Xeriscaping – A sustainable landscape option

Whether by conscience or necessity, many people are looking to reduce their water consumption. The perfectly manicured emerald lawn may certainly look lovely but normally requires a great deal of work, chemical intervention and labour. If you stopped pampering your golf green, nature would inevitably take its course and take over and balance the space. Somewhere between the two, is a solution to provide a landscape that is visually pleasing, yet sustainable.

Photo Source: Okanagan Xeriscape Assoc.

Photo Source: Okanagan Xeriscape Assoc.

Xeriscaping and xerogardening refers to landscaping and gardening in ways that are more sustainable, consuming far less or no water for irrigation. As with many gardening techniques, you will go through processes of trial and error but the end result is a landscape or garden which is actually far less labour intensive.

The word xeriscaping is a portmanteau of the Greek word xeros (for “dry”) and landscaping. It quite literally means landscaping with minimized water use.

Alternate terms that may be used are water-conserving landscapes, drought-tolerant landscaping, zeroscaping, smart scaping, or dry gardening.  The use of plants that tolerate local climate conditions is emphasized.

Xeriscaping is fairly common-sense actually. It is an intuitive way of dealing with the hand that nature deals you rather than creating an artificial environment.

1. Plan and design
As with most landscape plans, start with a diagram, drawn to scale, that shows the major elements of your landscape, including house, driveway, sidewalk, deck or patio, existing trees and other elements.

Then think of the functionality of your design. Do you need space for dogs to run? Children to play? Curb appeal? Create privacy? Frame or screen views? Create a conceptual plan (bubble diagram) that shows the areas for turf, perennial beds, views, screens, slopes, etc. Once finished, develop a planting plan that reinforces the areas in the appropriate scale. If you are having a difficult time with this process, contact local greenhouses or horticulture societies for possible referrals of landscape designers.

2. Soil amendment
All plants will benefit from the use of compost, which will help the soil retain water. If you are blessed with adequate organic material, you can create your own. Alternatively, there are many sources where you can buy composted waste (greenhouses, farmers, landscape materials, etc.)

3. Efficient irrigation
Xeriscape can be irrigated efficiently by hand or with an automatic drip or sprinkler system. If you choose to include turf areas, these should be zoned separately from other plants to allow the most efficient irrigation of each type of planting. For grass, gear-driven rotors or rotary spray nozzles that have larger droplets and low angles to avoid wind drift. Spray, drip line or bubbler emitters are most efficient for watering trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcovers.

Note: The most efficient sprinklers release big drops close to the ground rather than misting or throwing the water high in the air.

Deep, infrequently watering develops deep roots. Evening or night watering reduces water lost to evaporation. Automatic sprinkling systems should be adjusted monthly to accommodate weather conditions and the installation of a rain sensor will prevent irrigation when it rains.

4. Appropriate plant and zone selection
Common sense time… To minimize water waste, group together plants with similar light and water requirements, and place them in an area that matches these requirements. Moderate-water-use plants fair well in low-lying drainage areas, near downspouts, or in the shade of other plants. Turf requires the most water and shrub/perennial beds will require approximately half the amount of water. Dry, sunny areas support low-water-use plants. Planting a variety of plants with different heights, color and textures creates interest and beauty. Don’t forget about incorporating indigenous plants. They will thrive with little or no fuss!

5. Mulch
Mulch cannot be underestimated. It keeps plant roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation and reduces weed growth. Organic mulches, such as bark chips, pole peelings or wood grindings, should be applied 2 to 4 inches deep. Fiber mulches create a web that is more resistant to wind and rain washout. Inorganic mulches, such as rocks and gravel, should be applied 2 to 3 inches deep but use this practice with caution as it makes the area hotter.

6. Alternative turf
Many native grasses (warm-season) have been cultivated for turf lawns. Find like-minded people in your area and benefit from their experience and preferred blend. Warm-season grasses are greenest in June through September and straw brown the rest of the year. “Grass gardens” can also be a lovely addition to your landscape scheme as they come in a variety of heights, textures and colours and can provide lovely four-season interest.

Native grasses (cool season) such as bluegrass and tall fescue, are greenest in the spring and fall and go dormant in the high heat of the summer. New cultivars of bluegrass, such as Reveille, and tall fescue, can reduce typical bluegrass water requirements by at least 30 percent. Fine fescues can provide substantial water savings and is best used in areas that receive low traffic or are in shady locations.

Use the appropriate grass for your selected area and limit the amount of grass to reduce the watering and maintenance requirements.

7. Maintenance
All landscapes require some degree of care during the year. Turf requires spring and fall aeration along with regular feeding every 6 to 8 weeks. Keep your grass height at 3 inches and allow the clippings to fall. Trees, shrubs and perennials will need occasional pruning to remove dead stems, promote blooming or control height and spread. Much of the removed plant material can be shredded and used in composting piles. Just avoid composting any weeds that have gone to seed. They will come back to haunt you!

Some helpful resources on the topic of xeriscaping:

Also of interest may be past Drummond House Plans blog entries on Rainwater Collection Systems.

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