Xeriscape--Focus on Water Conservation


The word "Xeriscape," was coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981 to help make water conserving landscaping an easily recognized concept. The word is a combination of "landscape" and the Greek word "xeros," which means "dry." (1)

Xeriscaping basically boils down to landscaping to minimize the amount of irrigation water that is needed to sustain plants in the landscape.

There are seven water conserving principles that are used to achieve a yard dedicated to Xeriscaping.
They Are:

  1. Planning and Design
  2. Efficient Irrigation
  3. Use of Mulch
  4. Soil Preparation
  5. Appropriate Use of Turf
  6. Select and Group Plants Appropriately
  7. Appropriate Maintenance

Planning and Design

A good yard begins or evolves with good planning. One of the ideas behind a xeriscaped yard is designing in zones, or grouping plants by water needs. The first zone of plants is known as the “oasis” It is usually close to the house. It is a high use area that may have non-native turf grass, and other plants that may require more water. It may require more maintenance as well. Due to the higher water requirements and maintenance required its size is kept to a minimum.
A transition zone will use plants that require less water and maintenance.
The final zone would be one that requires little to no additional water. This area will be more of a natural area using native plant material or other plants with similar water and environmental needs. A very nice low water use zone is achievable in the Texas panhandle where we get ample rain to sustain some very nice plants and native lawn grasses.

Efficient irrigation

It is important to have different watering systems for the different zones. Bubblers and individual drip emitters for individual plants in the same zone may be beneficial. Plants used in a xeriscaped yard should be able to withstand periods of drought without dying. Many of the plants recommended for a xeriscaped yard can do with less water than we give them. Get out and observe the plants before watering. Wilting in the middle of a hot, windy day is normal, especially in spring when lush, new growth is occurring. They should recover nicely by late afternoon. Feel the soil in a bed before watering. If it is cool and a little damp, most plants will not need watering. There should be sufficient moisture deeper in the soil. It does not hurt to stress the plants a little to encourage them to develop deeper roots. You should water deeply for the same reason.
Use the manual start on your irrigation system as much as possible. There are many variables in our weather and many times watering can be postponed to wait for rain.

Use of Mulch

Mulching is important to prevent water loss from evaporation. It keeps the sun and wind from baking the moisture from the soil. It keeps the root zone cooler and allows beneficial organisms to thrive that will aerate the soil and decompose waste, feeding the roots. It will also prevent weeds from germinating when applied two to four inches deep.
I prefer an organic mulch, such as shredded bark or composted cotton hulls, instead of an inorganic mulch, such as rocks. All mulches will need to be replenished. Organic mulches can be worked into the soil and then add fresh mulch. Working the mulch into the soil will aid in improving soil drainage and porosity. Dust and soil, along with weed seeds will blow into rocks. After time the rocks will need to be scraped out and cleaned or replaced or the use of herbicides will be needed to keep weeds down. Rocks are heavy and hard to move or clean.

Soil preparation

Getting a bed ready for plants is an important step in getting good growth in plants. Most Texas Panhandle soil tends to have lot of clay. When starting a new bed I will till the soil as deeply as I can- at least 6”-then put two to four inches of course compost on top and till that in deeply. Adding the compost helps the soil drain and helps add air spaces for the roots. If you happen to have sandy soil, it will also help with the water holding capacity of that soil. I may put another inch or so of compost as a top dressing and then do my planting. That keeps me from having to spread as much compost around the new plants. After planting I will add an inch or two of mulch.

Appropriate use of turf

This is one of the most water saving features we can use in the panhandle. Minimizing the amount of cool season grasses in a yard is important, particularly in outlying areas with the larger yards. Fescue grass will use approximately twice the amount of water of buffalo grass. Buffalo grass can go dormant in the summer and survive on no additional water. It greens up quickly after water is applied. Cool season grasses planted on more area than you will walk or play is unnecessary and wasteful. Using native grasses in a yard will also reduce the amount of time needed for mowing and other upkeep. Allow other native plants to exist in the native lawn. This diversity will encourage birds seeking seed and insects to visit.
Grasses should be allowed to grow a little taller in summer to allow them to shade the soil. This will keep the root zone cooler and reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation.

Select and Group Plants Appropriately

This is my favorite topic of Xeriscaping. There is a huge selection of plants available for us to use. There is no limit to design variations. There are new plant varieties being discovered or tried for appropriateness for Xeriscape. Many of our old favorites work great in a well-designed and maintained Xeriscape bed. Watering only as much as needed and using mulch will be sufficient to let these plants perform well and conserve water. Sunset’s Western Garden Book provides great detailed information on plants and their appropriateness for different situations. Although the panhandle is not included in their growing regions, their zone 10 growing region is considered correct for us.
I try to figure out which plants will be good for us to grow here before I raise them to sell. However, I want to try new plants, or different varieties of a species to see how they may do in our gardens. I should always have plants for you to experiment with as well as tried and true varieties. Your feedback on how a plant performs for you is appreciated.

Appropriate Maintenance

A properly designed xeriscaped bed should require less maintenance than others over time. As plants mature they will begin to crowd out weeds. Until then the use of mulch will help keep weeds down and when they do occur, they will be easier to pull out than with a bed that has hard baked soil. There will still be the chores of cutting dead growth off in spring, pruning, weeding, watering, etc.
No garden is maintenance free, but a well designed bed will take into account the amount of time an owner wishes to put into gardening. Evergreen shrubs or trees, such as pines and junipers are among the easiest to maintain. Larger perennial plants may require only annual spring pruning. Smaller perennials with more open spaces between them may require more time to weed and may require deadheading to remove old blooms.

Information obtained from the following sources has been used in my own gardening for years and for this writing:

Denver Water Department

The city of Albuquerque

The best information is obtained by actually getting your garden started. Experiment, using less water in your beds. Wean your plants off of water. Give them time to develop deep roots before cutting the water back too severely.
A plant or practice that works well for me may not work well for you and vice versa. A garden will change over the course of time.