The seven principles of xeriscaping
There’s been a lot of news and talk about the dry year we’re having and saving water. It seems like I’m hearing different recommendations from everyone and I’m getting confused and a bit frustrated! I hear about “zeroscaping” being a good way to save water but I don’t want a bunch of gravel and cactus in my yard! Besides, the yard is in and I’m at the age where I don’t want to start all over with a new one with all that work and money. Can I use less water and not lose my yard?
Last week I talked about simple things that anyone can do to help conserve water in their existing landscape. This time I’d like to expand a bit on the seven principles of xeriscaping for folks who are planning on putting in a new yard or are thinking of redoing their existing yard.
The first principle of xeriscaping is proper planning and design of the landscape. In addition to standard design considerations like function, circulation, space, form, color, etc. the landscape is designed with an eye to saving water. Reducing turf areas (I’ll talk about that next) is a start, but the designer also needs to take into consideration the relative water usage expected in different areas of the yard.
What I’m talking about is things like shady areas of the yard drying out more slowly than a section exposed to the hot summer sun all day long or that slopes will dry out faster and demand more drought tolerant plants while the more thirsty ones are best in low spots that tend to collect water or adjacent to areas that receive more water like next to the lawn. A designer can even create topography to help harvest water and/or channel it to areas where it’s needed.
I firmly believe in the value of designing out a landscape before starting to buy plants. Designing one takes a good deal of talent, skill and experience and when you add the complexity of considering water usage of each of the plants, it becomes overwhelming to the average homeowner. There are a number of well qualified landscape designers locally who can help with this portion of the process. Personally, I think that it’s the best money you’ll spend on your yard.
The second principle is reduced turf areas. Cutting back on the amount of lawn we have to water has the greatest potential of saving water than any of the other principles. I read a study a few years back that said that the average family of four only needed about 500 square feet of lawn for their use—that’s probably one tenth of the average lawn on a small city lot! Maybe cutting back to 500 square feet is too much for some, but the bottom line is that we really don’t need as much lawn as we think we do.
Next is efficient irrigation. You need to make sure that the system is designed and installed properly so that the right amount of water gets to a particular area according to its needs. The design also needs to ensure that different areas in the yard are watered differently according to their needs.
I mentioned last week the fourth one, which is soil improvement. Our heavy clay soils need all the help they can get! We like to amend the soil by incorporating a good amount of decomposed organic matter to improve drainage and aeration of the soil which facilitates a deep, healthy, drought-tolerant root system for your plants.
I also talked last week about mulching and the benefits of reduced water use, fewer weeds and healthier, happier plants. The sixth principle is perhaps the one I see the most confusion over, which is selecting appropriate plants. Many people think that only drought-tolerant or even only native plants are xeriscape plants. Though those are certainly high on the list, I think that any plant is a viable xeriscape plant provided it’s planted in the right spot.
What makes a plant a xeriscape plant isn’t necessarily the plant itself, but how the plant is used. You could plant a tough, drought-tolerant plant like a native yucca next to the lawn area and that won’t save you any water. That plant belongs out away from there, where it’s hot and dry and where it will flourish. On the other hand, planting a thirsty water hog near the lawn makes all kinds of sense where it can tap into the regular watering the lawn is getting.
I try to get people to think of irrigation water like money: it’s a valuable, even precious resource that’s limited in supply and should be budgeted and used wisely. There will be some areas in the yard (like the front entrance or off the back patio or outside a big picture window) where it might make sense to “spend” more water to increase color and appearance.
And finally, the last principle is proper maintenance. I talked about this last week as well. A xeriscape isn’t maintenance-free, but it is a lower maintenance landscape and just a bit of regular input on your end will keep it saving water and looking great for decades!