In South Texas, where I grew up, water restrictions are so common that it’s unusual not to be in some stage of drought. Maintaining a traditional lawn in the 100-plus degree heat of summer typically yields only three things: yellow-brown, patchy turf; a high water bill and a whole lot of heartache.
With many areas of the nation subject to drought of varied severity and frequency, regardless of where your new home is located, you may find yourself in an uphill battle against the heat and climbing water bills.
How can you save money, maintain an attractive yard, and avoid some anguish? Instead of struggling to grow plants not suited to your climate, work with Mother Nature.
Native plants that thrive on local rainfall
The goal of xeriscaping (sometimes referred to as smartscaping or drought-tolerant landscaping) is to minimize water use by using plants native to your region and climate — plant materials that have evolved to survive and even thrive on the amount of rainfall typical in your area. In contrast, conventional lawns require significant amounts of water and maintenance and can be difficult to grow in sandy or compacted soils.
Xeriscaping offers a proven alternative. “But I need some grass in my yard,” I hear you shout. “My children and dogs can’t run and play in cactus!” Fortunately, several turf grasses can be incorporated into a xeriscape, as well as native plants of many types and even wildflowers.
Arid and semiarid landscapes were the first natural xeriscapes — places where plants naturally adapted to survive on little to no water. Unfortunately, xeriscaping developed a stigma over the years as a sparse design composed only of cactus and rock. However, shifting climate patterns and increasing attention to water conservation have resulted in a resurgence in the popularity of xeriscaping and a rediscovery of the variety it can offer.
The first step in xeriscaping your yard is to ensure that it is contoured correctly to collect rain and minimize run off. An enormous amount of water is lost each year to run off so a yard that can efficiently retain water is key to minimizing water use. Reducing run off also helps limit erosion and pollution.
Another cornerstone of a successful xeriscaping plan is the use of native plants that have adapted to local conditions. “These plants also require little or no water in addition to what falls naturally nor does it need added feeding in the form of fertilizers — further stretching the gardening budget,” says Cathy Stein, a garden coach at Eclectic Design Choices in North Texas who specializes in earth-friendly, water-wise choices. “Local wildlife also benefits when using native plants,” she added, noting that native plants reduce the need for additional herbicides and pesticides.
“Going local” may seem to be a downside to some garden enthusiasts, since the selection of local plants is more limited. However, with a bit of research you can discover a multitude of xeriscape-compatible options for your area, from live oak trees and flowering shrubs from red yucca and Mexican oregano to black-eyed susans and confederate jasmine, as well as succulents and cacti. Consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zone map to learn which plants will thrive in your climate.
Other Elements of Xeriscaping
Never underestimate the power of mulch. Available in many varieties and colors, it serves as a protective covering for soil and prevents water from evaporating quickly. In a xeriscape, use a good wood mulch that will decompose slowly and stay in place, such as cedar or cypress. Mulch will inhibit weed growth, cool the soil, add nutrients and improve the soil structure as it decomposes. Above all, it will help retain water so thirsty plants can drink the water you’ve graciously provided before it is evaporated by the sun’s heat. Used correctly, mulch is a secret weapon to a great-looking garden.
Evaluate Water Needs
Rain catchment systems are an important part of the xeriscape philosophy. Rainwater is a wonderful way to water your plants. Collect rain from your roof and store it in large barrels for later use — you’ll take care of your thirsty plants on Mother Nature’s dime.
It’s also important to group plants together that have similar water needs. “A xeriscape will generally have three areas of plants sorted into three groups based on water needs: very low, low and medium,” says Sabeena Hickman, CEO of Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), a national association for landscape professionals. Grouping prevents over- or under-watering, which in turn limits the amount of wasted water. In addition, it’s extremely important to add mulch to ensure plants receive water before it evaporates.
Consider having a professional evaluate your irrigation system: “An irrigation system may need repair or adjustment and a professional can also check for water distribution uniformity, as well as make sure irrigation systems are installed and properly maintained,” says Hickman. Soaker hoses are a good choice as they insure that water gets to the plant’s roots with as little waste as possible.
Other water-saving tips include: planting in canopy layers to ensure water on the ground is absorbed by plants prior to evaporation; using trellises to further shade the ground and to facilitate absorption of water; and watering at dawn or dusk, especially during summer months.
The cost of xeriscaping your yard can be on par with any other landscaping plan. However, a 2005 study by Kent Sovocool, Senior Conservation Programs Analyst for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, found that homes that converted from turf to xeriscape required 30 percent less water on average — and some savings were larger. Other studies show similar or even larger savings. Depending upon the complexity of your yard, a xeriscape may require the usual chores, such as pulling weeds, mulching, etc. Xeriscaping can be adapted to fit the needs of any gardener — from a very low maintenance yard requiring only seasonal or monthly upkeep to a highly involved landscape that will impress even expert gardeners.
Keep in mind that “low water use” and “no water use” are very different terms, as are “low maintenance” and “no maintenance.” Of course, the level of maintenance will depend heavily on the complexity of your landscape.
In addition to cutting down on your water bill, a xeriscape may also be eligible for rebates from your city government, depending on where you live. Check your city government’s website for more information.