When xeriscape is mentioned, most people immediately think of plants that need only water provided by nature to survive and nothing else. This is not what xeriscape
actually stands for. Xeriscaping is a term that has been used for more than three decades to describe a landscape that is suitable for an arid climate needing little water and maintenance. When you decide to go xeric that does not mean you have to only plant Cacti, Russian Sage, Yarrow or Sedum. Your local nursery will have a large pallet of plant material that can be used in a xeric landscape. The key to ensuring the survival of your plant material and turf (yes you can have grass in a xeric landscape) is to plan ahead and make sure that you do not just put some plant material in the ground and hope that it thrives year after year.
There are some steps that need to be adhered to in order to ensure that your landscape will be a happy and healthy xeric environment. First thing is to come up with a plan. Make sure you are aware of what plants are existing and if they fit the xeric environment that you are creating. Make sure that you research the plant material you plan on installing and ensure that they will thrive in a low water environment. You will want to look at the drainage on the property, what type of soil you have and what type of exposure the yard has. Next, work on improving the soil characteristics. This will allow the soil capacity for water and oxygen to increase, and will also improve the drainage. This could include tilling in amendments and possibly adding small amounts of aggregate (small stones – <3/8”) that will help with creating air space and can improve the drainage.
When planting your areas, create like-minded watering areas. This means group plants according to their watering requirements so that you can better distribute the appropriate amount of water for that zone. Once the plants have been appropriately grouped, you will have to modify your existing or install new irrigation for the area. This is as important as creating a healthy soil environment and should be specific and flexible. You should be installing drip irrigation to the plant material with specific amounts of water to specific plants. In other words, you need to size the drip emitters properly. The irrigation controller is the flexible part of the equation. You should have the ability to set different schedules and durations for each of your xeric areas. Less frequent watering for longer duration will help create a root system that is deeper in the soil than more frequent short watering.
Being xeric means that you are making a conscious effort to conserve water. One of the most under-appreciated materials we have in our landscapes is mulch. A good wood mulch will not only retain the soil moisture far better than having no mulch, it will also keep the plants root system cool, minimizing the effects of our hot dry summer days. One of the last things you can do to promote the health of your new xeric garden is to practice appropriate maintenance. With proper pruning, weeding, fertilizer and monitoring of the irrigation system you will only increase your water savings.
Earlier I mentioned that turf can be part of a xeric yard. Most of us think of turf as not only a maintenance headache but also a huge consumer of water. Our lawns do need more consistent attention than our xeric plants do, but with proper planning you can create a small lawn area in your yard that will require much less water than you think. There are various types of turf grass on the market that require much less water than the typical Blue Grass blends. Again, with the proper soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization and turf selection, you can greatly minimize the amount of water you use to keep the grass healthy. Generally most lawns are over watered and can survive and will actually do better in drought situations if the watering schedule is monitored and modified.