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The 7 Principles of Xeriscaping and How to Try It

Xeriscaping examples along a path

If you follow landscaping trends, you’ve probably heard of xeriscaping before—a landscaping philosophy created to reduce water use through smart design. The immediate assumption for many people is that xeriscape is all desert plants and stone in a dry, arid environment. While those gardens can be an amazing option for some landscapes, xeriscape is much more than just desert landscaping. In this article, we’ll discuss exactly what xeriscape is, how the versatile principles can work for you, and how to break ground on your first xeriscape project.

What Is Xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping is a type of landscape design that works to use as little water as possible while maintaining a beautiful and functional environment. There are many strategies to achieve this low-water landscaping and we’ll dive into them all down below. All of them revolve around intelligent and efficient use of hardscape and softscape to make your landscape design both low-water and low-maintenance.

The term “xeriscape” was first created in 1978 as people moved toward low-water landscaping in response to a large drought in the western United States the year before. It’s a combination of the Greek “xeros,” meaning dry, and “scape,” meaning scene (think “landscape”). That means “xeriscape” directly translates to “dry landscaping”—which is pretty apropos.

Xeriscaping has only risen in popularity since the 70s, and has become a particularly popular design philosophy in the southwest where drought-tolerant landscaping is essential. That’s a large part of how xeriscape gained its association with desert landscaping.

Xeriscaping traditionally brings austere desert gardens to mind, filled with distant clusters of cacti and succulents amid a sea of gravel. While that’s a perfectly fine design choice if you love a desert landscape front yard look, xeriscape ideas can be applied to any climate and any landscape—all without needing to turn your New England rose garden into a cactus patch.

Whether you’re looking for desert landscape ideas, alternatives to grass lawns, or your own drought tolerant garden, xeriscaping is all about working with plants that are appropriate for your climate and organizing them wisely for efficient water use. That means that you can keep those lush green gardens and also cut your water bill.

The Seven Principles of Xeriscape

No matter what space you’re planning on xeriscaping, there are seven basic principles that apply and can help you create the water-efficient landscape design you’ve been dreaming of.

Planning and Design

As with most landscape design, the first step is assessing the space you have to work with and considering how it will be used.

Are you working on a moist, shaded side yard or a full-sun front yard? Is this going to be an ornamental garden or a play area with heavy foot traffic? How much of your weekend are you willing to spend on landscaping maintenance? All those questions will inform the final design, as will thoughtful planting.

Because there’s a great deal of planning and background knowledge required for a really impactful xeriscape design, we recommend working with a landscaping expert who’s familiar with low-water landscaping practices. If you’re interested in chatting with a professional, we’re happy to help—we’ve created beautiful xeriscape designs all over the country.

Soil Improvement

If you want your xeriscaping to perform as well as possible, it’s important to start from the ground up—literally. Having the right kind of soil for your planting plan is essential! 

The ideal soil balance should be quick draining to make sure your plant roots are never sitting in water but also be able to retain moisture for plants to pull from between waterings. A routine soil test will tell you more about the pH balance, nutrients, and more from your soil and help you find out what amendments your soil needs.

Practical Turf Areas

Xeriscaping traditionally limits wide turf areas as they can be a huge water drain without adding much value to your yard. Non-native grasses require fertilizer and more water to accommodate their shallow root systems. Plus, frequent mowing is both a hassle and requires fuel or energy to run the lawnmower.

For a xeriscape yard, you should prioritize which areas are truly beneficial to use as open recreational space and turn the rest into more functional landscaping. For the areas that you do want kept as open turf, choose a lawn grass alternative. Clover, hard fescue, and other low-growing ground cover plants that are suited to the water levels in your environment are excellent options and require little (or no) mowing.

If you want to go all the way, there are many lawn alternatives that can help you create a truly beautiful no grass front yard. You can find more information in our full article on alternatives to grass lawns.

Choose the Right Plants

Selecting the right plants for your environment is a large part of the xeriscape planning process! The immediate priority that leaps to mind for a low-water landscape design is selecting low water consumption plants. You’ll also see these called “xeric plants,” a term coined to describe plants that evolved to be drought-tolerant. This is especially important if you live in an area that experiences frequent extended dry periods—a southern California summer means you have a drought season every year.

In most climates, you can still use a variety of plants including some with higher water needs. Just be sure to group plants with similar water requirements together to simplify watering and irrigation and ensure that every plant is having its needs met.

There are other factors to consider as well to make your planting plan effective in the long term. Trees and other large focal point plants can reduce evaporation by blocking wind and sunlight, creating more comfortable areas for both people and shade-loving plants. You should also think about the ultimate size of a plant before placing it. By accommodating space for the full grown plant, you can reduce how much pruning you’ll have to do to keep it at a manageable size.

One of the easiest techniques to pick appropriate plants for your environment is to select native plants. These plants are already perfectly suited for your climate and will grow well in the natural rain patterns of your region. Check out our full article on native plants for information on how to incorporate them into your landscaping and find the right plants for your area!

Using Mulch

First things first—what is mulch? Landscape mulch is a material spread over the surface of the soil to form a protective layer. Common mulching materials include inorganic materials like stone, gravel, and rubber chips, and organic options such as wood chips, straw, and compost. All of these mulching options serve the purposes of reducing water evaporation, soil erosion, and weed growth wherever they’re placed while protecting the roots of anything planted below.

We prefer using organic mulches. As they break down over time, they nourish the soil by adding more organic materials. This does mean they need to be topped up at least once a year, but they will continue to benefit your soil year after year. For our full guide on mulches and how to use them, take a look at our Mulch 101 article.

Efficient Water Use & Irrigation

Good water usage is all about avoiding overwatering. Whether you’re using an irrigation system or watering your landscaping by hand, it should be done efficiently and with as little water as possible.

For irrigation systems, drip irrigation is an excellent choice to deliver water right at the base around ornamental plants with higher water needs. Avoid using sprinkler systems that spray wide areas with water. They waste water where it’s not needed and often don’t allow water to deeply soak into the soil around plants’ roots. A smart irrigation system can include timers and weather checks to ensure that your plants are only getting watered when they need it and at the best times of day to avoid immediate water evaporation.

If you’re watering by hand, make sure to soak the areas directly around your plant roots rather than wasting water in a wider spray. Try to water in the morning to allow water to fully absorb into the soil before stronger afternoon sun encourages evaporation.

Landscape Maintenance

While most xeriscaping is low maintenance landscaping, it’s not no maintenance landscaping. Basic work like weeding and mulch maintenance is still required, but it’s actually encouraged to minimize the amount of maintenance you do to most of the plants.

Overzealous pruning, watering, and fertilization leads to faster growth, which in turn means more water use—a xeriscaping no-no. The goal is slow and steady growth, which you can encourage by using less water, fertilizer, pesticides, and doing less pruning and mowing of greenery. Less intervention means more natural plant growth and less work for you—and we love any system that lets you clap yourself on the back for taking a weekend off.

Why Xeriscaping is Beneficial

We know that using water conservation is a good thing in theory, but how can xeriscaping actually help you and the environment in the day-to-day? There are many ways that a good xeriscape plan can pay off in the long term.

Low Maintenance

Xeriscaping is all about minimizing the work you do in your landscaping for maximal impact. That minimal maintenance frees up your weekend plans for more lounging and less pruning, and ultimately helps to produce strong, hardy plants. We can talk about the benefits all day—and we did just that in our article on all things low maintenance landscaping.

Environmentally Friendly

Did you know that over 50% of residential water use goes directly to landscaping and lawns? Xeriscape can reduce that landscape water use by an impressive 50–75%. Less water usage is good news for the environment, and lower water bills are good news for your wallet.

There are more environmental benefits to xeriscaping than just using less water! Cutting out fertilizers and pesticides means fewer harmful chemicals leaching into the groundwater. Reducing mowing results in lower carbon emissions. All the native plants that are part of a good xeriscape design also help to create natural habitats for wildlife. 

Basically, it’s all good news for your local ecosystem.

Financial Benefits

We’ve already talked about lower water bills (and we do love to save money), but the financial benefits of xeriscaping don’t stop there. Many areas offer rebate programs and other incentives for drought tolerant and water-wise landscaping. 

Different parts of the country offer bonuses like rebates for smart irrigation systems or the amount of grass removed from your landscaping. Some towns and cities will even supply you with free landscaping equipment and materials! We’ve compiled some of the best ways to research and take advantage of these programs in our full article on water-wise landscaping rebates.

Ready to Get Started?

If you’re ready to sink your teeth in and learn more about xeriscaping, Denver Water (the people who actually created the term “xeriscape!”) have compiled a fantastic list of further reading and resources for the aspiring xeriscaper. And if you want a helping hand from an expert, reach out to us. We’ve got years and many front yards of xeriscape experience that will make your landscaping life a little easier.

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