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The Benefits of Xeriscaping

By Camille LeFevre Rise Home Feature Editor
Jul 11, 2019

Casas Del Oro Norte, nestled in an area below the Santa Catalina Mountains in Tucson, is a quiet community of about 130 homes built in the 1970s next to a golf course. While creating the community, the developer bought up substantial acreage and incorporated several parks. Planted in these parks were grassy lawns and several species of trees, including Aleppo pine, African sumac, and eucalyptus—all of which require lots and lots of water.

Tucson, of course, is in the desert, where temperatures in the summer rise into the triple digits. The monsoon season typically begins from early July to late July, continuing through August and sometimes into September, giving rise to hot days with high humidity, intense thunderstorms and rainfall, and flash floods. Now, fifty years later after the original development, summers are getting hotter; monsoon seasons shorter.

The developer’s plan “was wonderful thinking” back in the 70s, says Dianne Steinbach, who has lived in the Casa Del Oro Norte community for five years. However, “in terms of climate change, nobody can afford to water the parks that he designed, much less the big mature trees. When they don’t get water, they get brittle, and their 65-foot branches snap off.”

The 50-year-old irrigation system, tied to city water, is dilapidated. The homeowners’ association, of which Steinbach is currently president, has repeatedly voted down an increase in dues to help pay for new irrigation or watering the parks. Nonetheless, Steinbach says, “We decided in our work plan last year that one thing we had to tackle was to make the open space more sustainable going into the future—and figure out to do it on the operating budget we have.”

Photo Credit: Habitat Network

“One way was to take the smaller area, North Park, and put out a request for proposal (RFP) for landscapers to bid on the design and installation of a xeriscape, which is expensive initially, but more sustainable into the future,” she adds. The homeowners association selected Northwest Landscaping in Tucson. This year, Northwest is focusing on infrastructure. “That includes re-grading the site with mounds, basins, and swales that direct rainfall away from the street,” Steinbach says, “a new underground drip irrigation system for the trees; new winding walking paths with a decomposed granite (or DG, a ground-up rock that mats down and doesn’t slide around); and local rock in other areas. Next year, we’ll start putting in native plants.”

What Is Xeriscaping?

What exactly is xeriscaping? As defined by The Plantium, a xeriscape “is a system of principles to create gardens and landscapes that reduce, or even eliminate, the need for additional irrigation.” In other words, xeriscaping is a style of landscape design that integrates drought-tolerant plants, land contouring, and water capture to nearly or totally eliminate irrigation and other maintenance. The word xeriscape comes from the Latin xero, meaning dry, and scape, meaning landscape—and is not to be confused with zeroscape, which is a yard filled predominantly with gravel and dirt and containing few or no plants.

Xeriscape vs. zeroscape
Photo Credit: The Plantium

Increasingly popular in the Southwest and dryer areas of western states like Colorado, a xeriscape can include plants, hardscapes, and, yes, sometimes turf.

“A xeriscaped yard planted with many species of beautiful drought-tolerant plants can be lush and beautiful while enhancing the beauty and function of an urban or suburban landscape,” according to Water Use It Wisely. “Xeriscapes also beautify the neighborhood, reduce cooling costs, create a sense of place, [and] attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other desired wildlife. Xeriscaped yards make sense because they are one of the best water-efficient landscaping options.”

What Is The Purpose of Xeriscaping?

According to EPA estimates, landscape irrigation (and other outdoor water use) accounts for 30 percent of water consumption in the U.S. In the country's arid western areas, household outdoor water use rises to 60 percent, with most of that water going to lawns. Whether you live in an arid or wetter climate, droughts can happen nearly anywhere. When drought occurs and a city puts limits on water use, formerly lush and highly watered landscapes can turn brown, dry, and brittle—taking a toll on plant diversity, as well.

By creating yards and gardens with native plants that have adapted to the natural rainfall of your region and that are also drought tolerant (meaning they can stay alive during periods of less than normal rainfall), homeowners can enjoy yards with plant diversity—and that attract native pollinators—that thrive even during water shortages.

A five-year Yardx study of 357 residential landscapes (conducted by Metro Water Conservation, the Bureau of Reclamation, and seven Colorado front range municipalities) found that homes using xeriscape principles cut their total amount of lawn by half by filling a quarter of their landscape with low-water-use plants and another quarter with medium-water use plants. This reduced their outdoor water usage by 30 to and 50 percent, which also saved the homeowners money on their water bill, year after year.

What are the Seven Principles of Xeriscaping?

There are seven xeriscaping principles described by the nonprofit Arizona Municipal Water Users Association's Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style in the Arizona Desert. They include:

  1. Good landscape planning and design
  2. Low-water native plants
  3. Turf
  4. Efficient, effective irrigation
  5. Soil improvements/amendments
  6. Mulch, and
  7. Maintenance

Let's look at each one in detail now.

1. Good landscape planning and design

Take your time and create a plan to maximize your site's possibilities while considering such issues as cost/budget, function (screening, directing water to existing plants, etc.), aesthetic preferences, maintenance requirements, water efficiency, and energy efficiency. Use your plan as a guide throughout the process. Think long-term. Consider whether, for cost reasons, you want to complete your landscape all at once or in stages.

2. Low-water native plants

Hundreds of low-water, low-maintenance native and desert-adapted plant species are available at local nurseries. Be sure to choose open-pollinated, “straight-species” natives whenever possible, not cultivars, which may be showy but may also require more maintenance and water. Desert homeowners didn’t only focus on the prickly or spiny plants; the desert is full of beautiful flowering native plants. Cacti come in a wide variety of dramatic shapes with gorgeous blooms in vibrant colors. Native plants like cacti help create low-maintenance yards without taxing limited water resources.

3. Turf?

Turf or lawn generally requires lots of water and maintenance, even when managed sustainably. But if a homeowner has pets or young children, small turf areas may be necessary and can be incorporated successfully into a xeriscape if properly planned, installed, and maintained.

Photo Credit: FiveSTAR Landscape

4. Efficient, effective irrigation

“In the Sonoran Desert, almost all new plants should be watered regularly to get them established; and most plants, low water use or not, need some irrigation even after they become mature,” states Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style in the Arizona Desert. “The trick is to find out how much water your plants require and to apply only that much. When you design your irrigation system, try to put trees, shrubs, groundcovers, and turf areas each on different valves so you can time their irrigations separately. Most plants will need more frequent irrigations during their first year. Usually, you can cut back on watering during the second and subsequent years after the plants have become established. Also, remember that plants need less water during the cooler months. Adjust your irrigation schedule at least four times each year.”

5. Soil improvements/amendments

Most native, low-water desert plants will thrive in the existing soil. Improvements like fertilizers and other supplements aren’t necessary. Good drainage and contouring to direct water toward plants are critical to a good xeriscaping plan. Soil loosened at planting helps natives grow healthy roots as they become established. “Soil amendments most likely will be needed for turf areas and areas where more water-thirsty plants are installed,” according to Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style in the Arizona Desert. “Because there is quite a variation in soil quality and composition across the Sonoran Desert, soil amendments may be needed when unusual conditions exist. For more information about your specific soil type and the possible need for soil improvements, contact your County Cooperative Extension office.”

6. Mulch

Mulch is applied to finished xeriscaped areas to cover bare soil, reduce water evaporation, discourage weeds, and help plants retain water. Decomposed granite, which Northwest Landscaping uses in North Park at Casas Del Oro Norte, is popular in the Southwest. Crushed rock is also a common choice. Bark and wood chips, leaves, and other organic mulches are also used.

7. Maintenance

“When properly designed and maintained, xeriscapes save water, time and money through reduced plant water needs and lower maintenance requirements,” again, according to Xeriscape: Landscaping with Style in the Arizona Desert. “But low water use and low maintenance does not mean no water use and no maintenance. All landscapes need some care, and most plants need supplemental water in our desert environment. Proper pruning techniques can keep your yard beautiful and natural-looking and save you trips to the landfill. A well-maintained irrigation system can keep plants healthy and water use low.”

Looking Ahead 

Shortly after moving into her home at Casas Del Oro Norte, Steinbach set about xeriscaping her front yard, “which was quite large with two giant mesquites and nothing else but rock,” she says. She researched xeriscaping and did the work herself. She purchased and planted several native desert plants without breaking her budget, including cactus, which put forth gorgeous blooms in the spring. “I hand water about once a month, if necessary, which is enough.”

After spearheading her association’s move toward xeriscaping as part of a well-considered multi-year plan, she’s looking forward to the next phase: Planting North Park with low-maintenance native desert plants. “Some residents are interested in adopting a section of North Park, buying the plants and putting them in,” she says. “Others have native plants in their yards they are interested in dividing and planting. Right now, we’re working toward a design that incorporates their input, so North Park isn’t a hodgepodge but nicely designed.”

So, now is a great time to evaluate your yard and see what you can do to decrease your outdoor water usage, save money, and bring in a diversity of plants that add beauty to your everyday life—and xeriscaping is a wonderful solution, especially if you live in a dry climate.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-11-19T03:53:17+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.