Xeriscaping for any landscape

It’s not just about creating a landscape of cacti and rocks.

Photo © Gavin Wylie Photography

Whether you call it xeriscaping, water-wise landscaping or drought-tolerant design, creating landscapes that conserve water isn’t just for the desert Southwest or drought-stricken regions. Even parts of the country with sufficient rainfall have dry spells occasionally. And many principles of xeriscape save money and time in the long run, not to mention preserving natural resources.

We spoke with co-owners Shane Baldwin and Timothy Langan of Silver Sage Xeriscape & Design, which serves the greater Salt Lake Valley and Summit County, Utah area about how to add these common-sense concepts to your own designs and installations, no matter where you live:

L&L: What does the term xeriscaping or xeriscape mean?

Baldwin: Xeriscape is a total system. It starts with good design that conserves water, taking into account microclimates on the property that use more or less water. We pay attention to appropriate plant selection and choose the right plant for the right place. For example, you don’t put a shade plant in full sun. You choose a plant that isn’t going to outgrow the space to minimize maintenance. We always use mulch, and we install irrigation drip systems so the plants get the right amount of water. We talk to clients about creating a habitat for bees, other pollinators, and wildlife. All these basic principles of good planning work together ultimately to save water, time and resources.

L&L: What are the benefits of adding xeriscape to properties?

Langan: As water becomes more precious, it becomes more costly. You’ve also got more and more restrictions on usage, and customers in some parts of the country are on a tiered system so that the more water they use, the higher the rate. We often convert overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation. This actually creates a more low-maintenance environment because the water is delivered directly to the roots, which grow deeper and become more drought-tolerant in the 3- to 5-year range so you can dial back irrigation at that point.

L&L: How do you handle the misconceptions about xeriscaping?

Langan: There’s a lot of communication that needs to happen when clients first reach out to you. Many people think xeriscape is all rocks and very linear and modern-looking. Yes, we’ve done designs with rows of grass and cobbles used artistically, but that’s not the only option. I think the key is learning how to translate what a client is actually asking for. For example, we had a client who said she didn’t want the “desert cactus look.” We started talking about what she does like in terms of flower color, shape of the leaves, and size of the plants. What it got down to is that she wanted something bright and colorful, more like a mountain wildflower look. She wanted a more natural-looking, less rigid feel, which we were able to deliver.

Baldwin: We also hear from people that they think xeriscape means removing all the grass. That’s another misconception. We evaluate what you’re actually using. Research has shown that you may only use about 20 percent of your lawn for recreation, so you may be able to install a small area somewhere on the property for your kids and pets.

L&L: How do you market these services?

Langan: We partner with a local conservation garden, which has a referral program. We use Google electronic ads and social media. We send email reminders to let clients know it’s time to turn on irrigation or schedule spring or fall cleanups. This year, we’re participating in a local festival in Salt Lake called Bee Fest, which offers workshops and education about pollinators. We’re going to set up a smartphone quiz app so people can learn about pollinator-friendly plants, which are often water-wise plants, too.

Baldwin: I also became certified as a Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper, and I’m listed on their website, so we get referrals that way, too. It’s a good way to set yourself apart from the competition.

L&L: What’s the typical demographic for these services?

Langan: We’ve had a broad range of ages from mid-20s to people in their 70s. We’ve had installations on 600- to 700-square-foot lots to 10,000-square-foot properties. There’s an awareness in this part of the country of the importance of making the most of what we have. Twenty or 30 years ago, most residences had traditional lawns in Utah. Now, we’re seeing an “island” of lawn with water-wise plantings along the perimeter.

L&L: What’s a good way to learn about the principles of xeriscape?

Langan: Play with small beds to figure out what works. Learn to use different plantings, and plan so you have plants in the right places with varying bloom times.

Baldwin: There are many resources out there such as your state’s nursery and landscape association. Your local university and the Department of Agriculture have good educational tools, too.

L&L: How would you suggest adding xeriscape principles to a landscape business?

Baldwin: You can apply xeriscape concepts to every design. Always mulch, make irrigation more efficient, select the right plants, and look for opportunities to educate clients about how all of this will save not just water but money, time and effort in the long run.

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.

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