Plants and process

Features - Focus on water: Xeriscaping

A successful xeriscape hinges on the materials used and how to best care for them.

November 3, 2022

Photo © Patrish Jackson | Adobe Stock

As water conservation continues to dominate headlines out west where drought is prevalent, xeriscaped properties are popping up more and more.

“We have a lot of people really concerned about that here in the state of Utah,” says Jason Laws, head arborist with Elite Grounds, a division of Stratton and Brätt. “They’re concerned with watering and being more efficient with that.”

Laws says that he even expects xeriscaping to gain momentum and become a popular alternative to traditional landscapes all over.

“I think it’s more than a trend; I think it’s going to be more of a necessity as we continue to grow population wise especially in areas where we aren’t getting enough precipitation or snow,” he says. “I think it’s a great way to conserve on water in any area, even where we get lots of water just so we aren’t putting water where it’s not needed.”

Starting at the soil

Jason Laws
Photo courtesy of Elite Grounds

When clients decide to make the switch to a xeriscaped space, Laws notes there are some common challenges to overcome.

“The one thing most people think is that if you’re in a drought — let’s just pull all the water back. And that’s not necessarily the best tip. Most of the time you need to start at the soil to see what kind of soil you’re actually watering to know how best to pull the water back and how to be more efficient with it.”

Laws explains that different soil varieties have different watering needs. For example, clay soils will need deeper, less frequent watering treatments compared to sandy soils.

“(Figuring out) your soil type is how you can be most efficient with your water. It’s about understanding the soil type and how quickly the water is absorbed and passes through,” he says. “If you’re going to use less water, it’s almost better to water more frequently and less than the opposite, which would be to pull more water or take days off.”

When designing a xeriscape, it all starts with the soil. For example, clay soils require less frequent watering than sandy soils.
Photo courtesy of Elite Grounds

Tactful tree care

Once the watering routine is established, Laws says the next step is taking assessment of the existing trees and making sure they won’t be neglected.

“People don’t realize that the trees, shrubs and perennials still need to have a certain amount of water," he says of creating a xeriscape. “Trees play a huge factor in it. A lot of times they’ll pull the grass back away from a tree, or away from a bed, and go to a drip system without realizing that the roots of those trees are completely under that whole mass of grass you’re pulling out.”

When xeriscapes are installed wrong, Laws says the tree’s health is immediately put at risk. And Laws knows a thing or two about trees, as he was named the state of Utah’s Arborist of the Year in 2021.

“A lot of people pull the grass out away from the tree and just put a little emitter right by the base of the tree and in a year or two, we’ll end up losing the tree because it just hasn’t gotten enough water out where the root zone is,” he says.

When designing a new xeriscape around existing trees, Laws suggests adding additional drip lines in a ring around the base of the tree — while also having lines that extend all the way out to the canopy of the tree.

And for trees being planted within the installation of a xeriscapes, Laws says designers must plan ahead.

“If we’re doing a new install with a xeriscape, we need to make sure that while they’re designing the sprinkler system, they don’t just put emitters at the base of the tree but put water out where we would anticipate roots will grow,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re watering more; we’re just putting more water out over a larger surface area to accommodate that the roots are way far away from the trunk.”

Helping clients learn to love native plants will help designers avoid unreasonable client expectations.
Photo  © Katy | Adobe Stock

Preferential plants

Just as important as adequately watering trees in a new xeriscape is also picking the right plant materials that will flourish with little water.

“A lot of the challenges come from the differences in plants and trees we would install in that landscape versus something that’s going to require more water,” Laws explains. “A lot of people want these lush, tropical looks to their landscapes with lots of flowers and everything, but a lot of times, they need to change to plants and trees more native to their region and infuse those into their landscaping and learn to love those.”

Laws says designers should take native plants into account and predominantly feature them in the xeriscape.

“It all depends on the natural climate of where you’re designing and designing for that,” he says. “You can handle those challenges just by designing to your specific zone and using flowers or plants that would grow naturally there with less water.”

And even for clients who aren’t looking for a fully xeriscaped space, Laws says Stratton and Brätt always guides its customers toward native plant materials.

“We always strive to gear people to at least partial native landscapes anyway because they’ll do better in the environment we have regardless of the amount of water,” he says.

So, by taking all these factors into consideration, Laws says xeriscapes can make for eco-friendly and beautiful spaces.

“It makes people more conscious of their environment and the relationship between the trees and plants and the soil and the water,” Laws says. “The more that we can become in touch with that the better off we are going to be and the more successful we will be with the landscapes we enjoy.”

The author is assistant editor at Lawn & Landscape magazine.