Gardening Tips

Xeriscaping Uses Less Water To Give Your Garden More Color and Wildlife

Francesca Krempa

Photo: Stocksy / VISUALSPECTRUM
Coined by Denver Water in 1981, the term "xeriscaping" is a portmanteau of the Greek word "xeros," which means dry, and "landscaping." Given Colorado's generally arid climate and reduced rainfall, city officials in Denver encourage residents to forego growing green, manicured lawns and gardens that require excessive irrigation with potable water. Instead, xeriscaping promotes adorning lawns with native flowers, grasses, and succulents that naturally withstand dry periods to limit water waste.

Not everyone lives in a place that gets a lot of rain, and so they rely on irrigation to help their gardens grow. Drought season wreaks havoc on gardens and water bills, especially in parts of the American Southwest. Xeriscaping is the desert-friendly landscaping approach that'll turn your garden into a gorgeous, native oasis while cutting costs on utilities.

Today, xeriscaping is popular throughout the world thanks to its eco-friendly (and budget-friendly) methodology. While the actual moniker "xeriscaping" is a bit outdated, the core ethos surrounding sustainability and water conservation remains the same, says Tina Wilson, director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona

"We say to create a 'sustainable desert landscape.' No matter where you live in the world, you could just say a 'sustainable landscape,'" Wilson says. "The end goal is always to match the right plant with the right location."

In many parts of the world, lawns and gardens require so much water because they're not native species. While turf grass or palm trees look great—especially in sandy desert climates—they're not going to survive unless they're watered frequently, which is an environmental nightmare.

"When you choose the correct plant based on your site conditions, you're going to be so much better off," Wilson says. "Your plants are going to do better, they'll probably require less water, and they're going to be more pest resistant. In the long run, you're creating a much healthier landscape for better success."

Water conservation is great—what are the other benefits of xeriscaping?

Oh, absolutely. When xeriscaping is executed correctly, the landscape can blossom into a sustainable, self-sufficient oasis, says Sarah Hurteau, climate change director for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. Hurteau, who was originally a wildlife biologist, has adopted xeriscaping methods at her own home in Albuquerque. In addition to an aesthetically pleasing yard that's requires lower water usage, her garden is home to a variety of native critters, like lizards, birds, and pollinator insects due to its attractive habitat.

"People think that it's just rocks and succulents," says Hurteau. "But I've counted over 50 species of animals in my yard... they're all living here, in the middle of the city of Albuquerque, because I'm using these techniques."

what is xeriscaping
Photo: Stocksy / Milles Studio

How do I xeriscape my garden?

You don't have to live in the desert to enjoy the advantages of landscaping nor do you have to have a background in landscape design. It's actually quite easy to incorporate xeriscaping, or sustainable landscaping, into your outdoor design.

1. Stick to a native plant palette

Hurteau and Wilson agree that sticking to native plants, trees, and grasses that grow naturally in a certain region is your best bet. "We promote using a native plant palette, so no matter where you are, your plants are going to thrive," Wilson says.

For example, if you live in sunny, dry New Mexico, maybe don't plant a palm tree from humid, rainy Florida. On the contrary, if you live in the mountains in New England, cacti and succulents aren't exactly going to bloom naturally outdoors. "If you stick to native plants, you know they're going to thrive," she said.

2. Choose other eco-friendly landscaping elements

Your plant picks aren't the only thing choices that matter. Mulch, soil, maintenance—all of these components contribute to your xeriscaping success. "Sometimes people misinterpret it as 'zeroscape,' because they think that means no maintenance, which is not true—there aren’t any landscapes I know of that are no maintenance," says Denise Delaney, an environmental coordinator for the City of Austin's Watershed Protection Department.

Before you grow, consider these elements:

  • Soil: "If you have clay or rocky soil, adding amendments like compost helps create a better environment for plant roots," says Delaney. Rather than trashing all that food waste? Try composting, instead.
  • Mulch: Delaney suggests covering your soil with an organic mulch, like wood chips or another natural option, to help your soil conserve water.
  • Plant placement: Plants of a feather should flock together. If you have a handful of thirstier plants, plant them together in one area. Then, keep your dry-loving succulents and cacti in another. This will reduce water waste.
  • Maintenance: Like Delaney said, even the toughest home landscapes require general upkeep. This will depend on where you live and what you've planted, but generally, you should keep an eye on the basics, like mulch replenishment, soil improvements, irrigation systems, and pest control.

3. Resist the urge to overwater

If you do live in the American Southwest, you're going to want to pay attention to your irrigation routine. "A lot of people tend to overwater desert plants, but you have to remember these plants have adapted to live in these conditions," Wilson says. That being said, resist the urge to turn on the sprinkler.

4. Take a proactive approach to drought season

That being said, drought season in the desert is very real. While native plant species can naturally go without water for a bit of time, you should take a proactive approach to conserving water. This way, when your plants do get parched, you won't have to rack up your water bill.

One way to do this is through active and passive rainwater harvesting. "Active rainwater harvesting is when you capture rainwater off your roof and store it in barrels to water your garden," says Hurteau. "For the passive piece, you can create what we call a bioswale, which is a little ditch that carries the water to where you want it." When it does rain, your flowers and plants will be easily hydrated.

5. Turn to local resources

Skip the trip to the big-box retailer and check out your native plant nurseries instead. Horticulturists are great resources for helping you choose the best plant palette.

Even better, consider taking a trip to your local botanic garden. Many gardens, like Wilson's, offer workshops and trainings on xeriscaping. Even if you don't live in the area, many botanical gardens are offering virtual classes on the landscaping methods. Similarly, local community websites and government resources can help you better understand the process, too.

"There are lots of places working on these sorts of things, and lots of lists out there that can help people make better decisions about water use," says Hurteau. "Making good decisions about what plants to plant not only helps us in the climate we're living now, but for our future climate."

The best plants to put in every room of your house:

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