Take watering off of your to-do list with smarter landscaping.
Fact checked by Haley Mades
Those traditional swaths of green lawn have become a lot less enticing lately—especially in desert regions and areas that have been seeing major drought. Enter xeriscaping, a landscaping strategy that reduces or eliminates the need for extra watering on your land.
There's been a big increase in interest in this type of garden design, which uses plants that are well suited to your local environment. That means they can make do with the rainfall, sunlight, and other conditions where you live—so you'll reduce the time, effort, and resources you have to put toward keeping your landscape looking good.
Benefits of xeriscaping
While the initial benefit—avoiding upkeep on a lawn or flowers that aren't native to your area—is huge, there are plenty of other reasons that xeriscaping makes sense, even if you don't live in an arid region.
"Creating a xeric landscape can save the average homeowner a good amount in utility costs," says Cate Singleton, director of design for garden design firm Tilly. You'll also save on landscape replacement—as you won't have to replace plants and grass that die off during watering bans.
Lending local wildlife a hand
Choosing plants that thrive in your region can help support animal life by providing food and shelter for them.
Your landscaping won't need constant fertilizing, water, and other interventions, and you won't have to worry about what will happen to your garden if you're on vacation—your plants will thrive just fine without extra watering.
Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizer and other chemicals used to enrich garden soil can end up in the air and water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They can cause air pollution, and enhance the growth of algae in water systems, creating algal blooms that can kill off fish and other aquatic life and pollute the water. By reducing the need for fertilizer, you'll help reduce this kind of environmental damage.
Even if you don't have the budget or the time to do a full garden redo, you can start incorporating some of these xeriscaping strategies into your current landscape.
Think about your dream garden
Consider how you plan to use your yard, whether it's for entertaining, a kids' play area, or just a spot to relax and unwind at the end of the day.
While most xeriscaping involves more spare and bold plants, supplemented with rocks, gravel, and other hardscaping, it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. "Xeriscape doesn't necessarily mean sparse," Singleton says. "I've seen and designed several very lush desert landscapes that are comprised of beautiful native plants arranged in a thoughtful and impactful way."
Assess your current garden situation
Before you hit the garden center, take time to tour your property, looking at what's thriving and where you have bare spots. "Take stock of your light, water, and soil conditions," says Kevin Lenhart, design director for online garden design firm Yardzen. "Understanding your site is key to making the best plant selections. A sunlight map is easy to make, and will prove to be invaluable as you get down to assigning different species to different parts of your yard."
Once you have that information, you can start making your plans. "You want to always remain aware of the ecological and climatic conditions of your site as you go about developing your design,' Lenhart says. "Every plant and material you select, and every location you assign to those design elements, should be made to create a harmonious relationship between your design and the site."
Consider what plants to keep, and what to swap out
You don't have to rip up the whole landscape and start fresh to create a good xeriscape. You can start by just adding some new native plants. "In general, established landscapes require less water, but introducing more drought-tolerant species to an existing landscape can be a great way to spruce up your beds without putting an additional burden on the water supply," Singleton says.
When deciding what plants to pull out, consider their water requirements. "Replace higher-water plants with low-water species, ideally natives," Lenhart says. "The higher the water demands of an existing plant, the better a candidate it is for removal."
You may also be able to just rearrange plants, rather than remove them entirely. "If there are landscape plants that like a bit more water, relocating them to a spot in the landscape that naturally collects more rainfall can be a great option," Singleton says.
Trees and shrubs should be the last items you decide to remove, as long as they're currently doing okay. "If there are any existing non-irrigated trees or shrubs in good condition, it may be a good idea to try to work these into the new planting design," Lenhart says. "These plants have established roots and won’t require the supplemental water needed to establish new plants."
Ditch as much lawn as possible
"The most impactful adjustment that can be made to create a more drought-tolerant landscape would be to remove a portion, if not the entirety of the lawn," Singleton says. "Lawns are one of the biggest water hogs in the landscape. You can replace your lawn with drought-tolerant plantings, gravel, or artificial grass if you need a space for kids to play or parties to happen.
Focus on native plants
"Utilizing native plants for your region is a great start to creating a more water-conscious garden," Singleton says. "Plants that are indigenous to the area can generally work within the normal weather patterns and require less supplemental watering. Native ground-covers are also a great option for lawn replacement and will require less water."
Even within native plants, you may need to narrow down your selections a little more, based on your individual site needs. "Find plants that want the exact light, moisture, and soil conditions that you have on your site, and they’ll fare the best with the least amount of fuss," Lenhart says. "Making the extra effort up front in plant selection will pay off with happy plants and minimal maintenance down the road."
Plan to continue watering initially
While the goal may be a water-free garden, you may still have to put in a bit of water initially. "It’s fine to have an irrigation system in a xeriscape design to help with plant establishment," Lenhart says. "Even low-water and drought-tolerant plants usually need supplemental irrigation to get them through the first couple of years. As the garden matures, the system can graduate to being more of an emergency backup than a primary source of irrigation."
Don't be afraid to keep tweaking
Garden design isn't a "one and done" kind of thing, so feel free to keep experimenting and adding to your xeriscape. "It can be stifling trying to find the perfect plant for every part of your design," Lenhart says. "Allow yourself to try things, and be okay if some plants fail. Design is an ongoing process, not a singular act. Embrace that idea, and you’ll end up with a more unique and successful design, but will also enjoy the process of designing a lot more."
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