How to Xeriscape at Home

Conceptually, Xeriscaping is a form of gardening that uses drought-tolerant plants and grasses to beautify a home or business. Xeriscaping may become the method future gardeners will use to develop their gardens as water becomes an increasingly precious asset, especially in arid climates such as the desert. The term Xeriscape was coined by the Front Range Xeriscape Task Force of Denver Department in 1978 as a way to promote water efficient landscaping. The name Xeriscape is a registered trademark of Denver Water. The root word Xeros is from the Greek language and means dry. Xeros was combined with the term landscape (which means to modify land). [1] Xeriscape gardening is varied and beautiful no matter the location. It does not mean gardening with only cacti, succulents and rock. It means to landscape a garden with plants that use lesser amounts of water to help people lower their water use and reduce landscape maintenance.


Analyze the site. The key to Xeriscaping is to understand which plant needs are satisfied easily by the site, and the only way to know this is to determine what the site provides naturally, with minimal effort. Draw a map of your yard, (try to keep it to scale, if you can) and gather the following information:

  • Make a sun chart. Find out which are the sunniest and which the darkest parts of your site are. Every few hours, record where the sun is shining on your map. Keep in mind that the site’s exposure to sunlight will also vary at different times of the year, as well as different parts of the world (the sunniest part in one person’s garden may still get much less sunlight than the darkest part of someone else’s yard).
  • Perform a soil analysis. Which nutrients are readily available (or deficient) in the soil? What is the pH? What kind of soil are you working with–clay? Silt? Loam? Gravel? All of this will affect which plants can thrive on the site. You might consider amending or tilling the soil to “jump start” the soil processes that create healthy soil, but don’t try to dramatically alter the nature of the soil you’re working with or else it’s becoming a time-consuming, high-maintenance effort (the opposite of Xeriscaping).
  • Study the rainfall patterns for your site. How many inches or centimeters of rain does the site get per year? Is it spread out through the year, or is it concentrated in a short, “monsoon” period?670px-Xeriscape-Step-1

Classify the zones. There should be three ways to classify every zone in your site:

  • Oasis – Close to a large structure; can benefit from rain runoff and shade (which reduces evaporation, keeping more water in the soil); can also exist surrounding a large tree or at the edge of a forest/orchard
  • Transition – A “buffer” area between oasis and arid zones
  • Arid – Farthest from structures, low-traffic, receives the most sunlight

Select the appropriate plants. Obtain a list of plants appropriate for your region. Use the USDA guidelines or the Sunset Western Garden book for zone information. From that list, choose a variety of plants that will tolerate drought conditions. Consult the list below for suggestions. Another way to target appropriate plants is to find out which are native to your area. Remember that your site should be planted in receding “layers”. Think of each structure (the house, a large tree) as a focal point. At each focal point, you add a few bright, eye-catching species that are well-suited to local conditions. As you get further away from the focal point, the plants become more subtle and also more drought-tolerant. As you’re browsing lists of plants that are suitable for your area, keep these design guidelines in mind, as well as the sunniness, rainfall, and soil type of your site. 670px-Xeriscape-Step-3

Fill large areas with a lawn substitute. The typical green lawn is a thirsty and high-maintenance “carpet”. You can replace that carpet by restoring a native prairie or planting ground cover (such as a clover lawn), or you can use ornamental grasses which grow in clumps, surrounded by mulch (the idea being to only use grasses as an accent, rather than make them the major focus of the garden). The area that would normally be the lawn is usually classified as arid, so covering that area with low-maintenance plant species makes a big difference.

  • If the “lawn” area is so expansive that the low-maintenance plants draw too much attention, consider creating a focal point at the center. This can involve planting a drought-resistant tree or shrub, a raised bed, or a decorative structure (such as a wheelbarrow overflowing with flowers). It may require a little additional watering (try to minimize this) but at least it’ll keep the site aesthetically pleasing while the surrounding area “rests” with low-maintenance species.

Group water-needy plants together near structures. Preferably, plant them in containers so the roots will get more water (rather than it seeping into the surrounding soil, where it can encourage the growth of weeds); you may even consider using self-watering pots. The pots themselves can be decorative accents.

  • An alternative to using containers would be to create a retaining wall (essentially a very large container), which has the added benefit of making your oasis plants stand out more.
  • Arrange plants based on the amount of sunshine available. Some sides of the structure will get a lot more sunlight than others. Since some plants can take more sun and heat than others, plant the more sun-friendly, drought-tolerant plants where most of the afternoon sun will be located.
  • Develop a water thrifty irrigation system if necessary. Install drip irrigation to water plants. Water evaporation is minimized thereby saving precious water for other uses. Also, the slower you water, the fewer run-offs there is.
  • Soften the boundaries. Fill the transition areas between arid and oasis zones with plants that fall in the middle of the spectrum in terms of water and sunlight needs and aesthetics. One way to do this is to create a “cascade” effect from the oasis plants (tall and bright) to the transition zone (a little shorter, catching attention by texture rather than color, such as shrubs, bushes, or ornamental grass clumps) to the arid zone (low-lying, subtle and very drought-resistant). If there is a retaining wall, however, a transition zone may not be necessary. Ultimately, see what looks best to you.670px-Xeriscape-Step-6
  • Mulch. Choose an appropriate mulch to help reduce erosion and suppress weeds. Organic, wood-based mulch will also retain moisture. As it decomposes, it’ll improve the soil over time, but it needs to be replaced regularly. A stone or gravel mulch, on the other hand, does not need to be replaced, but it should be lined with landscape fabric in order to keep weeds from growing through the mulch, and it will retain a good deal of heat (which can damage delicate plants). It also attracts fewer insects.670px-Xeriscape-Step-7

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