January 29, 2016


J Lutz

In many parts of the country demand for water has already exceeded the supply leading to bans on car washing and watering lawns and gardens.

The need to conserve water has made xeriscaping a popular concept in gardening. From the Greek word “xeros” meaning dry, combined with landscaping it is a commonsense approach to gardening using less water. Mother Nature can't be relied upon to supply us with the inch of water a week that most plants require. It doesn't sound like much but that 1 inch of rain equals 62 gallons of water per 100 square feet of garden space!

The practical principles of xeriscaping can be applied to any landscape, making your garden not only water-thrifty but low-maintenance as well. It doesn't have to be all cactus and rocks! You can still have a colorful, lush-looking garden that uses less water by following some simple rules of thumb.

  • Mulch is an important weapon against evaporation and provides a cushion during a downpour to lessen erosion and give the rain a chance to soak in rather than running off. It will also keep weeds from competing with your plants for precious moisture.
  • Use plants that thrive in dry conditions. Echinacea, salvias, penstemon, agastache, yarrow, and coreopsis are all low water perennials.


Herbs native to the hot dry Mediterranean such as sage, thyme, lavender, and artemisia are good choices.

South African imports such as gerbera, Cape marigold, osteospermum, and arctotis are used to arid conditions. Sedums and succulents hold water in their fat leaves.

Plants with fuzzy or waxy leaves are slow to transpire moisture to the dry air. Annuals are the first to wilt in the hot sun but bachelor buttons, cleome, cosmos, California poppies, calendula, portulaca, and globe amaranth will bloom reliably with less water than most annual flowers.

  • Group plants with similar water requirements. Called zoning, this technique cuts work time by keeping plants with the same needs together. You can concentrate your watering efforts and give each zone what it needs. Plant the most drought-tolerant plants in your driest areas. If there are some showy, high-maintenance plants you can't live without, create an oasis for them in a high traffic area where you can enjoy them and take care of them easily.
  • Use water efficiently. Water deeply when you do water, to encourage deep root growth. Wet the soil to at least six inches deep every 10 days or so. Try to water in the morning before the sun is high enough to evaporate moisture. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation use a fraction of the water used by a sprinkler and deliver the water where it is needed.
  • Add lots of organic matter to your soil to improve its water retention. Well-rotted manure, leaf mould, and compost act like a sponge, helping sandy soil to hold more water without becoming soggy. It also encourages strong root growth.
  • Proper grading is important if you garden on a hilly site. Slopes can be terraced to lessen erosion and prevent water from running off. Create semi-circular berms around your plants to help retain water near the base of the plants where it is need most. Dig shallow channels to divert rainwater toward thirstier plants.
  • Fertilize sparingly, if at all. Accelerated plant growth increases the need for more water and fosters soft growth which is more susceptible to attack by insects and disease.
  • Limit lawn space. Keeping a large expanse of grass looking green in hot dry weather is very water intensive. If you must have a lawn use native grasses or drought tolerant species.
  • This brings us to gray water. Many people recycle the water from bathing or washing laundry or dishes to water their gardens. The State of California recommends using this water only on lawns, shrubs, fruit trees, and flowers but NOT on the vegetable garden. This water can contain harmful bacteria, chlorine, phsphates, and other chemicals that could hurt not only you but your plants so use it sparingly.

Using less water in the garden can be challenging at first but once we adapt to a new way of thinking it makes for a very low maintenance landscape that uses half the water of a traditional garden. Work with Mother Nature and choose plants that are compatible with your environment to design a water-thrifty garden that will not only use less of a precious resource but will also mean less work for you.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.