An eco-conscious choice

The Water Issue - Xeriscaping

Xeriscapes can reduce water use and provide colorful, engaging alternatives to traditional green spaces.

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July 15, 2021

Making sure the plants being used all have similar water needs is instrumental for a successful xeriscape project.
Photos courtesy of Zone 24 Landscaping

When it comes to xeriscaping the possibilities are endless, according to Liz Haigh, co-owner of Xeriscape Design in Salt Lake City.

Yet despite its increase in popularity over recent years, Haigh says xeriscaping is still uncommon enough that it needs explained to most clients.

“People still don’t know what xeriscape is,” she says. “It’s a word that not many people know. They think it’s all white rocks with a couple of Yucca in it. We really try to educate people…that it can be a cottage garden, or an Asian garden, a modern look, or a conventional look. And it’s really all about the plant choice.”

Haigh says there’s a misconception that xeriscape means zero watering, when it’s really about utilizing low-water plants and conservative irrigation practices. “You’ve got to make that distinction between a low-water landscape and a no-plant landscape. That’s really important,” she says of describing it correctly.

Elizabeth Burns, who owns Zone 24 Landscaping in Torrance, Calif, agrees and says most clients don’t come to her with xeriscaping in mind, but it’s a suggestion she likes to make.

“When existing clients come to us now and want some changes, we usually give them ideas that are going toward the direction of xeriscapes,” she says.

A worried West Coast.

As drought remains a concern in California, Burns says more and more people are trying to be water conscious and make changes to their lawns.

“We don’t get that much of a request for it until it’s a mainstream news item,” she says.

Burns says she doesn’t do enough xeriscape projects in a year considering her market’s climate.

“It’s basically when the news starts getting out and people are listening to them say ‘there’s a drought and you’re not going to be able to water,’ that’s when people start to sit up and take notice of it,” she says.

Haigh says she tends to associate xeriscaping with the arid west, as dryer ecosystems benefit from it the most. She adds that Utah is just now catching up to some other Western states when it comes to the trend.

“Utah has been a little asleep at the wheel,” Haigh says. “New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and even California for the most part are way ahead of us. But we’re waking up here. There continues to be a lot of interest and growth in the xeriscape sector.”

Since Utah is experiencing a drought, Haigh says xeriscaping is more in demand. She says that some states offer financial support to homeowners looking to redo their lawns and curb water use, which contributes to xeriscape’s growing popularity.

“We lack rebates,” Haigh says of Utah. “Nevada has done really big rebate programs to get people to get rid of their turf grass and put a low-water landscape in. We don’t have a lot of those incentives here in Utah and those help people undercut the costs of doing this.”

But even on the East Coast, Haigh says she sees xeriscaping becoming more mainstream eventually. “Ecosystems are changing, and weather is changing,” she says. ‘Things are going to be different.”

Mix it up.

Burns and Haigh both say that a primary motivation for xeriscapes is to reduce turf.

“What we always talk about is sensible turf areas,” Haigh says. “So, if you only step on it to mow it – why do you have it? If you want an alternative to it, that’s a different material than lawn, you could do a large gravel area surrounded and softened by plants. We just recommend that the turf areas are small and used. We also recommend using a more low-water turf if you can find it.”

Burns says Kurapia is a ground cover that mimics turf and is something she suggests a lot. She also like to give her clients plenty of alternatives to traditional turf spaces.

“When we have clients that want to redo their turf areas, or if they have excessive amounts of it, we try to get them to tone it down a little bit and suggest some things to rework those areas with more drought-tolerant plantings, bocce courts, raised vegetable planters and doing things that are more responsible,” she says. “If they’re dead set on keeping their turf, we ask them to reduce the size of it.”

Haigh says she wishes more people would consider mixing xeriscape elements into their lawns in order to decrease their turf.

Picking the right plants.

For Haigh, diversity and embracing native plants is what makes xeriscaping so special.

“A well-done xeriscape is pretty beautiful, and I would say has a greater sense of place,” she says. “Turfgrass is not a native Utah thing. But a lot of the plants we use are found throughout the state. We have a really diverse flora here. You can get a really gorgeous landscape using low-water plants.”

Haigh says using native plants is elemental as it helps pollinators, too.

“It’s really good for native pollinators to use native plants,” she says. “For most of our designs, we’re probably 50/50 natives versus low-water non-natives. There is a fantastic plant palate that we draw on that’s good for the birds, the bees, the butterflies and the bugs.”

Xeriscapes are low-maintenance areas, but that doesn’t mean they can be completely ignored.

Making sure the plants being used all have similar water needs is also instrumental for a successful xeriscape project.

“You don’t want to throw any in that take more water than others. Then, you’ll have a mess on your hands because some will survive, and others will suffer,” Burns says.

Once installed, Burns says little upkeep is needed.

“When you do a xeriscape type of garden, we try to put them in and sit back and watch them grow,” she says. “We try not to do a whole lot of trimming and let the plants tell us what they like and what they don’t like. You kind of just let them go and let them grow.”

Nevertheless, in order to thrive, Haigh says some maintenance is still needed from time to time.

She says a comprehensive clean-up in the spring to cut back perennials and prune shrubs. Also, providing pre-emergent weed treatments in early spring, summer and fall can help target seasonal weeds as well

“There is no no-maintenance landscape anywhere,” she says. “The thing that dooms the xeriscape is when people don’t do their maintenance. Xeriscape is presented as a low-maintenance alternative, but it’s low, targeted maintenance at the right time of year – but not no maintenance.

“If people are educated on the maintenance components and they execute them, then it’s great.”