What Is Xeriscaping?
Kevin Payne5-Minute Read
October 19, 2021
The pursuit of the perfect lawn has long troubled Americans. We mow them, we seed them, we care for them – really, it can get all-consuming. And that’s just the grass; let’s not forget about the overall landscape design, including the flowers, the ornamental trees, and those little stone frog fountains spitting streams of water. It’s become more than a hobby. This “perfect” landscape has turned into an obsession, costing us over $47 billion per year to maintain.
A shocking portion of these costs can be attributed to water usage. As it turns out, the picturesque yard guzzles water at an astonishing rate. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, of the 320 gallons used by the average American household each day, “30 – 60% of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns.” What’s more, a large portion of this water is squandered from wind, evaporation and runoff that is largely caused by wasteful irrigation methods.
We’ve got a problem. Maintaining our current path is a dangerous game, especially considering that certain parts of the U.S. are experiencing historic water shortages. But asking you to pave over the begonias isn’t the right course of action, either. Instead, there are some ways to minimize water usage by using certain plants, irrigation systems and landscaping tactics. This method, called xeriscaping or drought-resistant landscaping, can protect your pocketbook while simultaneously looking after the world’s most valuable resource. In other words, you should check this out.
The term “xeriscaping” was first coined in Denver, Colorado in the 1980s and referred to landscaping that used water conservation techniques. “Xeros” is a Greek word that means “requiring little water.” Since its creation, this method has saved gallons upon gallons of water (and money) for gardeners and lawn enthusiasts around the country.
Morgan Vondrak, founder of Argia Designs in California, creates sustainable outdoor environments that challenge conventional landscape designs. Growing up on the West Coast, Vondrak has witnessed the worst drought in California’s history. While xeriscaping won’t end the drought, she believes it’s an excellent way to put a dent in the amount of water that’s being wasted. “Landscape irrigation accounts for up to 70% of residential water use in much of the Southwest,” says Vondrak, “and much of that is due to irrigation in lawns and other tropical high water-use plantings.”
Elements To Consider When Xeriscaping
Several elements make up a successful xeriscaping plan. Here are some factors to consider If you’re planning to incorporate xeriscaping into your landscape plans this year.
One of the main principles of xeriscaping is using plants that require a minimal amount of supplemental water. As Vondrak explains, “Often this means using plant materials that are native to the area or that are native to areas that have a similar climate … Plants that, once established, will thrive with little additional irrigation beyond natural rainfall and that additionally require little to no soil amendment and fertilizers to thrive.” These native plants are often more resistant to the elements.
Along with your choice of plants, you should also be making a plan that is customized for your yard. Simply noting the shady and sunny turf areas in your yard is a good place to begin. You should also be identifying drainage patterns and slopes, finding places where water will naturally collect.
Your Aesthetic Options
When thinking about xeriscaping, it’s easy to imagine a yard littered in pebbles and perhaps the occasional cactus – in other words, a yard with very little curb appeal. Vondrak strongly disagrees, calling this the “saddest misconception about xeriscaping.” Most regions have a wide variety of drought-tolerant plants, allowing for a multitude of both practical and aesthetically pleasing possibilities. “The truth is the options once a lawn is removed are almost endless,” says Vondrak. “A little creativity and a shovel can take you from boring lawn to flowering habitat alive with birds and butterflies and outdoor dinner parties in no time.”
Half the struggle with any new project is knowing exactly where to start. Here’s several ideas for how you can start cultivating your xeriscape.
Some plants are better suited for xeriscaping. Succulents and cacti are types you may be more familiar with, but they aren’t the only plants that thrive with little water. Other examples include:
- Plants that thrive within your specific climate
Setting up an efficient water irrigation system is just as important as what you plant. Using a drip irrigation system lets you control how much water is used and where its focused, so it goes directly to the base of your plants. A soaker hose is another option that achieves a similar result.
Both organic and inorganic mulch can be used in xeriscaping. Organic mulch, like wood chips, straw, saw dust and peat moss, adds nutrients to the soil, but needs to be reapplied every so often as it decomposes.
Inorganic mulches include materials like rocks, gravel, brick and rubber. It’s better for windy areas but tends to retain heat more than organic mulch.
Both types of mulch are designed to minimize water evaporation, leaving more water in the soil.
The use of flagstone paths adds visual flair to your yard to pair with other your other elements. You can use flagstone or a more cost-effective alternative, like stone veneer, pavers and stamped concrete.
What good is having a visually stunning xeriscaped yard if you can’t sit and enjoy it? Adding seating areas can provide a tranquil spots to admire your handiwork or entertain guests.
Additional Lawn Decorations
There are other elements you can add to your yard to create a more inviting atmosphere. Adding decorations like a bird bath, decorative boulders, a trellis, arbor, or pergola, and even lighting can do wonders for your xeriscape.
Cost Of Xeriscaping
Like with any garden or lawn project, planning is everything. It’s important to note that the cost of xeriscaping is likely going to be expensive at first. After all, by taking on this project, it’s out with the old yard and in with the new. And new can be expensive.
Vondrak, however, believes that these early expenses are going to be a little deceptive. “Initial costs for replacing a turf area with xeriscaping can seem high on first inspection, but the cost/savings add up quickly after the plants become established,” she says. By this, she’s referring to the future savings accrued through lower water bills, fewer herbicides/pesticides, fewer fertilizers, and less gasoline for the mower. The long-term maintenance for a xeriscape is minimal, meaning the heavy lifting for this project will largely take place in the beginning stages. The early costs are primarily going to come from purchasing the native (drought-tolerant) plant materials, which, as Vondrak describes, “are considered specialty plants and so generally retail higher than the average landscaping shrub, sometimes selling for twice as much.”
The Bottom Line
Vondrak recommends that DIY xeriscapers gather a full quiver of information before starting a project like this. “Local nurseries and Master Gardener groups are great resources for learning more about plants and most local water agencies have developed water-wise plant lists that can help as well,” she says. If those types of resources aren’t readily available, Pinterest searches also provide great nuggets of information for the budding xeriscaper.
Whether your home is in the middle of a drought-stricken area or not, xeriscaping allows you to properly manage the resources that are available within your environment. Using these introductory steps, as well as other water-efficient landscaping tips, you can dive into the environmentally friendly art form that is xeriscaping.
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