Sustainability 60: Xeriscaping

Select the right mix of plants
Select the right mix of plants

Across the nation, more and more architects, landscape architects, developers and builders are foregoing mere landscaping for xeriscaping (and its corollary, xerogardening).

Xeriscaping — a term generated by merging the Greek word for ‘dry’ (xeros ) with ‘landscaping’ — is the design of ‘dry’ landscaped areas: those that make use of little or no water, or that eliminate the need of providing supplemental irrigation systems. As we see increasingly frequent examples of climate change, and as more areas are subjected to drought, water restrictions, or reduced water supplies for irrigation, xeriscaping continues to become more popular.

The modern concept and terminology of xeriscaping probably originated in Colorado in the late 1970s, as regional water officials became concerned about the excessive use of relatively scarce freshwater suppliers to irrigate exotic lawns and gardens and landscape schemes. Other parts of the country that occasionally or often endure water scarcity, such as Nevada, Arizona, southern California, and Florida, have also long stressed the need for drought-tolerant landscaping and so-called ‘smart landscaping’ (or smartscaping).

Xeriscaping actually begins with indigenous species. That is, the various plant types that have historically thrived in a region without the support of man-made irrigation systems are the same plant types that would likely continue to survive and thrive with little or no supplemental irrigation. Every microclimate throughout the country can and does support a variety of plant material that can be effectively composed into an appropriate landscape design. The use of indigenous plant species also insures that such species will survive over time, rather than be driven to extinction by imported exotics, and that the local indigenous fauna supported by such indigenous flora will also survive over time.

A second major thrust of xeriscaping is water retention. Plant materials are selected and combined to minimize water run-off and evaporation. The design and contouring of planting beds may also be designed to take advantage of typical rainfall conditions, frequencies and intensities, to further minimize run-off.

In addition to reducing a property’s overall water use, xeriscaping can reduce or eliminate the expense of supplemental irrigation systems. It can also lead to a more easily and naturally maintained landscape — one that results in reduced costs of maintenance, irrigation, fertilizing, etc. In some designs, lawn mowing may be eliminated entirely. Xeriscaping also results in locally particular landscape schemes — ones that seem indicative of their historical place in the world.

Common plant species considered for xeriscaping use in the drier Western regions of the United States are juniper, sedum, cactus, thyme and agave, among others.  

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