Green acres: The art of xeriscaping

Xeriscaped gardens require considerably less water to flourish and they often have little to no need for fertilizers, pesticides, and mowing. This is a CAP cross-post.

The gardens that line your neighborhood street may be beautiful but chances are they have an ugly side that most people don’t see.

Most yards in suburban America have vast expanses of lawn decorated with plants and flowers from all over the world. This sort of landscaping looks pretty but requires considerable amounts of water to maintain. According to NASA, watering our lawns alone can take up to 238 gallons per person, per day. As the United States approaches the limits of its available freshwater supply, these thirsty gardens will become increasingly taxing on the environment and increasingly expensive for homeowners.

One solution to help address our water waste is “xeriscaping,” a landscaping philosophy focused on minimal resource usage.  The term “xeriscaping” is a portmanteau of “xeros,” the Greek word for “dry,” and “landscaping.” Xeriscaped gardens require considerably less water to flourish and they often have little to no need for fertilizers, pesticides, and mowing.

How do xeriscaped gardens achieve such levels of sustainability? At the most basic level, those practicing xeriscaping look to use only regionally appropriate plants“”plants that are already well equipped to deal with the weather, precipitation, and pests common in the area in which they’re planted. These plants require much less care and resources from homeowners.

Plant choice is an important part of the equation but xeriscaping takes a very comprehensive approach towards creating sustainable gardens. If you’re interested in xeriscaping, here are a few steps you can take:

Use the right type of grass for your lawn. By identifying and planting grasses that are native to your region and properly acclimatized, you can significantly reduce the amount of water needed for your lawn.

Use native plants and flowers. As with native grasses, flowers native to your region will be much more adept at growing without lots of gardener intervention.

Create rock gardens. Incorporating rocks into your xeriscaping plan can not only reduce the amount of time, money, and natural resources needed to maintain your garden, but can also add interesting variety to your garden’s layout.

Install drip irrigation. Depending on how much rainfall your home receives each year, you might have to water your plants. Choosing the right type of irrigation is an important way to cut down on water usage. Typical sprinklers are inefficient, as water can often evaporate before being absorbed into the soil. Instead, use drip irrigation, a system in which water is dispersed directly into the ground, decreasing waste and evaporation.

Spread mulch. Spreading a layer of mulch over your flowerbed is another great way to prevent excess water evaporation from your soil. Mulch serves as an organic layer that maintains soil aeration while keeping moisture in the ground, further reducing the amount of water needed to maintain your garden.

Keep in mind””xeriscaping doesn’t necessarily have a “look.” Rather, it is a landscaping perspective that can be used regardless of where you live. There may even be professional xeriscapers in your area who can provide guidance, supplies, and labor. However you choose to go about it, xeriscaping is a great way to not only reduce water waste but also have a great-looking garden in the process.

This is a Center for American Progress cross-post.

16 Responses to Green acres: The art of xeriscaping

  1. Mark C. says:

    Rain barrels. They alleviate storm water runoff, too.

  2. Leif says:

    Rain barrels of course but a structurally sound, (for snow load), green house has allowed me to extend my garden production for most of the winter. While I certainly do not produce all my veggies, I have made a noticeable dent. It also gives me a head start on spring planting and production.

  3. Sou says:

    Got rid of all the lawn in our garden a few years ago. Still working through progressively planting mostly native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers with an emphasis on local natives. I keep new plants watered for the first year after which they are on their own, except for extreme heat waves. The garden is thriving, attracts lots of different birds, lizards, spiders and insects as well as frogs when it’s wet. (Kangaroos have occasionally hopped over the back fence for a nibble as well.)

    There’s a lawn nature strip on the street (outside our property boundary) which I mow every two or three days with a human-powered lawn mower. Good exercise and no fossil fuels except for what it took to initially construct and transport.

  4. Sou says:

    Of course, in among the natives, there’s a herb garden and vege patch and fruit trees in the back yard. Nothing like freshly picked salad veges, fresh herbs in the soup and pasta and just-picked dessert/fruit juice. No chooks (yet).

  5. Mike says:

    I see the benefit of “xeriscaping” over traditional landscaping, sure. But I think the best of all possible options would be natural landscapes, would it not? Some cosmetics of the understory to make it more garden-like seems like a good compromise. But rock gardens? Except with regard to the water issue, I fail to see how rock gardens could be better than traditional landscaping.

    Just ignore the landscaping, and let nature take it’s course. The results may surprise you.

  6. Wes Rollehy says:

    This sounds good, but you run into many prohibitions, from City Planners who think green is beautiful to home owners associations who mandate manicured lawns. Leif (#3) might find that rain barrels are both expensive and possibly illegal. Since any runoff from my property goes into a reservoir serving millions, the local water district can claim prior use rights to that water and win the case if they want to take me to court.

    This is the same water district that paid me to take out my lawn and to replace it with hardscape, which I have done. Now, I have an orchard that is will mulched amid a brick front… not sure what… patio maybe.

  7. BR says:

    Seems to me we should be encouraging folks to get rid of the idea of landscaping entirely and encourage them to grow food on their land. It’s not hard to make a beautiful landscape entirely out of food-producing plants and trees. (Selecting, of course, for hardy varieties that don’t require lots of watering, etc.)

  8. Joy Hughes says:

    I want to echo BR’s comment – a lot of people will convert their lawns to food gardens purely as an economic choice. It’s also a moral choice, this year.

  9. grant says:

    Try reading
    “Creating the Prairie Xeriscape” by Sara Williams, ISBN 0-88880-375-5
    Canadian Publication in 1997 through the Univ. Of Sask.

  10. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Here’s a note on selecting drought-tolerant plants from our County Extension Agent, whose life career has been the propogation of woody plants – she had her own greenhouse at U.C. Davis. Only seed-grown plants develop the long, central tap-root that helps them function as drought tolerant by seeking deep water. Cutting-grown & cloned plants do not develop a tap root. Further, the nursery industry now uses a chemical inside nursery pots that causes touching root-tips to bifurcate into a net of roots. This precludes the prior merchandising problem of long, water-seeking roots that circled in nursery pots & were negatively termed “root-bound.” There are still sources of seed-grown stock & they are increasingly important for permaculture food landscapes & orchards that may need to be drought-tolerant growing forward.

  11. Sou says:

    On the subject of human food only gardens, that’s okay for those that have no other choice. I like to provide food and shelter for the local fauna as well, particularly with shrinking biodiversity and pressure on many species. Even inner cities that plant local native trees, shrubs and grasses on nature strips and in parks and any vacant patch they can, find native lizards, birds and other animals re-populating the inner city areas.

  12. Bill Maddox says:

    I am an architect/builder and years ago I stopped putting in lawns and went for natural sustainable landscaping. The idea of manicured lawns with the accompanying fertilizing, watering and mowing is ridiculous to me. And what? To create a green desert? To drive off the wildlife? Mowing lawns? Noisy, dirty, polluting, time wasting, and to some extent recurrently expensive. Absolutely a ridiculous exercise of the first order. Here in Florida a huge portion of our water use comes from watering lawns. We are running into water problems as to scarcity and the pollution of our rivers and streams from fertilizer runoff. Go figure.

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    Brad Lancaster’s books on water harvesting :
    “Rain Water Harvesting for Drylands, and Beyond” 2 volumes:

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    A device to collect rain water from the down spouts of rain gutters. Made from Schedule 40 PVC fittings.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    I was just at Ed Begley’s garden the other day, and it was a perfect example. He gets 6 crops of broccoli a year.