How Xeriscaping Works


A Xeriscaped area. Can Xeriscaping help us save water during the current drought in the United States?
Xeriscape Colorado

If you look at the most recent release of the U.S. Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, you'd see a lot of color. Much of the Midwest and the West is colored in yellow, tan and orange, meaning that that part of the United States is under abnormally dry, moderate or severe drought conditions. Other regions, including much of the southeast and parts of Texas, Nebraska and North Dakota, are covered with red or black. Those areas are even worse off, with extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

­When a drought hits a region, most states have a drought response plan. Many of the seriously ­affected areas take precautions to conserve as much water as possible as summer approaches. Water for swimming pools may be limited, for example, or certain houses may be able to use water outdoors only on certain days of the week and at specific times.

One common restriction placed upon people and places is the use of outdoor watering and irrigation for lawns, gardens and parks. This can be a pain for some homeowners and the worst news for park managers. An average of 50 to 70 percent of home water is used for watering lawns and gardens, and parks depend on water to keep their areas looking nice for visitors [source: DrinkTap.org]. It makes sense to conserve water for drinking, but are we supposed to sit back while our beloved plants whither away?

One way people have decided to tackle the problem of water conservation is a type of landscaping known as Xeriscaping. By focusing on drought-resistant plants and preparing efficiently, gardeners and park owners alike can use as little water as possible while keeping an attractive landscape.

So how can Xeriscaping help your thirsty plants? To learn about Xeriscaping, read on.

What is Xeriscaping?

On top of reducing outdoor water use by 60 percent or more, a properly Xeriscaped lawn can increase the property value of a home by 15 percent.
On top of reducing outdoor water use by 60 percent or more, a properly Xeriscaped lawn can increase the property value of a home by 15 percent.
Xeriscape Colorado

To begin, we'll look at the word itself: Xeriscape. Pronounced "zeer-i-scape," it's a combination of two Greek words: "xeros" (dry) and "scape" (view). The concept was coined and trademarked by Denver Water, the city of Denver's water department, during a difficult drought period in the late '70s and early '80s.

Xeriscaping is a landscaping philosophy that uses as many native, drought-resistant plants as possible and arranges them in efficient, water-saving ways. With the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water predicting that 36 states will experience water shortages by 2013, the idea of Xeriscaping is spreading rapidly to park and gardening center staff as a smart way to save on water [source: EPA].

Despite this, many people don't know what Xeriscaping is. Those who have never heard the name may already know its techniques, because its principles are commonly used in landscaping and often work well. Some people who are aware of the concept mistakenly refer to it as "zero-scape," as in the use of no water. Others have a negative perception of Xeriscaping, thinking that the practice involves the use of barren, rocky landscapes and a few cacti.

As it turns out, Xeriscaping doesn't have to mean a bunch of tumbleweed from the southwest -- because it's open to the use of native plants, a landscaper can select a myriad of plant varieties from his region. A Xeriscaped lawn can look as attractive and colorful as a regular one. If used effectively, the official Denver Water Web site claims Xeriscaping can reduce water use for landscapes by 60 percent or more.

A photo of the prior landscape is compared with the new, Xeriscaped one. A photo of the prior landscape is compared with the new, Xeriscaped one.
A photo of the prior landscape is compared with the new, Xeriscaped one.
Peter Essick/Aurora/Getty Images

Xeriscaping can also save money on future maintenance. Although it may cost more to plan and convert a current landscape into a Xeriscaped one, the operational costs are much lower. The landscape in the above photo, for instance, cost $14,000 to convert, but in two years it nearly paid for itself -- it saves $6,000 a year in water.

There are seven essential principles to Xeriscaping -- appropriate planning and design, soil improvement, plant selection, practical turf areas, watering, use of mulch and maintenance. We'll talk a little about each one.

To learn about the seven principles of Xeriscaping, read the next page.

Principles of Xeriscaping: Design, Turf and Plant Selection

A potential plan for a Xeriscaping project.
A potential plan for a Xeriscaping project.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Planning and design

Whether the area in question is as modest as someone's backyard or as expansive as a city park, the first part of Xeriscaping starts with a basic plan with pen and paper. First, landscapers draw up a base plan. This is simply a major outline of the landscape drawn to scale, including the location of houses, driveways and any plants that are already there. The second step involves making a bubble diagram. Over a copy of the base plan, descriptive notes can go over areas that need Xeriscaping -- which water-thirsty plants need to go; which drought-resistant plants will replace the old ones; and other things like turf area and places to put barbecue pits, benches and paths. The bubble diagram will be used for the final landscape plan, which clearly defines the eventual Xeriscape project.

Creating practical turf areas

It takes a lot of water to maintain grass lawns and keep them green, so a good look at the use of turf areas is important to Xeriscaping. This doesn't mean all grass has to be removed and replaced with gravel. A designer just needs to take into account where grass will be useful and enhance the landscape, not take away (both physically and visually) from the other plant life. Places that get a lot of foot traffic, for instance, will be trampled on if there's grass, so walkways or ground cover can replace existing turf.

There are also many different types of grasses, some of which are seasonal, some of which are native to a certain region and work better with low water usage. You can check with your local gardening center to see which kind of grass is best suited for your landscape.

Plant selection

Choosing the right plants is, to many, the most important part. These plants will be the main attraction and define the landscape. But the location and grouping of plants can greatly affect the amount of water used,

First of all, native plants are usually the best choice for a Xeriscaping project. Although it's possible to use plants from other regions, there's a chance that outside vegetation won't adapt quickly to a new locale, and you'll be stuck with an empty lawn. It's also important, of course, that the plants are drought-tolerant and don't require much water -- local gardening centers that participate in Xeriscaping should have extensive lists of the kinds of plants that will work. The University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences also lists several acceptable plants at the bottom of this page­.

Picking the plants and ­sticking them into the ground isn't enough, though. We might not think about it often, but the location of plant life in a landscape is very important in determining how they will grow and how much water they'll use. For instance, plants that need more sunlight grow best when they're placed on the western side of a landscape -- that way they'll receive the most possible sunlight as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Whether plants are located high or low on a landscape is also important. Plants that need very little water can sit at higher elevations, while ones that need more can sit lower to collect any excess water.

For the remaining principles of Xeriscaping, see the next page.

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Principles of Xeriscaping: Soil, Water, Mulch, Maintenance

With less water, the roots of a plant will become weaker and lose their hold of the soil.
With less water, the roots of a plant will become weaker and lose their hold of the soil.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Soil improvement

Although plant selection is important, many people aren't aware of how necessary proper soil preparation is to a Xeriscaping project. The right kind of soil will keep plants cool, refrain from evaporating water and retain any excess moisture.

There are three basic types of soil -- sand, silt and clay. Most soil is a combination of the three, but silt works the best for a Xeriscaped garden. Sand allows too much drainage to slip through, while clay retains moisture for too long.

Watering

It's important to know how much water is needed for plants. Some plants can rely on the limited rainwater a region might receive during a drought, but many still need water maintenance, even if it's just a little. Even during the initial stages of conversion, plants may need just as much water as a regular landscape while they establish a root system.

Carefully monitoring your plants can help you determine how much water they’ll need. When plants get thirsty, their roots will shrink up to look for moisture. Although they're trying to feed themselves when this happens, they're also making their root foundation in the ground much weaker. You can usually tell a plant needs more water when it appears to be holding on a little too loosely in the ground.

You can provide plants with efficient irrigation with either a hose-end sprinkler or automatic sprinkler systems. It's important to keep water as low to the ground as possible to avoid spreading it toward unnecessary locations and causing evaporation. There are also drip, micro-spray and bubbler systems that work best for flower beds and shrubs.

Use of mulch

Important for keeping roots cool and minimizing water evaporation, mulch is available in two types -- organic and inorganic. Organic mulch is wood-based, including bark mulch, cedar mulch and pine peelings. Although this type needs to be replaced regularly to keep away rot, wood-based mulch keeps landscapes cool and adds good, complementary color. Inorganic mulch, on the other hand, is stone-based, such as cobblestone or lava rock. Stones don't need to be replaced, but they work best in the shade, since otherwise they'll soak up any heat from the sun and evaporate much-needed moisture.

Pioneer Park in St. Petersburg, Fla. If properly maintained, a Xeriscaped landscape can look as nice as a regular lawn. Pioneer Park in St. Petersburg, Fla. If properly maintained, a Xeriscaped landscape can look as nice as a regular lawn.
Pioneer Park in St. Petersburg, Fla. If properly maintained, a Xeriscaped landscape can look as nice as a regular lawn.
Peter Essick/Aurora/Getty Images

Maintenance

After everything is planned, prepared and planted, keeping up the landscape is the final step. Fortunately, Xeriscaping makes this easier -- it takes less water to keep plants alive, and any foliage is usually slow-growing. Typical plant grooming is recommended. Clear any dead branches or leaves to promote growth, and make sure the roots are strong.

For lots more information on gardening, plants and water, see the next page.

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Sources

  • Interviews with Mark Nelson and Darrel McCook of the Piedmont Park Conservancy, March 31, 2008
  • O'Brien, Bart. "Xeriscaping: sources of new native ornamental plants." Progress in new crops. Arlington, Va.: ASHA Press, 1996. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1996/V3-536.html
  • Wade, Gary et al. "Xeriscape: a guide to developing a water-wise landscape." Colleges of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Family and Consumer Sciences: University of Georgia. March 2008. http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/B1073.htm
  • "Water supply and use in the United States." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Jan. 25, 2008. http://www.epa.gov/watersense/pubs/supply.htm
  • "What is Xeriscape?" Colorado WaterWise Council. 2005. http://www.xeriscape.org/whatis.html
  • "Xeriscape principles." Denver Water. http://www.denverwater.org/cons_xeriscape/xeriscape/xeriscapeprinciples.html
  • "Xeriscaping: a water-conserving alternative for attractive exterior space planning." ToolBase Services. 2008. http://www.toolbase.org/TechInventory/TechDetails.aspx?ContentDetailI D=929