Knowledgeable landscape company owners, whether they acknowledge it or not, practice xeriscape principles when they design, install and maintain landscapes on their customers’ commercial and residential properties. These owners don’t describe these procedures as xeriscaping, but as “best practices.” In many instances, xeriscape principles and landscape best practices are one and the same thing.

Skeptical?

Let’s take a brief look at xeriscaping (what it is and what it isn’t) to dispel misconceptions that have dogged the concept since the Denver Water Co. formulated it more than 30 years ago. The water authority rolled out the concept with an “X-rated” party, an attention-grabbing promotion, in 1982 when it held an open house for its Xeriscape Garden. Why Denver? The city’s water agency correctly anticipated the rapid growth of its region but also realized that its water resources are finite. The water agency chose the name xeriscaping (xeros is the Greek word for dry) because Colorado’s Front Range, of which Denver is a part, is semi-arid and receives, on average, just 14 inches of precipitation annually. Denver Water Co. felt the region could not sustain its precious water resources if property owners there insisted upon installing and maintaining landscapes better suited for wetter regions of the country.

Since that launch, cities across the U.S., including some in the Midwest and Northeast, developed xeriscape councils and began educating property owners on the movement’s water-conserving principles. This brings up the first myth attached to the program—that xeriscaping is strictly for the arid regions of the U.S. The other huge misconception associated with the term is that it is mostly about landscaping with cacti and rocks.

Sean James, owner of Fern Ridge Landscaping, Toronto, Canada, offers eco-consulting services and chairs Landscape Ontario’s Environmental Stewardship Committee. He also promotes and practices xeriscaping, which he insists is appropriate for all regions of the U.S. and Canada.

“If we look to nature, it is going to give us a lot of clues,” says James, in reference to a landscape plant selection that reduces the need for inputs such as irrigation and chemicals. The other major benefit of a xeriscape is, once it becomes established, it requires less maintenance than a traditional landscape. That’s because a xeriscape is populated with hearty and attractive plants that are well-adapted to their specific regions and to the conditions on clients’ properties. These conditions include, but are not limited to, shade, sun, wind, salt and soil types, he adds.

Just about all landscape professionals would agree that these are accepted best practices for landscape installations. Where there might be some difference of opinion among them is concerning xeriscaping’s reliance mainly on native and regionally adapted perennials rather than annual herbaceous species.

Native and regionally adapted perennials, if they are not overwatered or over-fertilized, are more vigorous and tend to grow “stockier and more solidly” than seasonal annuals, says James. For that reason, many of these plants maintain their form, even in winter, and some property owners appreciate their beauty even when they are dormant. Property owners also like the fact that a xeriscape garden featuring hearty perennials provides shelter and food for beneficial insects such as the praying mantis and ladybird beetles during the growing season, as well as shelter and food for birds in the winter. This helps keep pests in check, reducing the need for chemical controls.

“A xeriscape garden provides great fall and winter interest,” James says. “It is not a step down. It is a step forward.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about xeriscapes relates to water use or, more precisely, no-water-use landscaping.

“Xeriscaping doesn’t mean you can’t use water. Xeriscaping means you are targeting and limiting your water use,” says James. Most xeriscapes will need water for emergencies and for establishment. “The irony of drought-tolerant plants is that they need more water to become established. They need the water to get their roots deep into the soil. They will need a boost to get them started,” he explains. But once drought-tolerant plants become established, they generally resist common diseases.

What if a customer asks for flowering plants that aren’t typically considered xeric or xerophytic? “If your client desperately wants a rhododendron, you can target water the rhododendron rather than the whole garden,” says James, suggesting the use of drip irrigation or bubblers with timers for plants that require regular watering.

Beyond that, if you look at some of the most beautiful drought-tolerant gardens in the world—the stunning Alhambra Gardens in dry Granada, Spain, for instance—you can’t help but be enchanted by the sight and sound of its fountains and pools, adds James. Intelligently designed water features needn’t be water wasters and can greatly add to the pleasure that property owners derive from their xeriscapes.

James says landscape professionals can differentiate their services from competitors by becoming knowledgeable about the many low-maintenance plants that thrive in their particular regions and that do well in special conditions, such as on dry hillsides or in low, wet areas.

“You can use plants that nobody else is using, and you can make those landscapes shine,” he says.

James suggests companies that offer landscape installations pay much attention to natives, but he adds the caveat is that not all native plants are as maintenance-free as you might like. He says some natives are “very aggressive and may do too well” so will need extra control. This is not to say that a non-native such as a dwarf conifer doesn’t deserve a place in the landscape.

He also cautions against introducing invasive species into landscapes. Only 1 percent of new species become invasive, but 60 percent of those are introduced into a region via horticulture, he says. Keep an eye out for invasive plants and eradicate them before they begin to spread, he advises.

Don’t worry about individual plant failures when installing and maintaining a xeriscape, he continues. “We tend to think in terms of black and white when it comes to success or failure in our gardens. We’re not dealing with a puppy or a child. If a plant isn’t making it, move it or try something else. Have fun with the garden,” says James.

In the end, what might be most attractive in terms of promoting and selling a xeriscape project to a customer is the relatively low amount of maintenance it will require, at least compared to more traditional landscapes featuring annuals and large areas of turf.

“A lot of people think that gardening to a specific eco-purpose needs to be a sacrifice. I am really passionate about the idea that whether you are talking about permaculture or a pollinator garden or xeriscaping it should be just as beautiful as any other garden,” stresses James.

“If you are matching your plants to the soils and to the right conditions, the landscape will require less work,” he adds. “Everyone has enough to do already.”

PHOTO: SEAN JAMES, FERN RIDGE LANDSCAPING