Xeriscaping 101: Drought-Resistant Landscaping Guide
Xeriscaping (pronounced “zer-is-caping") is landscaping that is designed to minimize water consumption. It is used most often in regions that receive little or sporadic rainfall. The overall goal of xeriscaping is to create an aesthetically pleasing yard while reducing the amount of water required to maintain it. The prevalence of prolonged droughts in certain areas of the United States makes xeriscaping an increasingly attractive option for many homeowners.
There's a common misconception that xeriscaping involves the complete removal of lawns and swapping them out with rocks and cacti. This view isn't entirely accurate, as many homeowners decide to leave a portion of their original lawn for the enjoyment of their pets or children. Partial lawn coverage can also be useful in cooling a yard and reducing erosion.
Xeriscaping can complement an existing lawn in an environmentally conscious and regionally-appropriate manner. There are also plenty of options for "xeric" (low water) plants that are lush and colorful.
Fun fact: the word also doesn't mean "zero landscaping" despite how it sounds. The name comes from the Greek word xeros (meaning "dry") combined with the word landscaping. But even this definition can be slightly misleading, as xeriscaping is not exclusive to dry environments. For example, homeowners in Seattle sometimes use moisture-addicted ferns that can survive (in the rainy Pacific Northwest) without needing to be watered manually. In reality, xeriscaping can work anywhere.
Benefits of Xeriscaping
Xeriscaping is gaining popularity with homeowners who live in states with long and hot summers with sparse rainfall, such as California, Arizona, and Georgia.
Studies have shown that around 60-90% of all water use is by single-family homes and that homeowners can cut their water bills in half when they replace their water-dependent yard with xeriscaping. Homeowners may be shocked to realize that each square foot of lawn consumes around 55 gallons of water each year. Furthermore, drought-resistant yards require much less ongoing maintenance than the traditional carpet of grass.
In some areas, local governments have been providing financial incentives to homeowners who switch to a xeriscaped yard. These programs have been dubbed “cash for grass” and typically offer homeowners a tax-free rebate for each square foot of grass removed. For example, the Los Angeles Public Works department rebated costs up to $3.75 a square foot and replaced over 2 million square feet of inefficient lawn.
Xeriscaping has also been promoted by environmentalists who view the concept as a way for the average citizen to make a meaningful impact in reducing their ecological footprint. In many arid communities, water is a precious resource that has better uses than lawn care. Additionally, homeowners lessen the volume of pesticides and fertilizers in their communities.
Some genuinely prefer the look of natural landscaping. Xeriscaping allows someone to transform their yard into a state that is more homogenous with the natural landscape surrounding it. Native plants also better serve the needs of local wildlife, meaning that a drought-resistant yard is more likely to be visited by birds and butterflies!
Xeriscaping can boost a home’s value. According to the Atlanta-based real estate agents at OmegaHome, demand from potential home buyers looking for maintenance-free yards increases each year. More and more house hunters would rather not deal with a high-maintenance lawn and hedges. That's good news for home sellers with xeriscaped yards who can showcase the cost savings a potential homebuyer over a traditional yard when marketing their home.
When one thinks about it, Americans’ obsession with lawns is somewhat illogical. Traditional grassy yards have to be watered every other day and mowed semi-weekly through most of the year. Yet, it seems that many do not utilize their lawn enough to justify the substantial amount of resources they pour into maintaining them. A savvy homeowner can substantially benefit by only keeping the amount of grass they genuinely need.
Planning a Xeriscaping Project
Drought-Resistant vs. Drought-Tolerant
While these terms appear interchangeable, there is an important difference between the two. Drought-resistant plants can survive in a perpetual state of drought (like cacti) and require virtually zero ongoing maintenance.
Drought-tolerant landscaping is landscaping that can tolerate periods of droughts but may require some level of watering to survive. Climate and ecological factors determine whether an individual should go with drought-resistant or drought-tolerant xeriscaping.
A homeowner will first want to establish the scope of their xeriscaping project by thinking about how they use their yard. As mentioned previously, xeriscaping doesn’t necessarily mean tearing up the entire lawn. For many, the goal is to be water-wise rather than 100% xeric.
Begin by establishing which parts of the yard gets little use. These areas are prime candidates for the insertion of some drought-resistant landscapes. Many people opt to strategically subdivide their yards into different areas and create “lawn islands”, so pets or kids can still enjoy some grass. This way, they’ll get the best of both worlds: lower bills and environmental impact without sacrificing and of the fun.
Understanding Water Zones
Consider designing different water zones in a yard so that the thirstiest plants are concentrated together. This optimization tactic helps reduce the amount of water required. Here's how water zones are typically used:
Zone One (Oasis Zone): This zone is commonly referred to as the "oasis zone" and features the most water-dependent plants and the highest amount of maintenance. This zone is usually located the closest to the house where the landscaping is most visible. Consider keeping some lawn in this area along with high-moisture perennials.
Zone Two (Transition Zone): The "transition zone" serves as a middle ground between Zone One and Zone Two. The goal of the transition zone is less frequent irrigation and maintenance than a traditional yard. Water-wise plants are commonly used here. Some landscape designers opt to skip the oasis zone (Zone 1) and place a transition zone (Zone 2) next to the home instead.
Zone Three (Xeric Zone): The Xeric zone is located furthest from the house and requires the least amount of watering or ongoing maintenance. In this zone, existing grass is torn up and replaced with materials like gravel.
Replacing a Lawn
For homeowners who will plan to remove a significant portion of their lawn, mulch, rocks, and gravel make great replacement materials.
Mulch is an organic landscaping material used to cover soil. Bark is a common type of mulch. Mulch helps to retain moisture within sandy soil and improves the structure of compacted clay soil. It is a secret weapon in xeriscaping because it locks in valuable moisture in the ground by reducing evaporation. Mulch serves two purposes: it helps grow healthier plants and conserves water.
Rocks and gravel are also helpful as they prevent weeds and reduce costs associated with ongoing yard maintenance. Gravel improves drainage, which is vital in dry and desert climates where rain tends to come in large bursts. Large rocks can be positioned as featured elements of a yard, and flat stones can be used to create walkable pathways.
Using Region-Appropriate Plants
Ideally, the plants featured in a landscape design for a property are indigenous to the regional climate where the home is located. That way, they can adapt to their environment quickly and require little ongoing maintenance.
For example, a desert-adapted plant from central Arizona can handle fluctuating daily temperatures and low amounts of rainfall. However, the same plant would be poorly-suited for an environment that has hard freezes or consistently low humidity, such as Colorado. What’s more, non-indigenous plants are less resistant to diseases and pests outside of their native environment. A little research before commencing a xeriscaping project goes a long way toward selecting hardy plants that will thrive in the long run.
Visiting a local demonstration garden is a great way to figure out which plants are native to an environment. Within many major cities like Los Angeles that are prone to drought, local universities and governments create public gardens with native plants that are drought-resistant.
Lastly, for folks who plan to hire a landscaper for their xeriscape, make sure the landscaper prioritizes plants that are native to the region. No one wants unexpected and expensive plant replacement costs to pop up months after the completion of a project.
Be advised that while the ultimate goal is to use less water, newly planted xeric plants may need a little extra attention and watering in the short term. Expect to water new plants anywhere from two months to a year while their roots settle in, at which time they are able to fend for themselves. In the beginning, plants should be watered infrequently but deeply. This tactic trains the roots to seek out water from deeper sources and makes plants more drought-resistant. If plants are watered too frequently, their roots will be ill-prepared to find water on their own.
Setting up a drip irrigation system is a great way to create deep irrigation efficiently. This type of irrigation pushes water deep into the ground, which forces roots to grow deeper. Drip systems are also considerably more efficient than other watering methods, saving homeowners money (and the environment) in the long run.
Even though a xeriscape requires less maintenance, some is still required. Ongoing maintenance tasks include pruning, mulch replacement, adjusting automatic irrigation systems, and replacing plants when necessary. Ultimately, the level of maintenance depends on the original design. Regardless, all xeriscapes require some level of maintenance on a monthly or seasonal basis.
Xeric Plant Examples
Before we delve into the specific examples of different xeric plants, it will be helpful to see the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones because we’ll reference them along with the plants suitable for use within them. Here is a map of the zones:
A common belief is that xeric plants are dull and boring. In reality, there is no shortage of fragrant, colorful, and attractive drought-resistant plants appropriate for a xeriscape. Common drought-resistant plants include:
- Flowers (Iris, yucca, pansy)
- Ornamental Grasses (silvergrass, fescues, fountaingrass)
- Shrubs and trees (fig tree, smoke tree, black locust)
- Succulents (cacti, lace aloe)
In fact, here are some zone-specific plant examples that add plenty of color and texture to a yard.
Salvias / Sage (Zones 5-10)
Salvias require very little water and come in varieties like "May Night" and "Little Night." Their most iconic feature is their protruding spears that bloom in the spring. Salvias attract a variety of animals and insects, including bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. The most common variety, purple salvia, is native to the mountains of West Texas. Other popular colors include cherry and white.
Red Valerian / Centranthus (Zones 4-9)
Red Valerian is known for its reddish-pink bloom and will grow up to 40 inches tall with proper care. Many landscapers choose Red Valerian in xeric gardens to create a colorful contrast. This plant attracts butterflies while repelling pests like rabbits and deer. A big advantage of the Red Valerian is that it’s able to grow without direct sunlight. Best of all, it’s a perennial plant that will last for years.
Moonshine Yarrow / Achillea Moonshine (Zones 3-9)
Moonshine Yarrow is a highly adaptable plant that can thrive in a xeric environment. Its most distinctive feature is its yellow-top flower with tiny bulbs that seemingly resemble Dippin' Dots ice cream. Moonshine Yarrow is considered a “well-behaved” plant, meaning it won’t take over a yard and begin spreading. It can also grow in almost any soil, including clay.
Blue Fescue / Festuca glauca (Zones 4-8)
Blue fescue is a low-growing ornamental grass that features a notable green-purple tinge. Blue fescues do not spread beyond a foot horizontally, so planting them tightly together creates better coverage. They don't require sunlight and can be planted in almost any type of soil. Blue fescues are expected to last around 2-3 years.
San Pedro Cactus (Zones 8-10)
Cactus is perhaps the most famous plant associated with xeriscaping. The San Pedro Cactus is just one of the hundreds of different cacti species that can work well with xeriscaping. Unfortunately, many species of cacti are limited to the Western United States because they can be easily overwatered and are vulnerable to freezing temperatures.
Despite common misperceptions, a xeriscape can be vibrant and eye-catching. Xeriscaping allows homeowners to transform their thirsty lawn into an attractive landscape. With proper planning, a newly xeriscaped yard can easily be more beautiful than the original lawn it replaced!
Because xeriscaping is so efficient, it pays for itself over time, ultimately bringing a cost savings benefit to the homeowner. What’s more, it’s good for the surrounding community and to the broader environment.