X Marks the Spot


In a world of continually growing water restrictions and cost concerns, landscape designers prove there is no ‘zero’ in xeriscaping.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is usually a spattering of deep burgundy and red splotches, concentrated in the West, Southwest and Southeast, particularly during the summer months. Those dark shapes usually mean only one thing: extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

Other areas, like the Midwest and Northeast, have bits of tan, yellow and orange, meaning they have areas under abnormally dry, moderate or severe drought conditions.

These have been typical scenarios, where each year like a red maple leaf in fall the drought monitor seems to get darker and darker nearing peak summer, particularly in the same regions. But Mother Nature certainly enjoys throwing her curve balls. This year, for instance, moderate to exceptional drought only impacted 46 percent of the contiguous U.S., compared to 61 percent last summer. In 2012, this drought stretched from coast to coast, but this year the Eastern U.S. received some drought relief, while some areas of the West and Southwest got worse.

But that doesn’t mean any states have abandoned their drought response plans or water use concerns. Memories of all too recent extreme droughts bring back the desire for water conservation and better landscape planning to reduce H2O output and still present attractive, sustainable landscapes. Areas where drought has accelerated know this all too well. For instance, Texas, in its third year of drought, is to the point where reservoir levels in the state may soon reach an all-time collective low.

Enter xeriscaping. The age-old term simply means using plants that best tolerate dry conditions. However, the trend – sometimes inaccurately referred to as zero-scaping – tends to bring about visions of a sandy scene full of dry rocks and maybe a single cactus and a lone rolling tumbleweed – something out of a classic Western film or a “Dirty Harry” movie.

A xeriscape garden in North Brookfield, Mass.

Luckily for landscape designers and their clients, a vista that sets the stage for the antics of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner is not an accurate vision of xeriscaping. The concept has caught on, says, Gary Wade, University of Georgia, and not just in the Southwest where water shortages are more widespread. “In fact, almost all of the 50 states are actively pursuing xeriscaping programs,” he says.

Landscape architects and designers are also seeing more demand for xeriscapes. Shows & Allen Landscape Architects in San Antonio specializes in xeriscapes and partial xeriscape projects for residential customers. “We find ourselves doing xeriscape more and more” with customers leaving a little turf area for dogs and children to play in, says landscape architect Sam Allen.

As water restrictions and cost concerns escalate, landscape designers prove there is no “zero” in xeriscaping.

A xeriscape garden in Lakewood, Colo.


The term xeriscape (pronounced zera-scape), which combines the Greek word “xeros,” meaning dry, with the word landscape, first appeared in 1981 in Colorado, when the Denver area was experiencing a severe drought and water was being rationed, according to Wade. The Denver Water Department coined the term as a way to market water-wise landscaping. “The idea revolved around using as little water as possible and still maintaining interesting and attractive landscapes,” he explains.

Taking it a step further, Sustainable Sources, based in Austin, Texas, defines xeriscaping as “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” From a water-conservation standpoint, xeriscape landscapes are very valuable, the company points out: “They can be designed to aid in energy conservation. Efficient irrigation is perhaps one of the easiest principles to achieve, but has much to do with the water user’s habits and system design.”

A Look Inside Microclimate Zones

Each plant in a landscape has ideal conditions under which it thrives. These conditions have to do with the availability of sunlight, yearly temperature ranges, soil type, soil drainage and water needs. Xeriscapes take advantage of the varying conditions and microclimates that exist in every landscape. Microclimates are created by differences in moisture, sun, shade, air movement and heat within a landscape. For example, reflected light form south and west-facing structures creates high temperatures, which in turn increases the loss of water from nearby plantings.

There are guidelines that should be used when creating hydrazones in a xeriscape. Each zone is based on the amount of water required for vegetation to flourish, and the examples shown here incorporate the seven xeriscape fundamentals.

Very Low Water Zone

This is the lowest water zone in a xeriscape, and provides the greatest savings when compared to traditional landscaping. Here, irrigation is needed only to establish new plantings. Once they have been established, the plants in this zone require little, if any, additional water. Plants in the very low water zone need to be selected carefully on the basis of minimal water use. Existing vegetation, which should not be irrigated, is included in this zone.

Low Water Zone

Within this zone, careful selection of an efficient drip irrigation system will conserve large amounts of water. Plants growing in this zone will require more water than is available from natural precipitation, which need not be provided entirely by an irrigation system. Instead, take advantage of runoff from downspouts, driveways or patios. During very dry periods, small amounts of supplemental irrigation may be needed.

Moderate Water Zone

Even though this zone uses the most water, it still uses less than most traditional landscapes. This zone should be kept small and functional in size. It could be considered a mini-oasis and is best used when incorporated into your landscape design as a focal point or area of high use, such as the entrance area or the turf/lawn. Use a low water turf type grass in this area. – City of Greeley, Colo.

Since its beginnings, xeriscape has maintained seven key principles.

Planning & Design. Decide purposes for each landscape area and sketch out a design plan that takes into account any drainage challenges and sun/shade exposure, as well as considers entertainment areas, etc.

Improve Soil. Tilling to break up compaction and aeration, as well as the addition of organic matter can help considerably improve sandy or clay soils.

Smart Turf Use. Know the turf and sun/shade/water conditions of clients’ yards. Bluegrass, which requires full sun, might not perform well on a rocky, south-facing slope that would be too dry for a healthy lawn, as an example. Also, Bermudagrass and ryegrass require about 60 inches of water each year, but Mesa, Ariz., averages only 8 inches of rainfall annually.

Location is also an important factor to consider. When considering long, narrow strips or slopes, there might be better solutions than turf, such as low water use shrubs, perennials or groundcovers, the City of Greeley, Colo., suggests.

Efficient Irrigation. Consider drip irrigation and bubblers as more efficient ways to water plants at the ground level to reduce evaporation, experts advise. For clock-controlled irrigation systems, advise clients not to program them at the beginning of the growing season and forget about them; a landscape will need less supplemental water in May than in July. Reprogram frequently and check heads to ensure they are spraying the lawn and not hardscapes like the driveway or street.

Appropriate Plant Selection. Plants appropriate for water-wise landscaping are water conserving and drought tolerant. Water-conserving plants hold on longer to the water they receive; Bermudagrass is an example of a water-conserving turf. Drought-tolerant plants can go a long time without water; they simply don’t need as much. Choose these types of plants first. If there are some higher water use plants clients request or that complete the landscape design, group them together so they can be watered separately. This is possible and can save water if efficiently planned. Many local nurseries and cooperative extensions provide water-wise plant lists.

Use Mulches. Mulches minimize evaporation, retard weed growth, slow erosion and help prevent soil and temperature fluctuations. Use organic mulches, like wood chips, shavings or straw, or inorganic mulches like rock, but limit inorganic mulches, which can retain excessive heat around plants and clients’ homes.

Appropriate Maintenance. Proper pruning, weeding, fertilization and attention to the irrigation system will preserve and enhance the quality of a xeriscape. According to the experts, a landscape that adapts to its environment will require less maintenance and fertilization.

Xeriscape landscapes can initially cost more than conventional landscapes due to the comprehensive nature of xeriscape design and plant replacement. Mesa, Ariz., city officials estimate conversion typically ranges from $1.50 to $2.50 per square foot. “But you’ll realize about a 36 cents per square foot savings each year, not including labor time,” the city says, explaining the decreasing maintenance costs of a xeriscape. “With this in mind, you would have a payback within four to seven years.”

Phasing in a xeriscape transition can also help ease initial client costs, experts suggest.

Water smart garden at Denver Botanic Gardens

How Important Is Saving Water In The Landscape?

Is saving water that important? This is the ultimate question, and many landscape industry experts say the answer depends on where you live.

Sizes of yards, systems for watering and ecological locations all vary greatly. The semi-arid climate of Colorado, including the Front Range and eastern plains, receives between 12 to 15 inches of water annually in the form of rain and snowfall. Compare this to the 32 to 36 inches of water eastern Iowa averages or the 35 to 40 inches western New York state receives on average.

But Jaymi Heimbuch, a technology, conservation and water issues editor based out of San Francisco, in TreeHugger, says each American uses between 112 and 180 gallons of water a day, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 30 percent of a household’s water use goes to watering the yard.

Cactus and succulent garden

“In places with plenty of precipitation, the cheapest, greatest solution is clear – you barely have to water at all anyway, so use the system you have as conservatively as possible,” Heimbuch says. “However, for more drought-prone places like California, Nevada and the Southwest, this is a question with big implications. No matter where we’re located, interest in saving water is on the tips of everyone’s tongues.”

“While estimates are varied, there’s one thing we can agree on: When water is scarce, pouring it on ornamental landscaping can be wasteful,” Heimbuch continues. “But there’s another thing we can all agree on: Well-tended landscapes are pretty. How can we have our cake and eat it, too?”

In a place like Austin, Texas, for instance, 38 percent of the water consumed is attributable to outside watering, so from a water-conserving perspective, xeriscape landscapes are very valuable, Sustainable Sources says.

In xeriscaping’s early days, the California Department of Water Resources discovered many residential landscapes were being overirrigated by as much as 20 to 40 percent. A study in Marin County, Calif., showed landscape water use could be reduced by up to 54 percent without adverse effects simply by using more efficient landscaping and watering practices. In Novato, Calif., where consumers are being paid conservation incentives to convert to xeriscapes, the local water district estimates water savings can be as much as 120 gallons per landscape per day in peak-use months.

The reason these savings are deemed important is that reducing peak water demand could extend the long-term capacity of reservoirs and water treatment facilities, cities say. Because the cities must plan water storage and water treatment facilities to meet peak demand, reducing this can delay costly expansion while accommodating new residents and businesses. Cutting individual water use can also save on monthly water bills.

“The beauty of going with xeriscaping in drought-prone places is you can usually be even greener by selecting native species, which are adapted to the area’s climate already,” Heimbuch says. “After the first year or so, when the plants are established, you won’t need to water them at all, unless there is a severe drought or heat wave. Landscaping for drought tolerance can be done anywhere, not just in dry climates, and the popularity is growing as people realize the money it can save.”

Xeriscape garden at Colorado State University

Xeriscaping’s Rough Road

Xeriscaping hasn’t always had such a smooth road.

For instance, nearly 25 percent of California’s homeowners live in developments that are governed by Conditions, Covenants & Restrictions, or CC&Rs. And, in many cases, residents of these developments can be fined by their association if they replace their existing landscaping with California-friendly plants. In these cases, Heimbuch suggests landscape professionals take an active role in local associations so they consider all the facts when creating CC&Rs.

Until this year, Texas homeowners’ associations (HOAs) restricted the use of drought-tolerant plants. A new law, first proposed by state Sen. Kirk Watson and state Rep. Dawnne Dukes, both Austin Democrats, prevents HOAs from prohibiting xeriscaping. Associations can still require preliminary approval of any xeriscaping plans, but their control is limited and must be reasonable,” says Gregory Cagle, an Austin attorney and author of the book, “Texas Homeowners Association Law.”

It wasn’t a specific case of injustice that brought about the law; rather, the change was driven from persistent drought conditions in the state and more water restrictions expected to be enacted this year.

Other cities are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of restricting xeriscape, they promote it by offering rebates to homeowners who convert. Mesa, Ariz., for instance, encourages residents to use landscape plants appropriate to the Sonoran Desert climate. The city says a current single-family homeowner can apply for a rebate of $500 for removing at least 500 square feet of grass. In Novato, Calif., residents were offered conservation incentives amounting to water bill reductions to convert to xeriscaping; the city’s water department estimated that the homeowners who chose xeriscaping saved 120 gallons of water a day.

Other neighborhoods are offering water-wise accessories to help boost water savings. For example, Raleigh, N.C.’s Stanton Homes offers rainwater harvesting systems as standard features in select new homes and as options in all new homes. “We want to offer solutions to homeowners interested in ways to keep gardens and lawns green,” CEO Stan Williams says. “These systems are easy to use, and it’s amazing how far they can extend water usage for outdoor landscaping.”

When it comes to extending water use, DrinkTap.org says 50 to 70 percent of home water is used for watering lawns and gardens. And xeriscaping can help reduce that water use for landscaped areas by 60 percent or more, say Denver, Colo., water authorities. A xeriscape with good tree, shrub and vine placement can cut home and landscape cooling costs up to 46 percent for a Mesa, Ariz., home, and low water use plants in a 1,000-square-foot area only need 15,000 gallons of water per year versus the 35,000 gallons that higher water use plants require in the same amount of space.

While the statistics vary from region to region, they all clearly state that the old adage of “right plant, right place” can make a difference when it comes to saving water in the landscape.

Because no matter where the location, the climate, the average rainfall or current watering restrictions, all experts agree on one thing, and Fran Sorin, author of “Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening,” says it best: “It’s all about using water the right way.” TDB