Front Range Community College Blog

Gardening Tips: 7 Xeriscape Principles

As the year turns to warmer days, you may be starting to think about your landscape. Maybe you’re simply adding some plants to your yard or maybe you’re thinking of a total landscape makeover. Given the very dry winter Colorado experienced, the Denver Water Board recently declared a Stage 1 drought and is urging everyone to conserve water. So it’s more important that ever to think about xeriscape options.

What is xeriscape?

If you’re a word nerd, you know the word comes from the Greek word for “dry” crashed into the word “landscape.” If you’re a homeowner, all you need to know is that xeriscape means using good gardening practices to help you use less water and still have an appealing landscape—while saving you money. If you want “X-rated” gardening or landscaping at its finest, consider these seven principles.

1. Create a landscape design and irrigation plan that will save water.

Durable, water-saving landscapes don’t just happen by chance. To be long-lived and water saving a landscape must:

  • Accommodate your use of the site
  • Put every plant is in its preferred microclimate (that perfect environmental niche in which it will not only survive, but thrive)
  • Use techniques that will ensure its survival through wet and dry years

This means that plants should be grouped by function, light requirements, water use and other factors. Since your xeriscape will have low, moderate and high water use areas, your sprinkler system must be planned to water plants when they need it, instead of the every-other-day irrigation used in traditional landscapes.

If you are not a plant nerd, you can get assistance from a professional landscape designer or Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association (CNGA) Certified Nursery Professional.

2. Improve the soil.

Adding compost material to Colorado’s soils helps retain moisture and improve drainage; both are critical for drought-tolerant plants to thrive. CSU and many cities recommend top dressing new landscape beds with 1 ½ to 2 inches of compost and tilling that in as deeply as possible (try for a 6-8 inch depth) before planting.

3. Use “thirsty” plants in appropriate areas and for the right reasons.

Lawns and other high water plants often get a bad rap as “water wasters” and hardcore xeriscape fanatics often eliminate them all together. But creating a xeriscape doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the lawn, or any other plant for that matter. Instead, create a landscape that reduces the use of more thirsty plants (like lawns) to a bare minimum and replace those with more drought-tolerant species.

A simple plan is to use thirsty plants only if and where they are needed to enhance the look and function of the landscape. So, they are perfectly appropriate around entries, at important views and in high use areas around patios where slower growing drought tolerant plants might not be able to take Fido and the family’s damage.

4. Use more water thrifty plants.

Use the perimeter of your yard for lower water-use plants. This is called “target hydrozoning” and pulling it off well is another reason to use the services of a professional landscape designer or CCNP that knows what each plant needs and how to place them where they will thrive. Colorado State University’s Cooperative Extension Service also has good information about xeriscape plants.

5. Water effectively.

Are you watering your driveway? Do you have any idea how many gallons of water you apply each time the sprinkler comes on? An irrigation expert can help you with these things by doing a sprinkler system assessment. Such an assessment should rate the effectiveness of your system, suggest repairs and adjustments that will save you water. Be sure to ask how much you should adjust your irrigation each month, since excessive early and late season irrigation are often the biggest unseen wasters of your precious water budget. Need more information? Contact Slow the Flow at the Center for ReSource Conservation.

6. Use mulch to conserve soil moisture.

Mulch helps reduce water evaporation from the soil surface, reduces weeds and lowers soil temperatures . This means (if you are watering right) that plant roots reach water deeper in the soil and that less water is lost from the soil surface. Organic mulches (like bark, plant duff, etc.) are usually considered the best options, but may not be the right choice in every situation and for every plant. Again, talk to a qualified nursery, garden center or other landscape professional for advice.

7. Maintain the landscape correctly.

Having invested lots of hard earned cash in a landscape it makes sense that you maintain it. That same maintenance will actually make the landscape more water efficient in the long run. Be sure to check your irrigation system often (monthly during the growing season; after its annual “checkup” by an irrigation professional), and don’t forget to do those small and large monthly plant maintenance tasks. Not sure what those are or how to do them? The Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association offers a handy monthly checklist to help guide your maintenance effort. Independent nurseries and garden centers are always happy to advise you and often have classes on current maintenance topics.

Lawns require a lot of maintenance.

One of the most important factors in keeping your lawn looking good and using less water is to mow it correctly. The first few spring mowings should be to a 2 ½ inch height (to thicken up the stand a bit) but after that mow a bit higher, to a 3” height. This will help shade the soil and will improve your lawn’s ability to cope with the heat of summer. But no matter what, make sure you mow often enough, meaning you never want to remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade each time you mow.

While you are at it, leave those clippings on the lawn. Contrary to popular belief they do not contribute to thatch (unless you are keeping the soil waterlogged) and they help protect the crown of the turf plant making it more traffic and drought tolerant. They also provide great food for earthworms that aerate the soil, making the lawn even more drought tolerant.

Have you xeriscaped your yard? How has it worked for you? What tips do you have?

 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ray Daugherty is program coordinator and faculty in the Horticulture and Landscape Program at Front Range Community College’s Westminster Campus. Ray was voted the 2012 Master Teacher by his colleagues and students. This self-confessed “plant nerd” is a lifelong Colorado gardener and holds a B.S. in landscape horticulture from Colorado State University. Ray joined the Front Range faculty in 1998.