Water is a precious resource, so it makes sense to use gardening practices that use as little of it as possible. You could replace all your ornamentals with cacti, but xeriscaping allows you to enjoy more plant diversity without a ton of water.
A xeriscaped garden allows you to have color and texture without tearing everything out and replacing it with rocks or filling the whole thing with succulents.
Gardeners who want less maintenance should look at xeriscape practices, as well. Interested,? Let’s explore.
What is Xeriscape Gardening?
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Xeriscape gardening isn’t as restrictive as many people think. It’s a method of beautifying an area where water is scarce, or for people who choose not to use excessive water in their garden. In areas where local authorities restrict water usage, xeriscaping is the perfect solution.
Xeriscaping is simply preparing and landscaping an area where it is dry, or where water use is restricted, without the need for lots of additional water. A water-hungry lawn is a definite no-go, and you won’t be using a sprinkler system as these are inefficient.
The choice to xeriscape can be driven by environmental concerns, local rules, or simply a choice to conserve water.
Xeros means dry in Greek, so the name literally means dry landscaping. Plant choice is most important. You can use local native plants endemic to the area, but you can also experiment with dry-loving plants from elsewhere.
There are a number of principles important to the success of xeriscaping, but once set up, this type of gardening takes much less time and water. In fact, you should be able to use up to 75% less water compared to standard gardening practices and plants.
7 Steps For Xeriscape Gardening
Getting started with xeriscape landscaping requires planning. Understanding the principles is key.
1. Water Conservation is the Goal
The main reason for utilizing xeriscaping principles is water conservation. The reason for conserving water may vary between gardeners, but it’s the goal.
The use of the correct plants and irrigation techniques are vital to support water conservation. All your decisions should be focused on reducing water use. This usually involves choosing plants that require no additional watering.
2. Improve the Soil
Creating the right condition of the soil in a xeriscape garden is something to really pay attention to. It needs to be able to absorb what water it does get, hold moisture and drain well. The soil should be nutrient-rich with well-rotted organic matter dug in.
You also need to consider the plants that you’ll be putting in the ground. If you live in a desert, that probably means you’ll be using some succulents or drought-tolerant plants and these often require sandy soil.
It’s pretty rare that a low-water-use plant likes clay earth, however. If that’s what you have, you’ll need to work in lots and lots of well-rotted compost into the ground to loosen it up and improve drainage. You might even want to create some raised hills or beds.
3. Use Lots of Mulch
You should use thick layers of mulch to assist in retaining moisture in the soil and suppress weeds. There should be no bald or thin patches.
Checking the mulch regularly is important to make sure it hasn’t moved, thinned out, or been dug away by creatures. Aim for several inches of mulch thickness.
Good mulch options include wood or leaves. Living mulch is also a smart option. Don’t use gravel for reasons we’ll talk about in a bit.
4. Reduce Turf Areas
Although turf can help to prevent erosion and water runoff, lawn uses a lot of water (not to mention fertilizer and weed killer) to stay in optimal condition. You might want some turf areas to remain for aesthetic purposes, but in the xeriscape area, use as little as possible.
If you need something to help reduce runoff, consider creeping juniper, wooly thyme, winterberry, or other local native plants. These are common options in xeriscaping.
5. Irrigate Wisely
In order to conserve water, use a water-friendly irrigation system like drip-feeding or soaker hoses. This way you can more carefully control the water that is entering your garden.
If you use sprinklers, even if your plants don’t need a ton of water, you still be sending out way more water than they need.
You might also consider hand watering. This is much easier in a xeriscape garden, doesn’t require much water, than a traditional garden. If you plan carefully and use the right plants for your area, you might only need to hand water once a week or every few weeks.
6. Use the Right Plants
Make sure you pick drought-tolerant plants and those from your area that have evolved to survive in your local soil and conditions. Thirsty plants are banned from a xeriscape garden. Putting the wrong plants in will cause you more work to replace them and a lot of money if you’re buying them.
Xeriscape gardens are reasonably maintenance-free once established, but there are a few things to do. Keep weeds at bay. They steal much-needed water. Keep the mulch in place and nice and thick.
Prepare Your Garden for a Xeriscape Area
Okay, so how do you get started? Start small. Don’t transition your entire area to xeriscape gardening. Choose a smaller area and expand as and when you can.
1. Create a Plan
Draw up a plan to outline your xeriscape garden. How big will you go, initially? Where does the sun rise and set in relation to the garden?
Include the area you are covering, and how the land is contoured. Many xeriscape-friendly plants are perfect for trailing down rock walls or along the ground. Take wind into account. Is there shelter for sensitive plants?
Note where you will be tearing out existing plants or lawn.
You also want to note where water tends to run through the garden. Then, you can create channels or hills to help guide this water where you want it.
2. Consider Irrigation
How will you get the small amount of water to your xeriscape garden? Will you hand water, use a drip system, or soaker hoses? Some xeriscaping requires no extra water other than the usual rainfall. But some might need a little additional water, especially in dry regions.
Install your irrigation before you begin planting.
What type of soil do you have? If you choose xeriscape plants that like sandy or rocky soil, you need to make sure it’s suitable for them. Remove any buried rocks that are large and make sure water drains easily.
If you choose xeriscape plants that like richer soil, add a good amount of organic matter. If you do this at the beginning, you shouldn’t have issues with the plants taking well.
4. Mulch and Rocks
Many xeriscape gardeners use gravel, stones, or pebbles. Often this is for aesthetic reasons, but you can use other organic mulches. I use wood chips because they keep the soil warm, and eventually break down and feed the plants, saving me the need to re-feed.
Gravel and stones have their downsides. The matte texture reflects the sun away, making the soil too cool for heat-loving plants. Also, gravel, rocks, and pebbles end up incorporated into the soil, so if you change the style of gardening later, you will have extremely stony soil to deal with.
That’s not to say that gravel and rocks can’t be a part of xeriscaping. They can and should be! Use them for pathways, to create visual interest, and to define areas. Just don’t use gravel as a mulch.
Consider using thick ground cover plants as a mulch alternative.
Choose Your Plants Wisely
This is really where the fun begins because, at this stage, all the hard work and preparation for your xeriscaping is done.
First, think about your soil type, wind and sun exposure, water requirements, and the overall look you want. Do you want a desert-like vibe? You could use yuccas and cacti as well as hardy succulents. Do you want color and flowers, instead?
Above all, make sure the plants you settle on are drought-resistant and suitable for xeriscape gardening. Here are some suggestions to get you started, but it always helps to chat with a local expert at a nursery or your extension office:
Groundcover and Grasses for Xeriscape Gardens
- Jelly bean plant (Sedum rubrotinctum) is a colorful succulent that stays under a foot tall. It has colorful bean-like foliage at the end of long stems. In the spring you’ll be rewarded with a display of yellow star-shaped flowers.
- Stonecrop (Angelina sedum) Although stonecrop produces flowers, the foliage of this plant is the star of the show. Its lime green color and gentle shape make it a perfect addition for the front of a xeriscape garden.
- Yellow alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis) is a hardy perennial that has leaves of a blue and gray color with yellow flowers. This plant looks especially good trailing over stones and walls in xeriscape gardens.
- Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) is a European native that has become popular in North America. Its intricate, snow white flowers look amazing, especially in large groups.
- Lace Aloe (Aloe aristata) forms into a globe shape with saw-toothed foliage dotted with white. In the right conditions, it will flower a wonderful orange bloom.
- Santa Barbara Daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) is a Mexico native that is extremely drought tolerant. This perennial seems to want to flower constantly with displays of yellow and white.
Border Plants and Shrubs for Xeriscape Gardens
For borders, small gardens, or just for differences in height, these plants make for great additions for xeriscaping.
- Sonoma Sage (Salvia sonomensis) is one of many sage plants you can consider in your xeriscape garden. Silver and green leaves contrast nicely with purple flowers, and when warmed by the sun, it gives off a gentle scent.
- False Shamrock (Oxalis triangularis) has leaves that fold up at night and open in the day. The leaves and flowers come in various colors and shades.
- Blue Chip Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is a non-invasive cultivar of an invasive plant called butterfly bush, so make sure you get this variety. Butterfly bush is invasive in some areas only, so ask around, but ‘Blue Chip’ will see you right.
- Blue Star Juniper Bush (Juniperus serrata) is a compact juniper bush that suits smaller xeriscape gardens and looks good amongst colorful displays.
- Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a native plant that loves dry areas. With green foliage and gray berries, bayberry not only looks good in a xeriscape garden, it is used in candle making.
- Mexican Cardinal Flower (Lobelia laxiflora) is a Mexican plant and is a lover of heat and lots of sun. With green foliage and red tubular flowers, this plant looks stunning in sparse gardens, or packed in other colors.
- Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a member of the parsley family and is common in prairie-like environments. The flower heads look a little like thistles, but they add shape, texture, and interest to xeriscape gardens.
- Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) is related to asparagus but looks nothing like it. This spiky plant can reach four feet in height, but the flower stem can get to 15 feet high. The flower looks similar to a spoon, hence the name.
- Large Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) is unique enough to be the centerpiece in any xeriscape garden. The flower has a large brown cone, and is surrounded by long yellow petals. The flower stalk can reach an amazing seven feet tall.
- Virgins Palm (Dion to success) looks like it’s straight out of a classic tropical garden. This is a cycad that can reach eight feet tall, but it will take its time because it is a slow grower. It loves full sun but will accept a little shade.
The list of plants suitable for xeriscaping is endless, so talk to your local experts on what works well in your particular area.
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