Xeriscaping: Solutions for Water-Wise Gardeners

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As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, the debate about global warming continues. But this gardener’s convinced. It’s time to look at the water-wise principles of xeriscaping and
get ahead of the inevitably unpredictable drought cycles that are assuredly in our future.

The term xeriscaping was coined by the Denver Water Department in 1978; it’s based on the Greek word for dry and uses xeric plants, those tough, drought-tolerant and colorful perennials that seem to survive no matter what. By choosing plants that are compatible with the water conditions of a particular area, a gardener can enjoy a lower-maintenance landscape and decrease her water bill at the same time.

A well-designed xeriscape uses 40 percent to 50 percent less water than the traditional landscape. Since the lawn is the usual water guzzler in the average yard, that’s often the area where would-be xeriscapers choose to begin, by either replacing grass or reducing its area. Other ideas include incorporating hardscaping, stepping stones, large rocks and pebbles along with the suitable native plants for your USDA zone.

Know your climate
Determine your USDA zone by visiting planthardiness.ars.usda.gov; this information is key if you like to shop for plants on the internet rather than your local garden shop. Research your locality’s average annual rainfall; if there’s an annual “monsoon” period with a higher amount of rainfall, your plant selection should reflect that.

Scrutinize your property for microclimates. Are there areas of dry shade that may be cooler, or sections next to a wall or fence that receive more sunlight and will be subject to higher temperatures and receive less rain? Areas with water runoff, such as roof drip lines or the bottoms of slopes, are the perfect spot for thirstier plants.

Choose the right plants
You’re not limited to cacti and yucca with xeriscaping. Drought-tolerant native plants and grasses, shrubs and trees chosen with an eye to the exposure they will endure and grouped properly can survive many a mini-drought. Look for plants with thick roots that store water, such as peonies or daylilies, or long tap roots that dive deep into cooler soil, such as baby’s breath or butterfly weed. Lamb’s ears, salvia argentia and silvermound, often grown for silver foliage, have hairy leaves that add texture; the gray and silver leaves reflect sunlight and the hairs shade the leaf surface.

The varieties of viburnum, commonly known as snowball or cranberry bush, are versatile as hedges, screening or focal plantings. Crape myrtles, Lagerstroemia indica and hybrids within this species, are hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 9; Lagerstroemia fauriei is reliably hardy as far north as Zone 6. Look for its cultivars ‘Miami,’ ‘Natchez,’ ‘Apalachee,’ ‘Osage,’ ‘Hopi,’ ‘Comanche’ or ‘Regal Red,’ but in Zone 6 plant in a microclimate that minimizes northern exposure. Locust trees, native to North America, tolerate adverse conditions in Zones 4 through 9.

Plan interesting designs
Group plants according to their water requirements, giving a nod to color, foliage and shape. Flowing native grasses such as maiden grass or pampas grass are useful for borders or as ornamentals and add height. Incorporate perennials in a wide variety of blues or greens and then add colorful sedums or yuccas, or add native perennials such as yarrow or penstemon for pops of color.

Look for plants with narrow leaves to reduce transpiration, the amount of water lost from leaves. Review the irrigation system, installing drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Mulch well to slow evaporation. Now’s also the perfect opportunity to plan a gravel or brick walkway, terracing or steps that may have an impact on the next discussion—saying goodbye to your grass.

Limit Lawn Space
If you must have grass, plant low-water turf grasses. Bermuda grass, native to the drylands of Africa, goes dormant during the summer and revives when rain returns in cooler weather. When it’s established, it survives without additional water. Heat Wave, a new turf-type tall fescue grass, has a deep-growing root system that allows access to more water and nutrients without supplemental watering.

Maintain Healthy Soil
The quality of your dirt can’t be overemphasized. To increase the level of nutrients and water retention in the soil, mix in compost or other rotted plant material to a depth of six inches or more. Perform a soil test if you’re in doubt about overall soil quality. Fertilize sparingly; using a slow-release fertilizer saves time and energy and doesn’t encourage fast, straggly growth that’s not sustainable.

If you’re a beginning gardener, the principles of xeriscaping make getting started easier. Even the old hands with black thumbs can embrace the savings of time, energy and water of this way of growing! ■

Sources: clemson.edu, gardeningknowhow.com, grasspad.com, hgtvgardens.com, and wikihow.com.