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It looks innocent, but a lush, green front lawn is actually the plant equivalent of a gas-guzzling SUV. In most parts of the country, about half of the public water supply is used to irrigate residential yards and gardens - and shallow roots make turf one of the thirstiest landscape features. But now, with record-breaking droughts along the Eastern Seaboard, low water levels in the Great Lakes, and dry conditions throughout the Rocky Mountain states, more and more homeowners feel a new urgency to reduce the amount of water they use on their land.
Fortunately, there is a way to marry water conservation with home landscaping that doesn't mean settling for a brown, dusty wasteland. It's called xeriscaping. Xeriscaping, born in the arid climate of Colorado 20 years ago, is an alternative approach to home landscaping that stresses water conservation through smart plant choices and horticultural techniques. The name - from the Greek word xeros, meaning dry - is a bit of a misnomer, since a xeriscape isn't limited to dry, rocky, cactus-strewn vistas. Instead, a xeriscape is simply a water-wise home landscape built with drought-tolerant plants, grouped according to their water needs, and in tune with the natural sun and moisture conditions of the land.
Xeriscaping is not a design style. It is a set of principles and a method that can reduce the amount of water used for irrigation by 40 to 60 percent - water savings that often mean money savings for homeowners. Additional benefits include lower building costs, less maintenance, and less use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Plus, it can be more interesting to look at: In place of plain-old turf, a xeriscape incorporates smaller turf areas bordered by rows of bushes or small trees, swaths of hearty perennial beds and islands of color and texture.
"Some people still resist the idea," says Jim Knopf, a landscape architect and xeriscape educator who is the author of two books on the subject. "But once they realize it's less costly to build and maintain, saves water, and looks prettier for more of the year, they find they like it better than a traditional landscape." So far there have been no formal studies on the growth of xeriscaping across the country, but the technique is most popular and widespread in the dry conditions of the West.
Today, though, homeowners in nearly every region are gently encouraged or even required to incorporate some xeriscape elements into their landscapes. Garden clubs and community colleges from New Mexico to New York offer xeriscape courses; water districts promote xeriscape programs to their customers; nearly every county in Florida has xeriscape ordinances limiting the percentage of turf grass in home landscapes; and even cities in the Northeast enact lawn-watering restrictions every summer. In all, most gardeners can find some incentive to try out a water-saving home landscape. The good news is that xeriscaping works in any climate and can be introduced gradually into an existing landscape or created wholesale for a new home.
Creating a Xeriscape
Whether starting from scratch or converting an existing landscape, it's crucial to begin a xeriscape with a complete site survey and overall plan. You don't have to implement the plan all at once, but it provides a map toward a well-organized xeriscape. First, consider the microclimates of the site, such as sunny, dry patches, low-lying wet areas, shady corners and windy spots. Those natural conditions help establish the different water-use planting zones, from low additional water use to high-water areas, that form the basis of a xeriscape. Low-water zones are typically suited to the common problem areas of a traditional landscape - slopes that are hard to mow and hard to keep wet, shady spots where grass or plants languish, or the hot, bright side of the house where they get scorched.
A good xeriscape is often only as successful as the soil in which it is planted, which usually means preparing the ground to withstand less irrigation. Experts recommend tilling to aerate the soil and adding organic materials, such as compost, aged manure or peat moss, that help retain precious water. Such materials are available at garden centers, but some municipal districts may offer free or low-cost compost made from city leaf- and lawn-clipping collection services. Depending on climate and soil-type, the driest zones of a xeriscape may not need any soil amending, as they will be filled with the heartiest, drought-tolerant plants. When the ground is ready, xeriscape gardeners simply group plants in the different water-use zones according to their water and light needs - you don't plant a cactus next to tropical flowers.
"A lot of xeriscape is just good, common-sense gardening principals," says Cris Call, a water conservation specialist with Denver Water. "The only difference is you want to focus on water-conserving plants." Many state or county agricultural boards, water districts and horticultural clubs offer lists of xeriscape-friendly plants, and several books are available that identify plants by their water needs. Some xeriscape partisans stress using only local or native plants, which are naturally suited to an area's climate and don't require much additional watering and care. But avid gardeners don't have to avoid exotics, annual flowerbeds and other high-water plants altogether. Just keep those plants to designated high-water zones, often called "oasis zones," typically located near the house for aesthetics and easy hand or hose watering.
Likewise, xeriscape principles do not prohibit turf lawns; they just reduce their size. A simple way to reduce lawn space is creating border-beds around the entire turf area, which are filled with flowers, shrubs or groundcover plants that require less water. There are also xeriscape-friendly alternatives to Kentucky bluegrass (the typical turf grass) such as buffalo grass and blue grama, for western climates, and turf-type tall fescue for the East. Tall fescue requires only half the water of bluegrass, thanks to its deeper roots. It also resists dandelions and doesn't need additional fertilizing.
Once a xeriscape is in place, a proper irrigation plan is essential. Dry areas with the heartiest plants may not need any irrigation under normal rainfall conditions. Turf areas still need sprinkler irrigation, but other beds and plantings can use water-efficient drip irrigation systems - hoses dotted with holes that leak drops of water directly into the ground. Thick layers of mulch around plants and over flowerbeds are another essential component of xeriscaping, since mulch holds moisture in the ground and makes irrigation more efficient. Homeowners with existing sprinkler systems may have to retrofit that system to accommodate a xeriscape's different watering zones or stop using the system altogether. Homeowners building a new house have it slightly easier, since they can work with an irrigation contractor to design a system suited to their xeriscape plan or even eliminate the sprinkler system altogether, saving thousands of dollars.
Eventually, a good xeriscape requires much less maintenance, since there is less grass to mow and less fertilizer, herbicide and water to apply. But experts warn that creating a self-sufficient xeriscape, ironically enough, requires significantly more work up front, since new plantings require a year or two of serious watering to help establish strong roots. You can't simply plant it and forget it.
DIY or Call a Professional
Aficionados insist that creating a xeriscape is no more difficult than a typical landscaping project - simply start small and familiarize yourself with the principles and techniques. But some homeowners prefer to call in a professional landscape designer or architect. These experts can handle the complete xeriscape process, from planning and design to planting and maintenance, or they can work from a homeowner's own design. The cost ranges anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on rates and the size of the project.
When choosing a landscape professional, it's important to ask plenty of questions to determine his or her background in xeriscape principles and design. Also, it helps to research the process and think carefully about what you want from your own xeriscape before turning to a professional. Things to consider are the types of plants and design style you like, how much lawn you really need, and where to put patios, walkways and other features.
"Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, the more research you do up front, the better your xeriscape will turn out," says Ralph Tuthill, a xeriscape educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, N.Y. Obviously, hiring a potentially pricey landscape designer is less appealing to homeowners who don't pay high water bills and therefore won't see as much cost savings from a xeriscape. Likewise, the planning and up-front work required to build a xeriscape will probably turn off homeowners who prefer not to spend serious time on their lawn and garden.
But for people with a natural gardening interest, a commitment to water conservation, or financial or regulatory incentives, the appeal is strong, say xeriscape proponents. And the results are rewarding and attractive enough to have helped push the technique beyond its western origins.
"A xeriscape is its own best commercial," says Call of Denver Water. "Your neighbors see it taking shape and watch all these different plants start to bloom, and pretty soon they've taken out parts of their own lawn." And by doing so, they've taken a step to reduce the country's widespread water shortages.