Xeriscaping: Landscaping for Water Conservation

By on June 16, 2017

I’ve lived in Athens for 17 years, and it was most difficult for me to adjust to the hot, humid summers. I had to learn a whole new way of gardening after just about everything I planted failed to survive my Southern brown thumb.

Over the years, my position has brought me into contact with people and websites that shed a great deal of light on where I was going wrong. I remained in my Northeast Ohio garden mode in my thinking and that didn’t work here. Summers in Cleveland are not so hot and humidity levels are lower. There is not nearly the amount of clay in the soils of Northeast Ohio as we find here. So I had to do some research to learn what would and would not grow in my new home city.

I have written articles on the importance of choosing native plants for landscaping, much of which I have applied with great success. Recently, I was introduced to another type of landscaping that takes into consideration the amount of water available, or lack of water. It is called xeriscaping.

Xeriscaping is a method of using landscaping and horticultural strategies that minimize water use. This method can help property owners reduce their water use by one-third, which is very helpful in drought-prone areas such as the Tennessee Valley!

According to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, plant selection in a xeriscaped garden may vary from area to area, but there are 7 basic principles that can be applied anywhere:

  • Group plants by similar water use, as well as appearance.
  • If sites are dry, choose as many plants with low water requirements as possible, such as some of the ornamental grasses, barberries, Chinese hollies, and junipers.
  • Reduce the amount of turf grass (lawn) area. Turf grass is the largest water user in landscaping. Use it only where necessary or consider some of the newer, drought-resistant types.
  • Use plenty of organic material (peat moss, pine bark, compost) in preparing the soil.
  • Use about 4 inches (no more) of mulch (wood chips, shredded bark). Mulch reduces water use by slowing evaporation and it adds organic matter to the soil and helps prevent erosion.
  • Use efficient watering systems. For example, use a sprinkler that will target the areas that require water and do not overspray onto rocky or paved areas.)
  • Prune, fertilize, and divide plants regularly.

Before you begin, you will want to assess your garden site. By looking at the property, you may find ways of using water-saving landscape techniques. Look for dry or rocky areas as well as areas where water might pool. You also want to note the amount of sun each area receives.

Once you have assessed the area, select plants and shrubs that do well in those conditions and group them together. Plant selection will be one of the most important factors in whether your garden will survive long term. Here are tips:

  • Use only plant varieties that are well adapted to your locality and soil conditions. The wrong variety of plant may require greater amounts of fertilizer and water just to stay alive. Check with your local nursery, garden department, or Extension Service for suggestions. You can also research native plant varieties online.
  • Group plants with similar water needs together. For example, group the vegetables requiring more water together in the garden to make the most of your watering.
  • Choose moisture-loving plants for wet, poorly drained sites and drought-tolerant plants for dry, sunny areas.
  • Select and plant drought-tolerant varieties that require minimal amounts of water.

Trees
Trees are also vulnerable to our weather conditions. When selecting trees, be sure to select species that do well in this area. Some good selections would include oaks, ginkgo, hackberry, Southern magnolia, Chinese pistache, American holly, golden-rain tree, and pines.

Turf Grass
In most of our neighborhoods, the lawn (turf grass) is the most prominent vegetation. A beautifully manicured, green lawn can be the pride and joy of any homeowner. Turf grass will withstand a rough and tumble game of football, absorb heat, and control erosion.

Turf grass will also quickly suffer under drought conditions, and will consume more water than most all other plants. Therefore, the question that should be asked is, “Do I have too much grass?” Look at your property critically. Are there shady areas where grass is not doing well? Do you have grass growing among and around your shrubs? Do you have large patches of grass just because you can’t think of anything else to do with your property?

Consider replacing turf grass in areas difficult to maintain with organic mulch or ground cover. This will reduce the work involved in trying to maintain those areas and will reduce the need for heavy watering.

Be sure to properly care for the turf grass you do have. Check with your local Extension Office for information on proper fertilizer and lime application.

Rain Barrels

Adding rain barrels to your landscaping will also help conserve water. Our friend, Rhonda Britton, from Water Wheels is an expert on this topic. Look for a more in-depth article on this topic in a future issue.
Happy Xeriscaping!
By: Lynne Hart