Not zero-scaping … Xeriscaping! Too often, when people consider how to decrease water usage in their yards, they think the answer lies in having no plants and all mulch, or “zero-scaping.” But that’s far from the truth. Xeriscaping is a form of sustainable gardening, where native plants are often (but not exclusively) used. Xeriscape plants are drought-tolerant and suited for the region. Yards have less turf, and water is applied efficiently. The term “Xeriscape” was coined by a Colorado task force during the 1980s. The group examined different water conservation techniques that could be accomplished through creative landscaping. The task force, together with the National Xeriscape Council, developed the “seven principles of Xeriscaping:”

Native perennials

How much lawn do you really need? Consider replacing some of that water-stealing turf with some gorgeous native perennials.

Arid garden

This arid-region courtyard brings color and beauty without wasting water.

Seating area

You can create a comfy seating area to enjoy you xeriscaped garden.

Water efficient garden

Successful Xeriscapes feature native plants. You can find beautiful, drought-tolerant US natives that takes average to poor well-drained soil.

Photo Credit: Alliance for Water Efficiency

  1. Plan and design the landscape comprehensively. Xeriscapes don’t just happen – they need planning. For instance, let’s say you want an all-native garden, and you make arrangements for lots of native plants to go into your yard. Then you find the closest supplier of these plants is 400 miles away. Thinking through your project and investigating all aspects of your Xeriscape eliminates these morale-breaking problems.
  2. Evaluate and amend the soil appropriately. Rocky and sandy soils lose water very quickly, but clay soils hold onto water. Compost also aids greatly in water retention, and it supplies welcome nutrients to plants. Examine and test your soil, then add the right amendments to make it better for your plants.
  3. Create practical turf areas. Many people have a large grassy yard – not because they need it but because all their neighbors have it. Unfortunately, lawns require huge amounts of water, and grass steals water from shrubs and trees, so you have to add even more water to keep plants alive. (Large lawns also contribute to global warming, since 2 percent of all fossil fuels are used in lawn maintenance.) Ask yourself how much lawn you really need. Most people find they can do with half as much. Divide the rest of your yard into various planting beds and/or plant more perennials, trees and shrubs.
  4. Use appropriate plants. Plants native to a particular area are often used in Xeriscapes. One of the problems is finding which plants are native to your area and then finding them at your local nurseries. One thing to remember is that metropolitan areas tend to be warmer than the surrounding countryside (the ’ol asphalt jungle effect). Plants that grow great outside the city may not grow well inside an urban fenced yard, due to pollution and other disruptions. Keep in mind, also, that some neighborhoods have covenants against “wild” gardens, so your plant choices may be limited. (Not sure if a particular plant will work well in your area? Look it up in the Cooperative Extension service.)
  5. Water efficiently. Overhead irrigation, such as that provided by oscillating sprinklers, is the most inefficient type. On a hot day, as much as 60 percent of the water applied through overhead watering can evaporate before reaching the ground. Irrigation systems that run on automatic timers also often waste water because they provide water to all plants regardless of their needs or the weather. (How many times have you seen risers pop up during a thunderstorm?) The best thing is to use drip irrigation when possible, and supplement this with overhead watering when needed. (Young plants often need direct water since they have tiny root systems.)

    Also, avoid watering in the heat of the day. Early morning watering is a good time for the plants since this gives them water to use for photosynthesis throughout the day. However, morning is rarely the best time for humans. We’re busy getting ready for work and school. Watering in the evening is good for humans, but it can be bad for plants because the water left on leaves can promote numerous diseases.
  6. Use organic mulch. There are a lot of organic mulches, including pine straw, bark chips, hardwood mulch, rice hulls, cottonseed hulls and leaves. Some are better than others because of their nutrient levels, rates at which they break down, availability, cost and sustainability (cypress trees are being overharvested to supply the mulch industry, for instance). Eventually, mulch breaks down and supplies the soil with low levels of nutrients. Avoid the inorganic mulches, which include black plastic and rocks.
  7. Maintain. You’ve done all this work, now keep it up! Don’t overfertilize, check your watering systems periodically and prune appropriately.

Xeriscape gardens are not only good for the planet; they’re good for you. Make them attractive and keep them that way to show others the importance of earth-friendly gardens.