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.
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 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.
Here are xeriscaping’s seven big rules to ensure they provide their many benefits, including less maintenance and inputs needed after establishment.
1. DESIGN. When designing a landscape, take into account factors such as climate, shade and sun, the contour of the property (slopes, depressions, etc.), soil types, watering requirements for ornamentals and turfgrass, and any local regulations that apply.
2. SOIL. Match plants with the types of soils best suited for the plants’ survival and health. Test the soil and add nutrients and organic matter, such as compost, to promote plant health and also to retain water. Grade the soil to direct any excess rain or irrigation water to plants that would appreciate the moisture rather than having it lost to runoff. Some desert plants prefer gravel soils instead of soils rich in organics.
3. LIMITED TURF AREAS. Xeriscaping doesn’t mean “no lawns,” but it does advocate installing and maintaining lawns only where they serve a purpose and will be used, such as where children and pets play. Avoid grassing these sites with species or cultivars of turfgrass that require frequent irrigation. In terms of species, a lawn of a native species, such as buffalograss, requires significantly less irrigation than Kentucky bluegrass. In general, a warm-season turfgrass, such as bermudagrass, is more drought-resistant than most cool-season turfgrasses. Many varieties of fescues (turf-type tall fescues and hard fescues) do well with limited irrigation. Better options for lawn areas may be native ground covers or other drought-tolerant plants.
4. PLANTS. Remember the adage “The Right Plant In The Right Place.” It almost seems a shame that we have to be reminded of this. Proper plant selection and placement within a landscape is critically important to the success and enjoyment of the landscape. Group plants with similar light and water requirements and put them in locations that meet those requirements. Turfgrass, of course, does best in full sun and will require more water than perennial beds that are also in full sun. Plants with moderate water needs are generally best suited for shaded areas or areas near downspouts, while water-loving plants thrive in damp swales or water-collecting depressions on a property.
5. IRRIGATION. Some people’s conception of a xeriscape landscape is one that requires no supplemental irrigation. In most cases, that would be a stark landscape and one that few property owners would appreciate. The better option is to provide the property with an automatic sprinkler system with the latest “smart” features that irrigate the property in zones. For example, areas of turfgrass require more frequent watering than areas of native or regionally adapted ornamentals, shrubs and trees, which could be watered with drip or bubbler emitters.
6. MULCH. Mulch serves several purposes on a xeriscape. Mulch moderates the soil temperature on plant roots and helps to retain soil moisture, blocks weed growth and reduces rain runoff. Apply mulch about 3 inches deep. Organic mulches, such as bark chips, pine straw or shredded wood, break down, which improves the soil over time.
7. MAINTENANCE. Xeriscapes require maintenance, especially during establishment. In fact, all commercial and residential landscapes require an appropriate level of ongoing care. A landscape, including a xeriscape, that does not receive ongoing maintenance morphs into a mess. Turfgrass requires regular mowing (3 inches high, leave clippings on the lawn), and trees, shrubs and perennials need periodic pruning.