What Is Xeriscape?

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A xeriscape is a style of landscaping that doesn't require a lot of water to maintain. It also tends to be more low maintenance than many other types of traditional landscaping. Xeriscapes are crafted around seven simple design principles, and they can look very appealing. This type of landscaping is popular in areas where the climate is dry but can be found in other places as well.

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Xeriscapes are based on seven basic principles: planning/design, soil improvements, efficient irrigation, plant zones, mulches, turf alternatives and maintenance. Each of these plays an important role in successful xeriscape development.

Xeriscape or Zeroscape?

According to Merriam-Webster, the term "xēros" is the Greek word for "dry," and the term "xeriscape" was first used by Denver, Colorado's water utility, Denver Water, in the 1980s. Sometimes, when people hear the word "xeriscape," they think of a barren, rock-filled or gravely area that is mostly devoid of plants. This has sometimes been referred to as "zeroscaping," which pokes fun at this landscape design as a hands-off way to avoid lawn care and eliminate as much of the yard maintenance as possible. Most people don't use this term in a positive light, and this type of design is not what xeriscaping is about.

Successful xeriscapes can actually be very colorful and attractive. There are a vast number of different plants that can work well in this type of design, and the layout is thoughtfully considered so as to add appeal to the home. It isn't an afterthought or a one-and-done type of approach but rather a conscious plan for using the natural landscape blended with plants that don't consume large amounts of water. While not for everyone, this type of landscape design can be very attractive to certain homeowners.

Xeriscaping as an Alternative Yard Choice

Xeriscapes are one of many types of landscape design options. Others include the woodland landscape, the English garden, formal landscapes and even butterfly gardens. A xeriscape can provide an alternative to these, or its principles can be used with them side by side. Once established, a xeriscape tends to be more low maintenance, and if it is well-planned, it can be quite cost efficient as well.

This type of landscape design also performs very well for those living in a climate where it's difficult to grow or maintain a traditional lawn or plantings that require a great deal of watering. Xeriscapes are a good match for arid climates or for areas that have a lot of variation in weather. This is one of the reasons they are often found in places such as the Denver region, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. That said, they are by no means restricted to these places and can work well anywhere with a little planning.

Another feature of xeriscapes is that they fit in seamlessly in a variety of different settings. Xeriscapes can be created in all shapes and sizes and are extremely easy to customize. Whether it's a small patch of side yard, a large backyard or a shady area under trees, there's a xeriscape landscape design that will work for the space.

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Primary Features of a Xeriscape

Although the exact features of a xeriscape can vary, the main centerpiece is water conservation. Drought-resistant plants are the core features around which xeriscapes are built. While these plants don't have to be native to the area, if they are, they'll require less soil amendment, as the plants will grow well naturally. Although the word "xeriscape" can bring to mind images of a cactus, other examples of these plants include lavender, agave, juniper and oregano. What is native depends on the region.

Thoughtful irrigation is another key xeriscape feature, and this works hand in hand with mulch to keep plants from drying out. Mulching cuts down on the overall water needs in planted areas, and it also helps to reduce weeds, thus helping reduce maintenance for the homeowner. A good layer of mulch also helps to protect soil from the drying effects of wind and sun.

Drip irrigation is a great targeted water conservation tool, as it gets the water where it needs to go rather than spraying it all over like a rotating sprinkler. Once wet, the mulch keeps the ground from drying out quickly. While rocks and stone are often used in xeriscapes, they tend to retain heat, so the location and amount of these items should be chosen thoughtfully.

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Examples of Xeriscaping

There are so many different plants that work well in a xeriscape, including ornamental grasses and even drought-resistant perennial flowers. It doesn't have to be a dull collection of sparsely planted desert plants. For example, a simple, colorful xeriscape plan for a Northeast U.S. home with a small side yard could include a handful of pretty blue fescue plants, some moss phlox and a grouping of purple coneflowers against a wood mulch for contrast.

A large lawn in the Midwest could be reshaped to include xeriscape areas that cut down significantly on the amount of overall water usage. For example, specific areas of turf (which need a lot of water and maintenance) can be substituted with planting beds containing drought-resistant ground cover plants, like thyme, as well as larger Russian sage plants for texture and color. Sedum stonecrop is another great plant for this region, and it provides some fall interest with its flower heads that begin forming in late summer. A few decorative rocks will help break up the space and make it more visually pleasing. Top it off with an area for 'Ice Ballet' milkweed to help attract monarch butterflies.

In the Southwest, the desert-style xeriscape remains a popular look, and it often includes native cactus species because sandy soils are common in this region. Homeowners here might use the fairly inexpensive prickly pear cacti, some of which blossom, or may try some lines of barrel cacti for a dramatic look. Adding a dry river bed of brown rocks in several ribbons can provide a stunning visual impact. For color, a selection of desert coreopsis planted along the "banks" of the rock ribbons can be interwoven with succulents for a completed look.

Maintaining a Xeriscape

Although a xeriscape design can result in a more low-maintenance yard than a traditional lawn or other landscape designs, it is not completely hands-off. Even through heavy mulch, weeds will sometimes pop up, and some plants may benefit from an occasional pruning or will need to be cut back at certain times of the year. A lot of this depends on the type of plants chosen, so it pays to research these before finalizing a plan.

Also, keep in mind that even plants that don't need a lot of moisture will still require some extra watering and tending until they are well-established, so be sure to plan accordingly. It's also helpful to group together plants with similar watering needs to help with water conservation efforts and ease of care. To aid in the planning and selection for this type of landscape design, pick up a copy of the book Xeriscape Plant Guide: 100 Water-Wise Plants for Gardens and Landscapes. It offers a wealth of different choices.

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Catherine L. Tully

Catherine L. Tully

Catherine L. Tully has been a professional writer since 2002, and authors work for a wide range of clients in the U.S. and beyond.