In many parts of the United States, 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. What is it, exactly? Here’s an explanation and some tips for using the principles of xeriscaping in your own garden.
What is Xeriscaping?
From the Greek word xeros, meaning “dry,” and combined with “landscaping,” xeriscaping 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 to grow well. It doesn’t sound like much, but that 1 inch of rain equals 62 gallons of water per 100 square feet of garden space!
Principles of Xeriscaping
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.
1. Cover up Bare Soil
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.
2. Choose Drought-Tolerant Plants
Use plants that naturally thrive in dry conditions. Echinacea, salvia, penstemon, agastache, yarrow, and coreopsis are all great drought-tolerant perennials.
Herbs native to the hot dry Mediterranean such as sage, thyme, lavender, and artemisia are also good choices.
South African imports such as gerbera daisies, Cape marigold, osteospermum, and arctotis are accustomed to arid conditions. Sedums and succulents hold water in their fat leaves, making them drought-tolerant, too. Plants with fuzzy or waxy leaves are slow to transpire moisture into 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.
3. Grow in Groups
Group together 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 that 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.
4. Water Wisely
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. Also consider using soaker hoses and drip irrigation, which use a fraction of the water that a sprinkler does and deliver the water directly to where it is needed.
5. Amend Your Soil
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.
6. Hardscape Appropriately
Proper grading is important if you garden on a hilly site. Slopes can be terraced to lessen erosion and prevent water from running off, and creating semi-circular berms around your plants can help to retain water near the base of the plants, where it is need most. Dig shallow channels to divert rainwater toward thirstier plants.
7. Lay Off the Fertilizer
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.
8. Lose the Lawn
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.
9. Make Use of Gray Water
This brings us to gray water. Gray water is all the “dirty” water that goes down our drains (from sinks, showers, dishwashers, etc.) that hasn’t come into contact with human waste. Many people recycle the water from bathing and washing laundry or dishes to water their gardens. The State of California recommends using this water only on lawns, shrubs, fruit trees, and flowers; NOT on the vegetable garden. Gray water can still contain harmful bacteria, chlorine, phosphates, and other chemicals that could hurt not only you but also 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.