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with Style in the Arizona Desert
an on-line version of a step-by-step landscape
Water efficient landscapes can be used anywhere - from small residential
yards to large commercial sites. They can also be the most water wasting.
Water use in landscaping can account for up to 50% of a typical family's
water bill. Here are some tips to help you have a beautiful landscape
yet be water efficient:
The Water Wise program promotes a landscape technique called "Xeriscape™.
Xeriscape is a term a group of water professionals created in 1981.
It is derived from two words: xeros or dry, and scape
as in landscape. All put together, it means "low water
landscaping". But remember! There isn't any "zero" in
Xeriscape can be colorful, exciting and water efficient. Here are seven
- Design: Plan your landscape to include what you
want and don't want. The more thought you and your family put into
the landscape BEFORE it is installed, will mean less work for you
later. Make a "Wish List". Ask yourselves questions, for
example: Will you be entertaining? What size group? What views do
you want hidden? Enhanced? Where would the kids like to play? Will
there be a garden? Do you want to attract wildlife for watching? What
do you want from your landscape in the future? What can you afford?
In designing a xeriscape, think zones.
Zones: It is helpful to divide your yard up into water use
Appropriate Turf Areas. Turf is the highest water
use landscape component. It is also the most labor intensive. If you
have moved to the Southwest from a more temperate climate where
grass grew easily and needed little attention, recognize that turf
in the southwest takes more care. Ask yourself if you need turf, or
how much and where you will use it. Choose a turf grass carefully,
as there are warm season grasses like a native Buffalo grass that
only grows to a 4" height and needs little fertilizer, or a cool
season grass like tall fescue that can be pushed to stay green over
the summer by giving it extra water
and fertilizer. You may also wish to remove your turf.
Plant Selection. Choosing the right plant for the
right place makes your landscape maintenance job either pruning and
watering all weekend, or swaying in a hammock sipping a cool drink
and watching the butterflies. Group similar water use plants together
for easy watering. Know the mature dimensions of the plant before
you plant it, what conditions it likes to grow in, if it drops litter
and if that will be a problem where you want to put it. Don't forget
to look up before you plant. There just may be a power line below
the mature height of that pine you wanted! Read plant tags, talk to
local nurseries, your Cooperative Extension, go for walks in the the
natural areas around your house and research landscape books to learn
about your plant choices.
Soil Improvements. Desert soils have little organic
material in them and are basic in pH. Desert plants have adapted to
grow in these poor soils. Adding organic material to gardens and
turf areas is appropriate, but not for many low water use landscape
plants- they just don't need it!
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch! This is where you can put
all that organic material you wanted to put in the soil! Three inches
on top of the soil in your landscaped area will help keep
the moisture in the ground by greatly reducing the evaporation rate,
and helping to suppress weeds. The mulch material can be inorganic
(rock) or organic. Shredded bark makes a good mulch as it tends to
knit itself together and be less likely to float or blow away. The
organic material will decompose and water will take some of the nutrients
to the plant's roots. In many places rock is appropriate, and neutral
colors like beige and light browns are cool and non- reflective.
- "Mini Oasis".
This is the area immediately around your house. It can be the patio
area, the area outside your front door, a courtyard. By planting
this area with moderate water using plants, you will help to cool
your house. You can use the water that falls off your house and
hard surfaces to supplement irrigation. Pay special attention to
the west exposure of your house. This is the side that can get very
hot in the summer, and could benefit from the shade of a tree. The
south side will not get direct sun in the summer, but will be warmer
due to reflected heat. This would be the place to have low plants,
groundcover, or if you need it, a small patch of turf. In the winter,
the south side of your house will benefit from the sun as it's angle
is lower in the sky, so you don't want to plant a tree here as it
will shade your home in the winter. The east side of a house is
a wonderful place to plant just about anything as plants appreciate
morning sun and respite from the hot afternoon southwestern sun.
North facing exposures are predominately shady, and don't
need plants, but if that part of your house is visible, you will
want to use more shade tolerant plants.
- "Transition Zone": This is the area just outside
of your mini oasis. It is an area for plants that need some irrigation.
You can use mounding and contouring techniques to direct rainwater
to the planted areas as well as micro-basins to catch run-off for
use by trees and shrubs. Choose low water using plants for this
- "Desert or Natural Zone": Here, you can
either let the natural vegetation provide habitat for wildlife,
or you can enhance the natural surroundings by using drought adapted
native plants. The emphasis here is to have plants that can survive
on rainfall alone. You will also want to use the rainwater harvesting
techniques mentioned for the transition zone.
- Don't forget that you will need to give your plants in each zone
special attention for the first 1-3 years while they get established,
even if they are native, low water use plants.
Weeds: Do not use black plastic as a weed control. Plastic
runs rainwater off of your property, traps moisture underneath it
causing plant roots to grow near or on top of the surface and oxygen
cannot get to the soil. It also may mean more erosion from water in
your neighborhood drainage channels or excess water in the sewers.
For good weed control, prepare your area by killing all unwanted plants
putting down a 2 in. - 3 in. depth of rock or an organic mulch, and
using a pre-emergent. For about the first three years more weed control
will be needed than in the future, as the weed seeds had been disturbed
and grew! Weed fabric is another option for weed control. It is a
porous cloth that is placed on the soil with rock or mulch on top
of it. The porous nature allows water and oxygen to penetrate. This
material is available in garden stores. (For more information on weed
control, see "turf removal").
Irrigation. One of the greatest wastes of water
is watering too much, too often. Putting just the right amount of
water in the right place for your plants is both healthy for them
and easier on you and your water bill. There are several ways to do
Maintenance. A stitch in time saves nine. Knowing
how your landscape functions and keeping up on repairs, catching weeds
before they set seed and adjustments to the water systems and schedules
will save you hours of labor. Xeriscapes are designed to require minimal
care. However, you might find yourself puttering around the yard,
just because it is so easy and beautiful.
- "Catch Rain, Dear" Water
harvesting is the easiest, best and cheapest way to water plants.
Rainwater doesn't have the mineral content of groundwater and won't
burn your plants. However rain comes sporadically and can be used
to supplement irrigation for oasis and transition zone plants but
can be the sole water source for desert zone plants.
- Catching rain is simple. Build some gentle packed earth ridges
(6 in. or higher) perpendicular to the flow of water (or on contour)
either on the uphill or downhill side of a plant at the dripline.
If you are preparing an unplanted area, dig to have a trench and
a berm. Digging trenches near mature plants can cut into their root
systems, causing injury .
- Areas that have poor drainage can benefit from digging a deep
hole (2 or so feet deep) preferably past the poor draining material
(clays, limestone, etc). Fill the hole with gravel and top dress
it as is the rest of the landscape. A tree or shrub can be planted
on the edge of this lower depression to use the water held in the
- Dry washes can be created to move water through a landscape and
control overflow. Sinuous washes with irregular sized rocks help
to slow the flow of water as it moves through the area. Keep in
mind that your goal is to keep water on your property.
- Storage of rainwater can be as small as a bucket or as big as
a tank. Barrels, horse troughs, empty swimming pools and water gardens
all can store water for use in the dry seasons. Covering the surfaces
and using mosquito control products will help keep the water clean
and safe for plants.
- Drip Drip irrigation
is a system of plastic tubing that delivers water to a plant landscape.
It is designed to slowly deliver water to the plants root system
allowing the water to soak in rather than run off or be evaporated
by wind or sun. The specific delivery of drip makes it an efficient
way to water landscapes- if managed properly.
- Good systems will have different valves or stations for the different
water needs of plant. Trees, shrubs, bedding plants and turf all
had different water needs. Trees roots are found in the top 3 feet
of soil. Each time a tree is watered, the water should soak from
the top of the soil to a depth of 3 feet. Shrub roots are about
2 feet deep, and bedding plants and turf roots are about 1 foot
deep. So you don't over or underwater your plants - remember it's
as easy as 1-2-3.
- How deep water penetrates can easily be determined by using a
soil probe. This is a a thin metal
rod (3/8 in. or so) about 2'-3' long. Irrigation turn-key's can
be modified into soil probes by cutting of the "u" at
the end. Insert the probe into the ground after about an hour after
watering. It will stop when it reaches dry soil. If a rock is hit,
try another place. Look at the end of the rod and check for moisture.
When the rod won't penetrate the soil more than 4 in., then it is
time to irrigate deeply again.
- Deliver water at the drip line of a plant. This is the area directly
underneath the outer tip of the branches. This is where roots can
best absorb water. When it rains, the foliage of the plant keeps
water from landing underneath it, but drips water off the ends of
the branches for the tips of the roots to absorb. Expand your irrigation
emitters as your plant grows.
- Once you become familiar with your system and how your plants
use water, then you can determine watering schedules for the four
seasons and program them into the controller.
- Enormous waste occurs in neglected irrigation systems. Broken
lines, misplaced emitters, poorly designed systems all add up. When
an irrigation system is installed, a plan should be made and kept
with house papers for referral- for you and future owners. Use the
plan to check emitter placement, output, and general maintenance
at least once a year.
- Micro-Basin Flooding: With this method of irrigation,
berms are used to contain water delivered at a faster rate than
drip. A single bubbler is put near the base of the plant or series
of plants, and the entire root system is flooded. Berms need to
be expanded as the plant's dripline expands. When bubblers are designed
into a system, they should always be the method of irrigation as
the plant roots grow to absorb water delivered in that way. Bubblers
should be placed far enough away from the base of the plant as to
not promote root rot from contact with wet soil. Use the soil
probe method for determining how long to run your system for
optimum water use. Keep in mind that water has weight. As weight
is put on soil, and the soil becomes compacted, less pore space
is available for water, and the soil may not be able to absorb as
much water as it used to.This is a disadvantage to basin-flooding
as a watering method.
- Soaker Hoses: These hoses are black
porous hoses generally made out of recycled rubber. When screwed
on to a regular hose, the soakers "weep" and deliver water
at a slow rate. Soaker hoses can be used to temporarily water desert
zone plants if the season has been particularly dry, or be put in
flower beds. Cover them with mulch and they can be left unnoticed.
- Hand - Held Hoses/Manual Sprinklers: Outdoor faucets can
flow as much as 5 gallons a minute or 300 gallons per hour. Often
sprinklers and hoses deliver water at a much faster rate than the
soil can absorb. Excess water often runs-off and doesn't have a
chance to soak into the soil, potentially wasting a lot of water.
- Sierra Vista Sub-Basin: This is the watershed that is bordered
by the Huachuca and Mule mountains in Arizona. It includes the towns
of Bisbee, Palominas, Hereford, Sierra Vista, Huachuca City, and Whetstone.
Presently the population is using more groundwater than is being naturally
replenished and the aquifer is in "overdraft". The residents
of the Sierra Vista Sub-Basin depend solely on groundwater as their
- Annual Precipitation: The annual precipitation rate for the
Sierra Vista Sub Basin is about 15 inches of water per year.
- Average Low Temperatures: The plant hardiness recommended
for this sub-basin is 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Evaporation Rate: 5 feet per year from a body of water in
the Sierra Vista Sub Basin can be lost to evaporation. This means
that more water evaporates than the sub basin receives from natural
precipitation. This is why a mulch on top of the ground over plant's
root zone is so important.
- Evapotranspiration Rate: This is the evaporation rate and
the moisture lost from a plant (transpiration) combined.