The Virtual Gardener Apr 1997


A search of the Web using the Altavista search engine generates links to 800 documents containing the word xeriscape. Among them are many excellent sites offering both information about xeriscaping and images of xeriscaped gardens.

The term xeriscape was coined by the Water Department of the City of Denver, Colorado in 1981. The word combines the Greek word xeros, meaning dry, with the English word landscape and refers to landscaping techniques for conserving water. The techniques developed in Denver to cope with drought conditions in 1981 have been widely copied throughout the United States and Canada over the years. Local governments in 40 states and several Canadian provinces now sponsor xeriscape programs. Xeriscaping is popular throughout the arid West, but there are also major programs in places like Hawaii and Florida. As the population has grown, we have become far more aware that water is one of our most precious and scarce resources and xeriscaping can have a major impact on water usage. A study done in Austin, Texas showed that about 25 percent of total domestic water consumption in that area was for landscaping. The study also showed that xeriscaping can reduce the amount of water used for landscaping by up to 50 percent. That means that xeriscaping can result in a total savings of over 12 percent in overall water consumption.

The seven principles of xeriscaping are:

1. Planning and Design. In xeriscaping, as with almost every other endeavor, a good plan is the key to success. A xeriscape design is centered around a concept of grouping plants in zones according to their water requirements. High water users are clustered close around the house in a mini "oasis." Surrounding the oasis is a zone of plants of intermediate water requirements, and at the farthest extremes are the plants with the lowest water requirements.

2. Limiting Turf Areas. Turf (AKA "grass") is the largest consumer of water in most yards. Xeriscaping does not mean that you have to do without a lawn altogether, it just means that you have to cut down on the size of the lawn. Consider a lawn as an accent piece in a landscape rather than the background.

3. Using Efficient Irrigation Techniques. The old-fashioned techniques of watering plants with sprinklers that send fine streams of water jetting sky ward are passe. Modem drip irrigation techniques apply water directly to each plant in the amounts it needs.

4. Improving the Water- Holding Capacity of the Soil. Sandy soils dry out too quickly, and clay soils don't absorb water well. The xeriscaper improves the water retention properties of the soil with lots of organic material. This material not only holds water and releases it slowly to plants, but it also provides nutrients to make plants healthier.

5. Extensive Use of Mulches. Tell the average gardener to put mulch around her plants and she will immediately think of organic materials like bark or compost. The xeriscaper knows that rocks can also be used as mulches. Layers of rock look attractive, keep the soil cool and moist, and keep down those pesky weeds that gardeners are always fighting.

6. Use Plants with Low Water Requirements. This should be obvious. Xeriscapers like to use native plants in their gardens and yards because they are adapted to the local climate. You can have a few of your favorite plants with bad drinking habits in your oasis, but the intermediate and low water areas should make use of native plants.

7. Maintenance. In addition to saving water, a major spin-off benefit of a xeriscaped garden and yard are low maintenance requirements. Now you can spend more time enjoying your landscape and less time slaving over it.

You can find out much more about xeriscaping on the World Wide Web. Some of my favorite Web sites include:

The Coachella Valley Water District pages ( ~jmanuel/linkxero.htm) provide not only a wealth of technical information but some really lovely pictures of landscapes and plants. Coachella is not too far from Indio, California and has an annual rainfall of three inches! These people have to be serious about water conservation.

Another excellent site is Greenbuilder ( This site from Austin, Texas is filled with useful information about xeriscaping as well as related topics. One of the few Web sites that has information about plants that can be used for xeriscaping in the high desert is from the State Engineer of New Mexico ( ostfair/xeri/).

Gary Gruenhagen
April, 1997