The Water-Wise Garden: Art of Xeriscaping

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Cheery, low-water yarrow thrives in its natural habitat.
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The entrance to painter James Havard’s Santa Fe gardens showcases the artfulness of nature. Aspen, wisteria and untamed
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Overlooking the mountains and city of Santa Fe, the Havard garden is an untamed wonderland of xeriscape plants, including day lilies, silver lace, Russian sage and delphinium.
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Thirsty aspen near the Mission-like garden building soak up runoff and help prevent erosion.
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Lavender cools the warm adobe walls and clay walkway to this garden entrance.
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Shasta daisies grace a wrought-iron garden gate.
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Havard creates his picturesque landscapes by complementing tumbling, native plants such as yarrow and agastache with adobe structures.
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A pot of petunias offers a blaze of color.

When I moved from the dry foothills of Colorado to humid North Carolina, I expected water to be abundant and flowers to bloom all year. I planted a container garden on my back porch in the spring, and by August–after a string of weeks reaching 110 to 120 degrees with no rain–my shallow-rooted plants were dead. The Southeast was in a severe drought, and I realized it was time to brush up on all the water wisdom–especially xeriscaping–I learned while living in the arid West.

“Xeriscape” derives from the Greek xeros, which means “dry,” and describes a method of low-water landscaping. Coined in Denver during an early 1980s drought, the term is often misinterpreted as “zeroscape.” Popular in the Southwest, xeriscaping has now spread across the country: All 50 states have active programs. In some areas with extreme water shortages, xeriscaping is mandatory; other regions are adapting the principles to mitigate potential drought problems before they arise.

Xeriscaping is gaining popularity as more communities become interested in conservation. To reduce your own garden’s water needs, just remember these seven principles:

1. Plan. Walk around at different times of day and get to know the different conditions in your yard: natural contours, exposure, drainage patterns, soil types. You’ll typically find three zones:

• Protected areas: Areas that are protected from the sun and wind and require little irrigation once established. Often found along north- and east-facing lands, these areas are best for plants that require the most water.

• Partially exposed areas: Areas that have limited protection from the elements and require slightly more water. Best for plants with moderate water needs.

• Exposed areas: Often located along dry, west- and south-facing land, these areas require significant irrigation. Strictly xeric, or low-water plants, are best here. Plant the species that require the least water in the least protected areas. Once you know your yard’s zones, you can plant in appropriate areas, grouping plants with similar needs together and allocating water more efficiently.

2. Prepare your soil. Break up tough, compacted soil and add organic materials such as compost and pine bark, as well as any nutrients your soil may be missing. Aerate the top 6 to 8 inches of soil, then add organic topsoil. Your drought-tolerant plants must be able to develop deep roots so they’re less vulnerable and don’t depend on superficial moisture.

3. Avoid planting grass. If you must, determine the best location and the most appropriate type. Because grass needs a lot of water to get established, lawns should be small and limited to flat areas. Investigate low-water lawn covers such as native and ornamental grasses that are appropriate for your environment.

4. Choose and group plants carefully. Your local nursery, cooperative extension or water-conservation agency can assist you. Older, larger plants can fill out your garden sooner, but usually they haven’t been cultivated to develop a deep root system and require more water. Remember, mixing high-water with low-water plants defeats the benefit of groupings that require less water overall. Also, consider planting trees and shrubs to provide extra shade to your most exposed areas.

5. Apply mulch. Blanketing dirt with 2 to 4 inches of natural mulch maintains moisture, limits weeds and prevents the soil below from overheating. Fully decayed compost makes excellent mulch and won’t compete for nitrogen and other nutrients. Bark, wood chips, finely ground gravel, peat moss and leaves make good mulch materials. Avoid any mulch that may contain seeds to prevent unwanted plants.

6. Irrigate wisely. Of all household water use, 40 to 50 percent typically goes into our yards, especially during the summer months. Drip irrigation is best for encouraging deep root systems and minimizing water use because it provides a slow infusion of water over a longer period of time, so less water is lost to evaporation and topsoil isn’t washed away. Drip irrigation uses 20 to 50 percent less water than conventional sprinkler systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and you can find a kit at nearly any garden store. You also can buy or build a system that recycles rainwater or reuses graywater from your bathroom sink or tub.

7. Maintain your garden. Other ways to keep your landscaping healthy with less water include adding new mulch as needed, weeding regularly and keeping your irrigation system running properly. If you have a grass lawn, don’t mow it shorter than 2 inches. Tall grass provides shade for its own roots and retains more moisture.

The art of the garden

Contemporary painter James Havard used xeriscape techniques to create a garden abundant in color, texture and shape in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His artwork is known for its lyrical qualities; robust, sensuous colors; and elements of collage and abstract expressionism. Havard brings these qualities to his garden while maintaining the native environment’s integrity; the space exhibits bold contrasts of sharp lines against soft edges, a kind of orderly chaos that invites and enthralls.

Havard intentionally uses the New Mexico sky as an enchanted backdrop. Natural formations and found objects create an interactive, dynamic garden collage along with raised beds, rough-strewn rock walls, ambling paths and intimate nooks that provide places to sit and dream.

Did you know?

There’s a difference between “water-conserving” and “drought-tolerant” plants. Water-conserving plants retain moisture rather than releasing it into the air. Drought-tolerant plants can survive bouts of dry weather.


Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates by Lauren Springer and Rob Proctor (Fulcrum, 2000)

The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty by Lauren Springer (Fulcrum, 1994)

The Wild Lawn Handbook by Stevie Daniels (MacMillan, 1997)

The Xeriscape Flower Gardener by Jim Knopf (Johnson, 1991)

Xeriscape Gardening: Water Conservation for the American Landscape by Connie Lockhart Ellefson, Thomas Stephens and Doug Welsh (MacMillan, 1992)

Xeriscape Handbook by Gayle Weinstein (Fulcrum, 1999)

Xeriscape Plant Guide from the Denver Water, American Water Works Association (Fulcrum, 1999)

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