Xeriscapes catch on around the country

Beginning in 1978, a task force organized by Denver’s water department began to compile a series of principles designed to conserve water in landscape settings. The group coined, and even trademarked, the term xeriscape, and today the Colorado WaterWise Council continues to administer one of the nation’s most comprehensive xeriscape education programs. While they maintain the rights to the name, the concept has spread far and wide, most notably in arid western areas, but also to the normally humid southeastern U.S. (which has recently experienced record droughts) and even to the Northeast, where watering restrictions have become more common. Even when rainfall and moisture levels aren’t a concern, the principles of xeriscaping are becoming widely adopted and appreciated.

Doug Welsh has been involved with xeriscapes for more than 25 years, first in introducing the concept to Texas in the early 1980s and later as board member and president of the National Xeriscape Council. Now a professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M, he continues to study and promote the concept and its strengths from a landscape perspective.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Douglas Welsh. Photo courtesy of Allen Lee.
The practical use of turfgrass,along with water-conserving plants,are hallmarks of xeriscape landscapes. Many cities around the countryhave established xeriscapedemonstration gardens to helpeducate people about the widevariety of low-water-use landscapeplants available.

“Xeriscaping was created and driven by a water utility, so their focus, naturally, was water conservation,” says Welsh. “Once we got more of the green industry involved, we’ve been able to focus on a message that emphasizes the landscape and its role.”

It’s impressive how the original seven principles of xeriscaping have stood the test of time, notes Welsh. Over the years there have only been a few changes made to those principles. One example was the move to replace the negative term “limited turf use” with a more positive message of “practical turf use.”

Welsh says, “We also changed the basic definition of xeriscaping from ‘water conservation through creative landscaping,’ to ‘quality landscapes that conserve water and protect the environment.’” That important update put the emphasis on landscaping quality, and made landscapes a way to accomplish water conservation, rather than a victim of water conservation measures. “I’ve seen a lot of creative landscapes, and not all of them would I call quality,” he laughs. “An AstroTurf front lawn is certainly creative, but I wouldn’t say it’s a quality landscape!”

Welsh continues to strongly emphasize the link that’s possible between quality landscapes and water conservation. And, he recommends that those in the green industry promote xeriscapes to their clients first and foremost as quality landscapes, rather than making homeowners feel that they’re sacrificing something. “John D. Public can envision what a quality landscape is, it’s what they see in Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living and those types of magazines. Those landscapes have a balance between planting beds, turf areas and hardscape, and that’s what homeowners want,” says Welsh. “You will never see the ‘lawnscape’—a house, foundation plantings and 5,000 square feet of turf—held up as quality landscaping. So, if we can first sell them on a balanced, quality landscape, then we can also bring in the water conservation and other environmentally friendly measures.”

In part, that means using turf only in those areas where it serves a function. “The easiest way to define a practical turf area is to begin by defining what areas are impractical for turf,” says Welsh. “Long, narrow strips of turf, areas between houses, these areas of turf are difficult to irrigate, increase maintenance and don’t provide a real function. Maybe we don’t need turf in those areas.” At the same time, there are areas where turfgrass is appropriate, he adds: “No one is stating that kids play backyard football on lava rock!”

While the image of lava rock and cactuses might be what some people envision when they hear the term xeriscape, Welsh stresses that low water-use plants should be selected based on geographic location. “To me, ultimately, xeriscaping is about creating quality landscapes that are in tune with the environment you live in,” says Welsh. “It’s as inappropriate to have cactuses in Houston as it is to have azaleas in El Paso. We need to take our lead from the natural environment.”

Photo courtesy of Richard Bond.
The Tempe, Ariz., xeriscape demonstration garden is used to inspire and educate homeowners, and also helps to promote various related initiatives, such as xeriscape conversion rebate programs.

To help landscapers and homeowners choose appropriate plants and otherwise follow the principles of xeriscaping, many cities around the country have created xeriscape (or related water conservation) landscape programs. Often, this involves the creation of a demonstration garden to show residents what water-conserving landscapes look like and how they function. These demonstration gardens are not always where you might expect them. Tropical Florida, for example, boasts several. Likewise, the city of Fargo, N.D., an area far removed from the desert Southwest in both latitude and longitude, has embraced xeriscaping and features two separate demonstration gardens, complete with interpretative signs to identify and explain plant choices and design features.

Allen Lee, with Fargo’s forestry department, oversees that city’s xeriscape efforts. During trainings for extension professionals and master gardeners, Lee shows photos of xeriscaped yards in the city. “I point out that, in many cases, the only difference you can see is that those properties might have a few more plants and there is likely to be less turfgrass used,” he explains.

He also shows photos of turfgrass used on the north sides of homes, where it sits in the shade all day. “Most of the time spent on that grass is when it’s being fertilized and mowed,” says Lee. “I point out to people that maybe that’s an area that could be converted to something else that would grow better there and use less water.”

When turf is used, Lee points out that there are some alternative, low water-use turfgrasses that can be used in Fargo. “Instead of using a cool-season turfgrass, like a Kentucky bluegrass, some people in this area are using either Blue gramma or buffalograss. There are tradeoffs with these—they take a long time to green up and they go dormant quickly—but a number of residents have installed these, and the irrigation requirements on those turfed areas are almost nonexistent.”

Lee says that there is a great deal of interest among residents in the xeriscape concept. “We literally get hundreds of questions a year from homeowners—both those who live in older parts of town and in new developments,” he says. Lee adds that he personally sees less interest from professional lawn care and landscape companies, but gets the impression “that interest among homeowners for these types of landscapes is beginning to filter up to the landscape contractors.”

The city of Fargo often works with homeowners and others who express interest in installing a xeriscape. “We’ll meet with them at their site, provide them with guidance and literature,” says Lee. “We try to see what their ideas are to be sure they’re on track and, sometimes, we may even help them create a rough planting plan. Sometimes we also get calls from landscapers whose clients have expressed an interest in xeriscaping. They often say, ‘I feel somewhat comfortable handling this, but I have some questions for you to be sure I’m doing this correctly,’ and we’ll try to help the landscapers out.”

Lee says one important mission is to get homeowners who install xeriscapes to change their irrigation practices. He helps to educate homeowners and landscape companies that some plants (after they are initially planted and established) don’t need as much water, and often actually prefer less water.

Water-conserving landscapes remain perhaps most commonplace in the desert Southwest (where the term “desertscaping” is often used in place of xeriscaping). “From improved wildlife habitat, to lower needs for fertilizer and less pollen production, desert landscapes have many benefits in addition to water conservation,” says Richard Bond, landscape project manager with the city of Tempe’s water utilities department. “It’s a more sustainable landscape.”

An environmental mindset among homeowners is helping the trend to grow, says Bond. “Many people today consider themselves environmentalists, and that is driving interest in this type of landscaping,” he says.

Tempe operates a xeriscape demonstration garden to help educate those who may be considering a move away from a traditional turfgrass landscape. “Many communities around Phoenix also have demonstration gardens,” Bond points out. “The gardens also are often used by communities to launch other water conservation programs, like xeriscape conversion rebate programs, which are very common in many areas of the Southwest and offer residential homeowners a financial incentive to remove turfgrass areas.” These programs typically also include new landscape installations, with the hope that homeowners can be convinced to limit turf use from the start.

“There’s a real checkerboard when you drive down residential streets now,” observes Bond. “There’ll be lawn, lawn and then a desertscape, it’s a really sharp contrast.” Sometimes, one homeowner’s desertscape conversion will inspire controversy among their neighbors, but other times it will inspire others in the area to follow suit. Bond feels that a large part of the inspiration behind the growth in desertscapes comes from the high-end, high-profile commercial installations that have become commonplace around malls, corporate office buildings, the entrances to gated communities, etc.

The green industry around Phoenix has responded to the demand. “Most landscape companies around here will still do turfgrass installations, but the majority of the high-end companies are going after the desertscape market,” observes Bond. “They’re focusing on the earth shaping, the berms and swales and bringing in the big boulders, the specimen trees, the large cacti. The irrigation companies around here are more and more catering to drip irrigation equipment and services, and there are a lot of nurseries in town that are specializing in arid plants.”

Tempe sponsors SmartScape classes (part of a national program) to help educate professional landscapers about water conservation practices. “Demand is very good; classes are often booked solid,” says Bond. “There are many great publications and educational materials available here in Arizona that provide information about desert landscaping.”

Doug Welsh at Texas A&M says he’s ecstatic to see so many different types of landscape water conservation programs taking place around the country. “Sometimes it’s called xeriscape and sometimes other brand names are used (Water Wise, SmartScape, Earth Kind) that incorporate many of the same principles,” says Welsh. “I think xeriscape is a great name, but I don’t really care what it’s called.”

In the past, turf has often been a default choice for landscapes, he says. “It’s the lowest-cost thing to put down, and it’s not terribly difficult to maintain,” he says. While still a popular choice, that approach has evolved in many parts of the country, away from a reliance on turfgrass toward a more practical use of turf, along with low-water-use landscape plants. “It does matter if we’re talking about Arizona or Maine, we’re starting to see more of those landscapes.” He hopes the green industry continues down that path. “Water utilities know that peak water demand is caused by landscape irrigation. We are either going conserve water by education, or it will be done by regulation.

“It takes 30 years to change a norm in society,” says Welsh. He points out that xeriscaping is nearing that anniversary. “The concept,” he emphasizes, “is here to stay.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.