Xeriscaping: What It Is and How to Do It
What Exactly Is Xeriscaping?
There are lots of ways you can use xeriscaping principles to save water in your yard.
1) Address your soil. If your soil is sandy and dries out fast after you water or a good rain, you can help the ground hold moisture better for your plants. It’s easy -- just add as much organic matter (such as compost or coconut coir) as you can. If starting new plantings, or completely renovating existing ones, mix in the organic matter before you start planting. If you’re dealing with existing garden beds or borders, top dress in spring and fall with a 1- to 2-inch-deep layer of compost.
2) Mulch. A 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch (such as pine needles, shredded bark, wood chips, cocoa hulls, compost, dried grass clippings or shredded leaves, etc.) can do wonders in helping the soil stay moist longer. This is because mulched soil stays cooler and there’s less evaporation underneath mulch than there is on bare soil.
Learn more with our mulch guide.
3) Place Plants Strategically. Save water in your xeriscape yard, even if you grow thirsty plants like astilbe, coleus, impatiens, lobelia, and pansies. The trick is to put them all together in one area, so you can water enough to keep them happy without having to water your entire yard that much. Make it even easier on yourself, if you can, but putting the moisture-loving-plants section of your yard in a place that’s naturally a little wetter, such as low spots or designed around a downspout.
4) Reduce Your Lawn. We tend to water our turf more than garden plants because an expanse of brown, dormant grass around our homes just looks bad. Adjusting your attitude about how green your grass needs to stay (or reducing the amount of lawn you have if it’s important to you to keep it lush and green) can go a long way to lowering your water bills and making your yard more xeriscape friendly.
5) Plant Selection. Of course, going with drought-tolerant plants that need less water is the most obvious way of reducing water loss.
6) Water Wisely. Xeriscaping doesn’t mean that you don’t water your yard at all. It’s important to give trees, shrubs, and perennials regular watering the first year you plant them to help them become established. And during periods of hot, dry weather, you may want to water your plants to keep them looking better and blooming more, even if they’ll survive just fine without watering. How you deliver the water is also important. Running a soaker hose underneath your mulch, for example, is more xeriscaping-friendly than using a sprinkler. On hot, windy days, up to 30 percent of the water thrown in the air by a sprinkler can potentially evaporate before it reaches the ground.
Are All Native Plants Good for Xeriscaping?
Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it’s a low-water variety. For example, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is native to large areas of North America, but is a moisture-loving plant that shows poor tolerance to drought. Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosana) is another native that doesn’t hold up well to hot, dry weather. When selecting native plants, pay attention to their water needs and place them accordingly in your yard.
What Are Good, Low-Water Annuals?
In general, annuals tend to need a little more water than perennials. But if you’re looking for lots of color, start with these varieties.
Dusty Miller (Senecio)
Mexican heather (Cuphea)
What Are Good, Low-Water Perennials for the North?
Good news! There are a lot of easy-care, drought-tolerant perennials you can choose from if you live in a cold-winter area (such as Zones 4 to 6). These varieties all look great, and won’t give your yard a shabby, desert look. Here are some of our picks.
Blanket flower (Gaillardia)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Russian sage (Perovskia)
What Are Good, Low-Water Perennials for the South?
If don’t have cold winters to contend with, but you’re in an area like Zones 7 to 9, with hot, humid summers, you have fantastic choices for perennials that look great, even during drought. Here are some of our favorite low-water perennials for the South.
Blanket flower (Gaillardia)
Ice plant (Delosperma)
Red hot poker (Kniphofia)
Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)
Does Xeriscaping Apply to Container Gardens?
You use xeriscaping concepts to make your favorite container gardens easier to care for, too. Selecting low-water varieties of cacti and succulents, as well as drought-tolerant plants is the first step. Spreading mulch over the soil in your pots can help, too. Also pay attention to container placement. Those pots closest to the hose might be better hosts for thirsty plants, but maybe you want to use cacti and succulents for your big pots that are harder to get to (or your hanging baskets that typically need watering more frequently).
Download our container gardening ebook!