Xeriscaping refers to landscaping with the goal of conserving water. The word itself is a combination of the words “landscaping” and xeros-, the Greek root for “dry.” You can think of it as “dryscaping,” or landscaping for regions that receive very little natural rainfall.
The word xeriscape was coined by researchers from Colorado State University, the Denver Water Department, and the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. After a particularly severe drought in 1977, those three groups collaborated to find the best practices for conserving water in home landscapes.
If you’re considering xeriscaping your landscape, below are some tips to help you get started:
- Make a plan. This may seem obvious, but without at least a basic plan, you may find yourself putting far more time and effort into xeriscaping your lawn than you really ought to. Make a rough map of your yard and mark it off into well-defined areas where you intend to put different plants. Try to group together plants with similar water needs so that you don’t end up having to micromanage watering for each and every plant. Consider converting your yard in phases. That will allow you to test out different ideas and techniques incrementally, rather than committing yourself to a full-scale renovation all at once.
- Check your slope. Steep slopes create run-off and contribute to evaporation, wasting water that could be feeding your plants. Leveling an uneven yard is one solution. Another is adding drought-resistant ground cover, like sedum, or planting trees to increase shade.
- Remove unwanted sod. Pulling up the sod you want to replace can be backbreaking, time-consuming work. An easier method is to cut a trench between sod you want to keep and sod you want removed, then treat the unwanted sod with an glyphosate herbicide. Make sure you don’t do this on a day when the forecast calls for rain, as runoff could carry the herbicide to other parts of the yard or into other water sources. If you want a non-chemical alternative, try covering your lawn with several layers of tarp for several weeks to cut off the supply of rain and sunlight from the grass.
- Prepare your soil. Soil composed of too much sand or clay will lose water and nutrients too quickly to support much greenery. Ideally, your soil should contain a good balance of sand, silt and clay. Applying organic matter or a soil amendment can help restore the balance of your soil.
- Plant for conservation.The most basic xeriscaping practice is to substitute plants that are habituated to dry environments for plants that require a great deal of water. In particular, traditional grass lawns make for water-intensive landscaping. Replacing thirsty grasses with more drought-resistant plants can reduce water usage and lower your bills. To get you started, here are some plants that are good for xeriscaping:
- Full sun ground cover: Sedum, creeping juniper, creeping phlox, veronica, lavender, several thyme varieties, several yarrow varieties;
- Partial shade ground cover: Periwinkle, wintercreeper;
- Ornamental grasses: Maiden grass, switch grass, sea oats, bluestern, buffalo grass, sedges, rushes, bamboo;
- Flowers and garden plants: hyssop, mints, columbine, hollyhock, coreopsis, baby’s breath, iris hybrids;
- Trees and shrubs: boxelder, ponderosa pine, apricot, big sage, barberry, juniper, sumac;
Take a look at our plant guide for more details on varieties and suitability and look for plants with low water requirements. For suggestions tailored to your region, contact your local extension office.
- Apply mulch. In addition to discouraging weeds, properly applied mulch reduces the water needs of some plants by keeping their root systems cool. As they decompose, organic mulches, such as straw, compost or wood chips, can also help improve the quality of your soil. If you prefer an inorganic mulch, choose a fabric or fiber mat, as those allow water to better reach the roots of plants.
- Finally, adjust your irrigation practices. If you have a sprinkler system installed, check to make sure that it’s provided adequate coverage, with as little overlap as possible. Make sure you’re not wasting water on hardscaping features like paths or driveway. Occasional deep watering will do more to support your plants than frequent but shallow watering.