The Principles of Xeriscaping

04/01/2015 | By Jennie Morton

Use native plants for sustainable groundskeeping


This courtyard area at the Research Support Facility combines xeriscaping, pervious pavers, and bioswales to enhance water quality. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DENNIS SCHROEDER / NREL

If your landscape’s water requirements have become a thorny issue, try switching to xeriscaping. This landscaping method uses native plants that will flourish in your climate without excessive irrigation or maintenance needs.

Far more than rocky landscapes filled with cacti, xeriscaping can be ripe with lush and colorful plant life. Rather than ornamental plants that aren’t suited to your climate, xeriscaping focuses on native or naturalized vegetation with low water needs.

“Don’t evaluate xeriscaping from a gardening perspective,” cautions Michelle Slovensky, energy program manager with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Rather than selecting species for their aesthetics, you are developing a vegetation community. Xeriscaping supports stormwater management and conserves resources.”

Xeriscaping Gallery
See pictures of the xeriscaping used throughout NREL's campus.

Xeriscaping has three main objectives.

1) Water Conservation
The main benefit of xeriscaping is that plants are selected to conserve water. According to the EPA, landscape water use for commercial properties can be as high as 22% for office buildings and up to 28% for schools.

Consider the growing use of muncipal impact fees that ensure cities can support expanding infrastructure demands, Slovensky notes. Those costs are passed on to end users, particularly high-volume commercial customers. Reducing irrigation is good for your utility bill and alleviates pressure on your local treatment plant.

Xeriscaping also emphasizes plants that are drought tolerant and hardy against climate changes. There is a wide range of vegetation that meets this criteria beyond succulents. Keep in mind that all plants need moisture to survive, so don’t expect any species to eliminate your irrigation needs altogether, cautions Slovensky.

“To choose water-conserving plants, use the annual precipitation of your region as a benchmark and select plants that require under this level,” Slovensky advises.

2) Stormwater Management
Healthy bedding isn’t just a way to keep plants flourishing – it’s an important strategy to manage stormwater.

According to the EPA’s WaterSense at Work guide, “appropriately graded sites with gentle slopes allow water to stay where it is applied and get delivered to the root zone of plants. Soil health can be maintained with aeration and compost or mulch.”

If you need to convert your grounds to xeriscaping one step at a time, try tackling lawns first. Conventional turfgrasses typically require high levels of care to stay green, notes the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a research unit at the University of Austin at Texas.

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