider drought-tolerant trees such as:
- Joshua tree
- Desert willow
Consider olive trees, lavender, and rosemary if aiming for a Mediterranean style. They are lovely additions and bring a charming fragrance to your home and outdoor space.
Only some drought-tolerant plants are suitable for your area. Consult with a horticulturist or a local nursery expert to find the best xeriscaping plants for your garden. They will also help you amend the soil properly.
Fertilizers and Soil Amendments for Xeriscaping
A healthy and resilient xeriscaping garden needs good soil. Here are some common soil amendments you can use to improve it if necessary.
- Compost is a natural fertilizer made from organic materials. It’s rich in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. Use it to improve soil structure and fertility. You can prepare it DIY using this composting guide.
- Mulch decomposes slowly in time, adding nutrients and improving the soil structure.
- Organic fertilizers are an excellent source of slow-release nutrients. They also help beneficial microorganisms and improve soil texture. Most are made of bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, or kelp meal.
- Rock dust is made from crushed rock rich in minerals and trace elements. It supplements the soil’s nutrients and improves plants’ overall health.
- Gypsum is a natural mineral you can use to break up compacted soils. It also adds calcium to the ground, an essential nutrient for plants.
- Iron chelate can be used to correct iron deficiencies in plants. This improves the overall health of the xeriscape landscape.
Choosing the right plants and amending the soil are all about conserving water. So let’s see what else you can do to lower your water bills.
Water Conservation Tips for Xeriscaping
With plants resilient to drought and an efficient irrigation system, saving water is easy. But you can do even more. Here are some tips and tricks to keep your garden green and healthy with less water.
Water During the Early Morning or Late Evening
Irrigate early morning or late evening. The temperature drops at the beginning and end of each day, so more water will reach the roots instead of evaporating.
Wait for the Wind to Calm Down
Are you still using sprinklers in your garden? Avoid turning them on while it’s windy. Air currents will spray most of the water away from the soil.
Irrigate Deeply and Infrequently
Deep and less often irrigation helps plants become more resistant to drought. They develop strong, long roots that tap deep into the ground where moisture is safe from the heat.
Collect the water in barrels, cisterns, and swales when it rains. Rainwater is often healthier for your plants than tap water. Rainfall also makes for a handy reserve you can use during prolonged droughts.
Adapt to Season Changes
Reduce irrigation when it rains and increase it during dry seasons. This way, you prevent plants from rotting and keep your garden beautiful and healthy.
The average xeriscaping project costs $10,000 to $19,000 with professional installation. Pricing differs depending on the following:
- Garden size
- Types of plants
- Design style and complexity.
You can work with a landscape contractor from the design process to the final touches to make the process faster and simpler. Or hire a designer for up to $200 per hour, then do the work of installation yourself.
Don’t have $10,000 to drop right now? That’s ok. Start small. Replace one section of your lawn with mulch or nix your sprinklers and install a simple DIY drip irrigation system. Even small changes can vastly reduce water consumption over time, and if you keep making changes, you’ll have a total xeriscape in a few years.
Xeriscaping Case Studies
Need some inspiration for your xeriscaping garden? Here are three amazing projects that you can visit and research.
The Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College in San Diego
Covering nearly 6 acres of land, the Water Conservation Garden is a nice place to learn about xeriscaping. Visit their themed gardens to see native plants and water-wise vegetables. Or attend the how-to exhibits where you can learn about mulch and irrigation.
The Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado
The Denver Botanic Gardens cover over 23 acres and start with European and coastal designs. In the xeriscaping section, the land is covered with various native and drought-resistant plants worth seeing, such as:
- Pawnee Buttes sand cherry
- The “ice plant” brought from Africa
- The Persian rose
- bearded irises
The Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco
The Living Roof is a fantastic example of innovative xeriscaping. It’s covered with various drought-tolerant plants that help reduce water usage. They also improve insulation while providing a habitat for local wildlife.
Xeriscaping Legal Issues
Laws such as Florida Statute 373.185 and Colorado HB21-1229 prevent HOAs from prohibiting water-saving landscaping practices. They allow landowners to xeriscape in HOA communities where traditional landscaping is the norm.
However, HOAs still have to approve the design. So, if you live in an HOA community, use these tips to increase your chances of approval:
- Make a detailed plan and present it to the HOA members.
- Add images with the plants and materials you intend to use.
- Insert visual examples with designs that inspired your project.
- Begin with your backyard.
- Start with small changes, such as replacing turf grass with flower beds, and go from there.
Xeriscaping can be as simple as replacing a grassy lawn with drought-tolerant ground covers, mulch, and gravel.
Xeriscaping is a specific type of landscaping that focuses on saving water. It requires fewer fertilizers and pesticides than traditional landscape design and uses native plants that thrive with less water.
Some cons that xeriscaping comes with are:
• Installing the xeriscaping elements (plants, rocks, irrigation) takes time, work, and money.
• Some designs, like cactus and rock gardens, can look sparse and bare.
• You might miss the soft, lush carpet look of a grassy lawn.
Start Your Xeriscaping Garden Today!
Already popular in western America, xeriscaping can help you keep a beautiful yard with lower bills no matter where you live. It’s all about putting together the proper drought-tolerant plants for your soil and climate, with mulch, rocks, and an efficient irrigation system. You can do this yourself or find a local landscaping company to start your xeriscaping garden today!
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