When you live in Arizona and spend your summers lugging hoses around, trying to grow a lawn of Kentucky bluegrass (that ends up Cleveland brown anyhow), it’s obvious you need a water-saving landscape. Likewise, if you’re from central Texas and face $2,000 fines for overwatering during a drought, no one needs to convince you that xeriscaping is the way to go. But xeriscaping, a term derived from the Greek word for “dry,” isn’t just for arid climates. It’s a holistic approach to landscaping based on the premise that using resources efficiently and cultivating regionally appropriate plants is both better for the planet and requires less work.
Nearly half the water used by U.S. households ends up on lawns and gardens. And at least half of that water is simply wasted—an extravagance we can no longer afford. Most of our fresh water comes from underground aquifers that took millions of years to form. And many of those reservoirs are now being depleted faster than they’re being replenished. If we continue in this vein, we’ll end up either literally high and dry or with unusable water—as has happened in some parts of Florida, where groundwater is turning salty as seawater replaces drained fresh water.
Then, of course, there’s global warming. As temperatures rise, we’ll need more water than ever at a time when scientists are forecasting more frequent and severe droughts—a trend many parts of the country are already experiencing. If this scenario is too depressing to think about, then focus on the purely practical benefits of reducing your own water usage: It saves time and money.
Although water-efficient landscaping takes less effort to maintain over the long haul, it does require some careful thought at the outset.
Start by taking inventory of your yard. Some spots may naturally collect water. Clearly those are good places for thirsty plants. In the woods, plants with similar water needs grow near each other. If we ignore nature’s lead and put thirsty roses next to a cactus, we end up wasting water and harming the plants.
Make a rough drawing of your property and note its overall water-retaining characteristics. Jot down which spots get lots of sun and wind and which are shady and moist. Steep slopes, especially near buildings or paved surfaces, lose water quickly through runoff. Slopes with sunny southern or western exposures lose water even faster through evaporation. To reduce this effect, try terracing and planting drought-resistant ground cover and a shade tree. As a general rule, drought-tolerant plants are ideal for sunny and windy spots, especially if you’re putting them far from the house. Greenery with moderate water requirements works well in shady places with a northern exposure.
Next, consider how you use your property. Where will you actually spend most of your time outside? Knowing this, it’s easier to decide where to put your most striking plants that may require extra watering and where to place grassy areas for playing and lounging. (Or, conversely, it will become obvious where you should keep your compost pile and collection of fallen branches.)
Choose plants carefully
In recent years, grass has gotten a bum rap—and understandably so, given that most lawns are maintained with toxic pesticides, chemical- and petroleum-based fertilizers, and umpteen gallons of water. But none of that is necessary. You can create an eco-friendly, low-maintenance lawn by keeping it a reasonable size, planting drought-resistant grass mixtures, and mowing it high (which keeps grass roots strong and allows the lawn to self-fertilize).
For most families, 800 square feet of lawn is plenty. Grass is usually most appreciated near decks or patios for high visual impact and accessibility. Choose a fairly level, mostly sunny spot, and avoid thin strips of lawn, which are difficult to maintain and water efficiently. To cut down the size of your lawn, try planting wildflowers or ground covers such as scented creeping thyme.
In general, choose plants with low or regionally appropriate water needs. This doesn’t mean nixing all of your favorites if they’re heavy drinkers. If your water hogs are in an “oasis zone” near the house, you can get the maximum visual effect as well as take advantage of runoff. During a 1/4-inch rain, 150 gallons of water will fall from a 1,000-square-foot roof. You can harvest that water through catchments or by extending existing downspouts to plantings. Water sliding off steep slopes and driveways can also be directed toward plants and trees that can benefit from the extra supply.
Choosing mostly water-wise plants doesn’t require sacrificing aesthetics. Thousands of species are adapted to your area’s rainfall. The key is to select plants native to within a fifty-mile radius of your house. A growing number of nurseries and mail-order suppliers offer a wide variety of native water-frugal plants. Many varieties are also now bred for garden performance rather than flower size. For lists of appropriate plants, consult your nearest native plant society, water district, and university and cooperative extension departments.
A little TLC
Once you’ve put in your plants, be sure to mulch them. The best mulch is a protective layer of natural, nonliving material such as bark, pine needles, or wood chips that covers the soil surface around plants to reduce weeds, conserve moisture, and enrich the soil. When rain falls on bare ground, three-quarters of the water is lost to runoff and evaporation. Mulch can reduce those losses by as much as 90 percent, absorbing water that later soaks into the soil below.
Your soil’s makeup is an important factor in creating a water-saving landscape. Sandy soils drain quickly, making it difficult for most plants to get the nutrients they need. Clay soils repel water, resulting in excessive runoff, which also denies plants nutrition. Loam, a fertile mix of roughly equal parts of sand, clay, and silt (an intermediate-size particle made when sand or clay breaks down), is the ideal soil.
If your soil is in sad shape, you may need to work in organic matter such as leaves, compost, or dried manure. These bind soil particles together and act like a sponge, soaking up water and releasing it as your plants need it. Mix shredded organic material into your soil in the fall. This gives it time to break down before you’re ready to plant.
Then again, you might just want to reconsider your soil’s “flaws.” As landscape architect Tom Stephens points out in Xeriscape Gardening (MacMillan, 1992), there is, in fact, no such thing as the perfect soil. “If you want to grow jewel-like alpine flowers, the ‘ideal soil’ is gravelly and low in nutrients. . . . If you want a cactus garden, your plants will blossom in dry, alkaline soil,” he states. The lesson: Learn to work with what you’ve got. Your heart may leap at azaleas, but if your soil says daylilies, consider daylilies—or face the considerable expense and effort of reworking your soil, often every few years.
A water-wise landscape works with nature, instead of fighting it. By choosing the right plant for the right spot, you’ll cultivate a healthy yard that creates a low-impact legacy for the environment and for you.