Xeriscaping is becoming more and more popular — but what is it? The word xeros is Greek for “dry.” And “scaping,” obviously, comes from landscaping. Add them together and you get xeriscaping. You likely get the idea, too. Xeriscaping is a landscaping concept that allows for the minimization of water use in the garden.
One would think that, being a gardener, I would enjoy listening to the hose drench my beloved plants with water. Not so. I plant, I weed, I fertilize, but I pretty much expect my garden to get most of its water needs straight from the heavens — or, at the very least, from one of my husband’s many irrigation systems.
Watering is one garden task I do not like. So as soon as I discovered xeriscaping, I decided I am definitely a xeriscapist (I just made the word up, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be one too).
Xeriscaping is not a new concept. Following the drought of 1977 in the western states, and with the knowledge that almost 50 percent of the water used by America’s average household was going to lawn maintenance (now that’s a jaw dropper that should convert just about everybody), a task force of the Denver Water Department, in conjunction with Colorado State University, coined the word — and concept — of xeriscaping.
As with most concepts derived from task forces, it may appear more complicated than it is. If you research xeriscaping, you’ll discover there are major benefits, certain principles and planning involved. That’s all very good, but the basic concept is simple — cut back on the turfgrass, plant more drought-resistant plants and garden in a way that reduces your overall water usage. This also reduces your overall water bill. Not so hard, eh?
The lawn is the first area you need to consider when xeriscaping. You want to minimize grassy areas as much as possible. In some areas of the country where water is really at a premium, the towns are actually paying people upwards of $500 to get rid of their lawns completely. (Asheville, are you listening?)
A lawn is not a natural thing (and this is coming from the woman who read A History of Lawns from cover to cover). Yet, we Americans are desperately in love with our green, green grass of home. I admit to being smitten myself; as I type, my husband mows. However, my lawn is a little deceptive. If you look closely you’ll see only a small part of it is actually grass. Along the split-rail fence, down steep inclines, under trees and shrubs, and bordering all the garden beds are ground covers, which eliminates the need for weed-eating.
Pachysandra (both Japanese spurge and the native Allegheny spurge) grow like mad there. Common Bugleweed, or Ajuga, also grows, mixed in with the spurge. The Bugleweed produces beautiful blue flowers in June, then my husband mows over it when the flowers are spent. These ground-covers don’t need the fertilizing and watering that a beautiful green lawn does. The Pachysandra is an evergreen plant. The Bugleweed, purplish in color, dies back some, but can be invasive. It is easy to weed however, so pulling up clumps you don’t want is a fairly simple task.
Another area of our lawn has returned to meadow. We simply stopped mowing it one year, and I scattered wildflower seeds around, but I needn’t have. Seeds lying dormant for years suddenly grew. We are now gifted each fall with asters and queen-of-the-meadow. Milkweed attracts butterflies in the summer, and self-sown poppies form a perennial border and are a standout in spring. This area is never watered and is only mowed in late fall.
If not grass, then what? Plants, of course, but also patios and pathways that are laid in sand to prevent storm water run-off. Plant indigenous plants as much as possible. Native plants are adapted to your area, giving them a head start over exotics that might require a lot of watering. However, there are lots of plants to choose from that are drought-resistant — the key to xeriscaping is picking plants that are not dependent on a lot of water, after all.
If you’re thinking, “I’m not getting rid of my hydrangeas,” well, don’t worry, neither am I. Try the native oakleaf hydrangea. When my Annabelles and macrophyllas are drooping from lack of water, my oakleaf is thriving. Succulents, like hardy sedums, are a great choice for particularly dry areas.
After a retaining wall collapsed at my house, I chose to re-do one of the newly rebuilt beds in sedums. I’ve been rewarded with bright foliage and beautiful delicate flowers, no watering and minimal attention. The sedums actually grow right up under the house awning, where rain doesn’t reach.
It is best to group your plants according to water needs, which makes watering more efficient. When watering, use drip lines and soaker hoses instead of sprinkler systems. Drip lines and soaker hoses deliver water right to the root line of the plant, and less water will be lost. Also, mulch around plants and in beds to keep soil temperature and moisture more even, losing less water to evaporation. Maintain your beds, removing weeds that compete for water. Mulching and weeding around your existing beds can conserve almost 25 percent of your water usage.
So what is xeriscaping? In short, a concept that promotes less water-thirsty grass, more appropriate plantings, improvement of the soil and efficient irrigation, all in a effort to save water — which could add up to a 50 to 75 percent water-usage savings per home. Can’t beat that.
— Cinthia Milner gardens in Leicester.