The Principles of Xeriscaping

04/01/2015 | By Jennie Morton

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.

Xeriscaping uses native plants that will flourish in your climate without excessive irrigation
Water Wise, Xeriscape Garden

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.

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“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 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.

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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.

Select turf that “replicates nature’s shortgrass prairies,” the center advises, rather than non-native species. Better yet would be to reduce the overall size of your turf by replacing it with a portion of native grasses.

3) Low Maintenance

Traditional landscaping that emulates gardens requires seasonal pruning, cutting, tending, mowing, and fertilizing, Slovensky observes, whereas xeriscaping requires far fewer resources to grow. That’s because indigenous vegetation is already suited to your region’s soil, rainfall, and temperature fluctuations and consequently doesn’t require as much human intervention to become established.

Ornamental Grasses in a xeriscape garden
Ornamental Grasses in a xeriscape garden

Xeriscaping still needs some oversight – don’t think you can plant it and forget it, stresses Slovensky. It takes about two seasons for plants to put down strong roots, so anticipate that your vegetation will need a little extra TLC at the beginning before it needs minimal supervision.

A Fruitful Change

Because xeriscaping transforms your grounds into a sustainable ecosystem, it’s unlikely you’ll want to walk into your local nursery and take on this type of conversion by yourself. It’s best to partner with a landscape architect who has a xeriscaping portfolio or a groundskeeping company with a restoration ecologist on staff who understands ecology and hydrology, recommends Slovensky.

A landscape professional will evaluate your site for considerations such as slope, drainage, plant diversity, animal life, and air flow that will impact your xeriscape design, explains Slovensky.

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You also need to account for pollutants, such as parking lot runoff that could contain litter, salt, sand, and vehicle fluids, she adds. Not all dirt is created equal, so even if your site has low levels of contaminants, soil quality should be tested and amended if needed.

A Stroll through the NREL Campus

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO, takes its role as a federal leader seriously. Not only does the South Table Mountain campus highlight clean power initiatives, it ensures that its environmental footprint is sustainable all the way down to a single blade of grass.

The over 300-acre site has three landscaping zones, the majority of which is based on the principles of xeriscaping, explains Slovensky.

NREL submitted 30 acres to the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a certification program for landscaping similar to LEED. The site earned three stars for prioritizing site selection, human health, soil, water, vegetation, and maintenance.

At the time of this post, Jennie Morton jennie.morton@buildings.com was the senior editor of BUILDINGS.


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