What Is Xeriscaping?

What Is Xeriscaping?

The term xeriscape seems to have originated in the 1980s. Denver Water, the oldest water utility company in Denver, is credited with coining the term, and it is now commonly used to describe a landscape with water conservation as one of its main goals. Xeriscaping has become even more important as we face climate change due to global warming. Originally, the American Southwest was the home of xeriscaping, but today, many gardeners in the western states have embraced this style of landscaping. Xeriscaping doesn’t have to be limited to desert or arid areas of the country. Every garden can benefit from the application of the xeriscape principles.

Studies done in the southwest showed that up to 80 percent of the household water consumption was for maintaining the landscape — in other words, watering plants and lawns. After installing a xeriscape landscape, a Nevada study showed a 50 percent decrease in water bills with an even greater reduction in the summer months. There are some initial costs involved in changing your landscape to a xeriscape, especially if you include water recovery methods and irrigation systems. Many communities are offering incentives to help defray those costs. Also, for the first year or two, you will need to give your new plants regular deep watering to encourage the plants to develop a deep root system. After that, the plants should be able to survive with a minimum of supplemental water which could be provided during a drought by use of tools like tree watering bags.

What are the 7 Principles of Xeriscaping

There are seven principles of xeriscaping to keep in mind if you are considering converting your garden.

1. Sound landscape planning and design 

In a xeriscape garden, the planning of the design should incorporate methods of directing rainfall to the plants that need it. The water should remain on the land and not become runoff. By contouring the land, water will be directed to the plants that need it. The water should be absorbed for the use of the plants in your xeriscape. You may want to incorporate water storage systems. This can be as simple as a rain barrel on the corner of your house. The downspout of the gutter system will direct the water into the barrel for later use. It could be an underground storage tank that holds all the runoff from the roof of your home or any other buildings. This can be connected to your irrigation system and the water in the tank is used to water your landscape.

2. Limitation of turf to appropriate, functional areas. 

xeriscape fountain grass walkway

Large expanses of well-groomed and well-watered lawns used to be the epitome of a beautiful landscape. Today, we realize that huge lawns come at the expense of time and money. It also takes a lot of water to keep the lawn lush and green all through the heat of summer and the droughts many of us are facing on a more regular basis. Even a moderate size lawn may be excessive. How do you use your lawn? Is it functional or is it a showpiece? Consider eliminating grass totally or keeping only a small area.

If you really want grass, replace the usual bluegrass, which needs a lot of water to maintain. Instead, plant buffalo grass, fescues or blue grama grass. Plant a swath of fountain grass or the lower growing liriope.

3. Use of water-efficient plants. 

Take some time to research native plants for your area. These are plants that have adapted to your growing area and climate. A benefit of using native plants is that they need very little fertilizer compared to lawns and non-native plants. They can get what they need from the existing soil. This means less pollution of our waterways and oceans due to runoff. Understand that different plants have different needs. There are plants that need consistently damp soil. They will not do well if the soil is allowed to dry out before water is applied. They are not a good choice for xeriscaping. If these are plants you really love, plant them in a container so they can be watered more frequently. Choose plants that need to dry out before they are watered. Some plants prefer dry soil the majority of the time. These are the plants you need to use in your xeriscape.

4. Efficient irrigation. 

Gone are the sprinkler systems that shoot water all over an area, including on the pavement and to plants that don’t need water when their neighbor does. Drip irrigation is the preferred method of watering your xeriscape. The water is only released where it is needed, and it is emitted directly into the ground to minimize loss through evaporation. These systems can be scheduled to certain times of the day and predetermined frequency. There are also sensors that recognize when there has been a natural rain and watering isn’t necessary.

5. Soil amendments. 

Soil that is rich in organic material will be able to absorb water and hold it until the plants need it. Hard soil or clay soil will not easily absorb water. Instead, it will wash over the top, never penetrating the soil at all. Adding lots of organic matter can break up that soil and allow the water and oxygen all plants need into the soil.

6. Use of mulches 

gardener turning mulch

Mulch is the best way to minimize evaporation of the water you just applied. Mulch should be applied around all plants to help keep the moisture level stable as well as the soil temperature. Without mulch, the soil will bake in the heat of the day and can turn rock hard.

7. Appropriate landscape maintenance 

 Keep your landscape weed-free. Weeds will suck up the moisture your plants need. If you have a grass area, keep the grass long. The longer length will help to hold in moisture and prevent weeds from getting a foothold in your lawn.

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Other Things to Do to Reduce Water Use in the Garden

There are other things you can do to lessen the amount of water you use or that is wasted. 

1. Reduce Lawn Area

Enlarge your deck or patio to replace the lawn. Rather than using cement or solid pavers, consider using gravel. This is not the gravel you see on a country road, although you could use that if you want a more rustic look. Gravel includes crushed stone that comes from a number of different types of stone. It can be pure white, red or even blue. The stone is very uniform and more formal. The advantage of stone is that it is permeable and allows the rain to filter through and be absorbed by the soil beneath. If you really prefer a solid surface for under the dining table, use large solid blocks separated from each other by a couple of inches. Fill the space with grass or herbs like thyme. If you don’t want to use plant material, use the decorative crushed stone. This gives you the solid surface you want, but also enough space to allow the water to drain into the soil.

2. Make the Most of Rocks

If your site has a lot of rocks, don’t get rid of them — use them. Stack them to make a rocky hill. Fill the gaps with soil to make planting pockets and plant alpine plants. Most of these are adapted to a dry windy environment so they will do well in your xeriscape. If you have a boulder in your yard, make it a focal point. The shade from the boulder will provide a little mini climate to grow in. The boulder could be used as a backdrop for a larger plant or a more unusual-shaped plant.

trees over drought resistant landscape

3. Capitalize on Trees 

When designing your xeriscape, note the location of existing trees. These trees will provide shade during the heat of the day for plants and people. You might want to design a seating area under the trees or even a dining table.

4. Don’t forget Ground Covers. 

Many grow dense enough to work like a living mulch and keep the soil moist as well as regulating the soil temperature. They also use less water and many are shade-tolerant.

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5. Use Water Saving Rings  

Take advantage of products on the market to provide help for plants during droughts. A Water Saver Ring was developed in Australia where droughts have become more frequent. The ring will surround your tree, rose or shrub and hold the water in so that it stays near the base of the plant. It is very effective in sloping conditions where runoff is a major problem. This ring is so effective that it won the MGA Green Thumb Award in the USA.

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6. Water Saving Beads 

When planting in containers, add some water-absorbing beads. These beads are mixed into the soil, and when the plant is watered, the beads swell up as they absorb water. As the soil dries, the beads release the water so that the plants can use it. These are great in hanging plants and any container planter.

7. Tree Watering Bags 

Another product on the market is the Tree Watering Bags (sometimes referred to as the Tree Diaper). Immerse this pad in water and then place it around your plant. The diaper will absorb water from rain or irrigation and then slowly release it to the plant. You can place it and forget it, knowing your plant will be kept well-hydrated. You can also cover the diaper with regular mulch without lessening its efficiency.

By using some of these drought solutions, you can get your new xeriscape drought-tolerant plants through the crucial first two years.

Shop Water Savers for Your Xeriscape Garden Today

What to Plant in a Xeriscape Garden

It may seem like there are very few plants that could survive in a garden like this. Actually, there are plenty. Here’s a selection for you:

xeriscaping with trees


  1. Thornless Honeylocust. Zones 3-9. Grows 30-75 feet tall. This tree has small leaves that turn a brilliant yellow in the fall. When the leaves fall, they will turn into a yellow snowfall.
  2. Southern Magnolia. Zones 6-10. This tree has thick leathery leaves which are evergreen. The white blossoms can be up to one foot in diameter.
  3. Purple Leaf Plum. Zones 4-9. If you want a smaller tree, this is a good option. This tree will grow 15-25 feet.
  4. Ginkgo. Zones 3-8. Grows 50-75 feet tall. This is a lovely tree with fan-shaped leaves that flutter in the wind.
  5. Austrian Pine. Zones 4-7. Grows 40-60 feet tall and will do well in a wide variety of conditions.
xeriscaping with shrubs


  1. Junipers. These evergreens are very tough plants that will survive a variety of adverse conditions. Junipers can be 50 feet tall trees and three-foot high shrubs, depending on the variety you purchase.
  2. Cotoneaster. This shrub is popular for its abundance of red berries that are going to attract the birds. Butterflies and bees also love this shrub. This shrub can be used for a hedge or as a low-growing groundcover, depending on the variety you choose.
  3. Crape Myrtles. These beautiful shrubs are covered in huge flowerheads. They will be a real stunner in your landscape.
  4. Ninebark. Zones 3-8. Ninebark is a northern gardener’s choice for a dependable shrub that is drought-tolerant.
  5. Ligustrum. Zones 6-10. This shrub was somewhat invasive; however, there are now sterile versions that eliminate that problem. Look for the Sunshine variety for a bright yellow shrub in your xeriscape.
xeriscaping with flowers


  1. Coneflowers. These flowers are able to withstand just about all adverse conditions Mother Nature throws at them. Coneflowers are native in the Midwest and are very drought-tolerant.
  2. Russian Sage. This flower is like a cloud of small blue flowers. It easily withstands dry spells and even drought conditions.
  3. Yarrow. This flower can withstand drought conditions and still look beautiful. It comes in several colors and the large flowerheads will bring in the butterflies.
  4. Lamb’s Ear. This plant is a silver-grey color with fuzzy leaves. This is a restful cool color in the garden and very drought-tolerant.
  5. Lavender. This beautiful flower has the added benefit of its calming scent. Enjoy lavender in the garden, but plant enough to use as a dried flower and enjoy it indoors throughout the winter months.

With a bit of ingenuity, you can create the perfect garden for a changing climate and still enjoy gorgeous colors and designs. Remember, you can start small, too. If you have a garden already, choose a piece of it to start xeriscaping and expand from there.

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