Xeriscaping - Guide to Xeriscape Garden Landscaping

An Overview of Lawn Alternatives, Plants, and Design Ideas

Xeriscape LawnXeriscaping is a gardening method that is gaining in popularity.  As we become more conscious of water shortages and recurrent drought conditions, many home owners are rethinking their traditional lawns in favor of natural landscape options that better fit their personal beliefs and life style. Xeriscaping is a great way to reduce your lawns water needs and make your garden stand out from the rest. 


Water Shortages

Weather news is no longer relegated to the back pages of the paper or the last 10 minutes of the local news.  Water shortages, drought conditions, broken levies, and contaminated water ways are often featured on the front page and lead off nightly newscasts.  Due to population growth and ever changing weather conditions we can no longer assume we have an endless supply of water. Water is no longer a commodity we can take for granted.  According to the North American Drought Monitor major heat waves and droughts, measured since 1980, have resulted in costs well over 100 billion dollars in the US alone. 

The strain from urban populations on water reserves is ever increasing.  Watering restrictions and bans are now common place every summer in many communities. Home and business owners who invested in blue ribbon lawns are often tempted to ignore restrictions and water their grass in order to save their investment. As the summers go by, more and more people are looking for a better solution. Xeriscapes use plants that need less water then traditional gardens and lawns.


Advantages of Xeriscaping

  • Conserves water – In the summertime 70% of residential water consumption is used outside the home, and the #1 outside water use if lawn maintenance.
  • Saves money – You can have a beautiful yard and save money on your water bills.  Xeriscapes also end up needing less fertilizers and pesticides and that means more money stays in your pocket.
  • Saves time and energy since xeriscapes need less maintenance. Xeriscapes have smaller grassy areas and use grass varieties that grow slower and shorter.  That translates into less mowing!
  • Smaller lawn areas can be maintained with push or electric mowers. Gas mowers cause air pollution.  They use older technology and burn gas inefficiently.  Push, solar, and electric mowers are better choices.
  • Improves property value – a good xeriscape adds elegance and beauty to your land. Since different colors, shapes, and textures are used exciting designs can enhance and increase the value of your property. 

Once a xeriscape is established it almost takes care of itself.  The initial planning, soil preparation and planting take some time and effort, but the end results are well worth it.  Try to use indigenous drought resistant plants.  If you choose some varieties that need extra irrigation, try to plant them together to minimize water consumption.  Take your time and completely prepare the soil by removing all previous vegetation and adding compost to loosen and enrich the soil.  The time you put into your xeriscape will pay off for years to come.


Getting started with Xeriscaping

Here is a short primer to get you started.  

  • Plot your plot   Choose plants that best suit your property.  Chart out your yard and mark areas that receive full sun and full shade.  Look for variations in soil quality, water run off and foot traffic.  Make sure to mark north, south, east, and west on your chart because sunlight varies depending on the direction and placement of buildings.  Mark how certain areas will be used such as seating, paths, pet runs, and children’s play spaces.
  • Let your imagination go wild   Once you begin to explore the different landscaping possibilities, you will be excited by what you can do.  Xeriscaping allows you to choose from a wide range of plant life so you can use various colors, shapes and sizes.  You can create outdoor rooms, multi-leveled landscapes, and playful yards that are very low maintenance.
  • Good soil makes all the difference   Healthy and robust plants and turf survive drought periods better and have a greater resistance to pests and diseases.  The secret of healthy plants often begins with good soil. Compost is organic fertilizer that naturally breaks down in the soil and promotes water drainage, water retention, and healthy plant growth.  (Note: some desert plants like cacti prefer drier, leaner soil.)
  • When choosing plants, go native   Ground covers, plants, vines, bushes, trees and flowers that are indigenous to your area have the natural means to thrive.  Native plants often have natural resistance to local pests and can adapt to soil and climate conditions.
  • Drought resistant plants can take the heat   Look for drought tolerant or drought resistant plants.  These plants can survive during hot dry periods with less water.  Some varieties will retain their colors and foliage during very dry periods whereas others will go into a dormant state to survive.  Characteristics of drought tolerant plants include muted colors (silver, gray or bluish green foliage), thin or narrow leaves like oriental grass or small waxy leaves, furry or prickly surfaces, thick stems, and extensive root systems. (You’ll find more information and suggestions in our article on drought tolerant plants and trees.
  • Smaller grass areas = less mowing and water   If you like grass consider reducing the size of your open area or using drought resistant turf varieties.  If you have a smaller section of grass you will save water. You can also consider changing to a manual or electric mower. You’ll reduce air pollution and save gas.
  • Consider grass alternatives for open spaces   There are alternatives to grass that can handle foot traffic and never needs mowing.  Some ground covers can be walked upon.  Colorful natural stones and gravel areas may be a good choice for heavy trafficked areas or sections where plants and grass have difficulty taking root. Mulch softens the fall under and around playground equipment.
  • When you water, water deep   Sprinkler systems and sprays waste water through evaporation and pooling.  Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are the best delivery systems because they deliver water to the base of the plants. These slower irrigation methods allow water to be absorbed which reduces erosion and run off. When you water deep and slow you don’t have to water as often. See our lawn watering article for more information.
  • Mulch completely to keep soil moist   Spread mulch made from natural materials like pine needles, wood chips, bark, and leaves over all areas of ground.  The mulch will slowly decompose and add nutrients to the soil while acting as a natural blanket to hold moisture in and reduce evaporation.
  • Keep up your landscape and it will take care of you   Once a xeriscape is established it requires less maintenance then traditional lawns.  Keep your mulch thick and pull the occasional weed so they don’t spread and become invasive.  Walk your property during the warm weather for areas where insects and animals nest and live.  Dump any standing water and avoid outdoor piles, stacks and clutter.

Once you begin looking at xeriscape gardens and landscapes you might be surprised at the variety of looks and styles you have to choose from. Our yards can be used in a variety of ways so it’s a good idea to take a look at how you and your family may want to use your outdoor space.  Life style choices and climate conditions can play an important role in the design of your landscape.  Consider your outdoor space as an extension of your home.  Make a list of the different ways you use your yard and try to make your landscape design best meet your needs.

Once you have an idea of the various ways you’d like to use your landscape, get started creating it.

  • Visit your county extension or local nursery with a list of questions.  Check with local experts about regional varieties of drought resistant plants.  Also ask about issues of local interest like common pests in the region.
  • Check for local ordinances or with your homeowner’s association about rules and restrictions on certain turfs or plants. For example, Florida and Arizona have laws prohibiting homeowners associations from restricting xeriscapes.
  • Introduce new plants and ground covers in the spring or fall when temperatures are mild and rain fall levels are higher. 
  • Take your time and prepare your soil for planting by killing and removing weeds, turning the soil and adding compost.
  • Be patient with new plants.  Ground covers, on average, take 18 months to 2 years to fully establish.  Some shrubs and vines may take longer.  (Growing Ground Cover Plants offers suggestions and advice you might find helpful.)
  • Keep an eye on plants that are exotic and not native to your region.  Different climates and conditions can change plants behavior.  Some varieties may become invasive and difficult to control.
  • Plant vines and ground covers through nets or mesh on steep hills to prevent erosion.
  • Use shrubs, trees, and hedges as natural windbreaks to help prevent soil erosion.
  • Water in the morning and use drip style irrigation to reduce evaporation. (Watering at night can promote certain plant diseases).

Once your xeriscape is established, invite friends and colleagues over to show it off.  Many home gardeners like to share their experiences and their plants.  Occasionally thinning ground covers and other plants will encourage new growth and you can share and trade your greenery with other xeriscape enthusiasms.  This is a great way to try out new varieties and encourage others to practice natural water saving techniques in their yards.  Plan plant swaps for the spring or fall when transplanting will be most successful.


Taking Xeriscaping out of your backyard

Both Green supporters and fiscally conservative voices are now encouraging local municipalities and state agencies to replace traditional blue grass lawns that encircle government buildings, parks and community sites with drought tolerant alternatives. Since xeriscaping  techniques have a big economical  payback, producing real savings in water, chemical, and maintenance costs, many politicians are willing to consider investing in a new natural look.  When local governments showcase xeriscape projects throughout their cities, residents become accustomed to the new look and are often more willing to try Xeriscaping at home. 

The city of Fountain Colorado is a great example of what a small city can do to inspire others to embrace water conservation.  The gardens around their library, museum, and Main Street Fountain are Xeriscaped gardens.  They devote an entire page on their municipal website to water conservation and xeriscaping filled with easy to follow information. 

Water shortages are now happening all over the world.  Each of us can make an impact by changing the ways we consume water for our lawns and gardens; at home, at our businesses and our towns.  Let us know if your local government uses xeriscaping techniques around community spaces.  We’d also like to hear about the successes and discoveries you’ve encountered in your own back yard.

There are many other ways you can create a natural, eco-friendly lawn. For additional lawn alternative ideas visit our lawn care section



North American Drought Monitor Overview. Retrieved May 16, 2010. NOAA Satellite and Information Service: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/monitoring/drought/nadm/

Water Conservation & Xeriscaping. Retrieved May 16, 2010. City of Fountain Pure Colorado: http://www.fountaincolorado.org/department/division.asp?fDD=17-156

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