Climate and Nature

All about xeriscaping: the low-water landscaping solution

Xeriscaping can save homeowners money on water bills and can also increase the value of their homes.

Xeriscaping, a water-wise design for land and gardens, can protect against drought and lower utility bills. Image: J&S Landscape

Paige Bennett
Writer, EcoWatch
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Climate and Nature

  • Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping that uses water-efficient plants and practices to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation.
  • It can save homeowners money on water bills, increase the value of their homes, and help to conserve water resources.
  • There are many different ways to xeriscape, and the best approach will vary depending on the climate, soil conditions, and the homeowner's preferences.

What is xeriscaping?

While you may not have heard the term “xeriscaping” before, you likely already have a pretty good idea of what it is in practice. Xeriscaping refers to landscaping an area in a way that requires little to no irrigation. It’s common in drought-prone areas, but xeriscaping is a water-wise way to garden just about anywhere.

The term “xeriscaping” was first coined in 1981 by the Denver Water Department. The term combines “scape” or “landscape” with the Greek prefix “xero,” meaning dry. Many people may think of xeriscaping for desert areas of the southwest, but this form of landscaping is beneficial for any climate. The key is making the most of native plants and working with the natural climate of a region, so you spend less money and resources trying to water your lawn and garden.

A gardener with a xeriscaped yard in Castle Rock, Colorado.
A gardener with a xeriscaped yard in Castle Rock, Colorado. Image: RJ Sangosti / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Why is xeriscaping important?

Water conservation is now more important than ever. With only about 3% of all water on Earth being freshwater, this resource is scarce. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 40 or more states are expected to face water shortages by 2024. By 2050, over 75% of the world could face droughts.

If humans are using more water to keep their grassy lawns green in drought-stricken areas or trying to grow plants not native to their locations, there will be less water available for communities who need this resource for drinking, cooking and hygiene.

Xeriscaping is important because it is a natural way of designing and maintaining a landscape, so property owners can minimize their water usage (by about 50%, according to Los Angeles County Public Works) and work in tandem with the local climate to reduce reliance on things like chemical fertilizers, which can pollute the local environment.

Benefits of xeriscaping

Clearly, there are many benefits to xeriscaping. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed lazy gardener who wants to spend more time admiring your landscape than toiling with the plants, or you’re hoping to save some money on your utility bills, there are plenty of reasons to consider xeriscaping. Not to mention the plentiful environmental benefits that this method of low-water landscaping can provide for your region.

Conserves water

Xeriscaping conserves about 50% of water, an impressive figure considering that about 30% to 60% of all household water is used outdoors, mostly for watering the landscape. In the U.S., households across the country collectively use about 8 billion gallons of water per day for the outdoors. Xeriscaping doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never need to water your landscape, but it can significantly cut back on irrigation needs.

Requires native plants

Native plants needing little water instead of grass in drought-stricken Southern California.
Native plants needing little water instead of grass in drought-stricken Southern California. Image: Maureen P. Sullivan / Moment Open / Getty Images

Naturally, to cut back on the amount of landscape irrigation, planting native plants can get the job done. That’s because native plants are already suited to local climate conditions, including rainfall. In arid regions, this may mean planting cacti and succulents that are accustomed to bright sunlight, high temperatures and little rainfall. In moist continental climates, this could mean focusing on trees and bushes that can handle large amounts of rainfall and snow.

Plus, by using native plants for your landscaping, they don’t need to be shipped in from a far-flung location, so you can reduce related emissions as well.

The National Wildlife Federation offers a database to help you find native plants based on your location. You can also consult with local nurseries or landscaping professionals for assistance.

Attracts pollinators

As you’ll see, many of the benefits of xeriscaping are all tied together. Planting native plants naturally helps you conserve water outdoors, and native plants are also going to help attract more pollinators, like birds, bees and butterflies. Over 80% of all plants on Earth need pollinators for reproduction, so you want to attract these critters to help your landscape thrive.

A honey bee pollinates a yellow cactus flower in Colorado.
A honey bee pollinates a yellow cactus flower in Colorado. Image: Cavan Images / Getty Images

Saves money

Cutting outdoor water usage in half translates to immediate savings on your monthly utility bills. Xeriscaping also means you’ll spend less money on lawn maintenance, like fuel for the mower or fertilizer to keep the lawn green, reducing maintenance costs by as much as 60%.

Xeriscaping has some other financial benefits, too. According to Colorado WaterWise, xeriscaping can boost property values by up to 15%. Plus, if you design your low-water landscape in a way that places shady trees and shrubs around the home, you can even reduce your home’s energy needs for cooling in the warmer months.

Beautifies a space

Simply put, xeriscaping can be beautiful. Of course, when you first plant the seedlings, the landscape will need some time to grow into its natural beauty. But over time, the native plants will thrive, made only more attractive with all of the pollinators buzzing or flying around. Xeriscaping can be a fun, creative way to build an aesthetically pleasing landscape compared to the seas of boring green grass lawns in your neighborhood.

Xeriscaping at a house in Boulder, Colorado.
Xeriscaping at a house in Boulder, Colorado. Image: Sammy Dallal / Digital First Media / Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

Less work

Thanks to xeriscaping, you can spend less time and effort watering all of your plants. You may want to set up a drip irrigation system, but otherwise, your native plants will require far less water than grassy lawns or other water-intensive plants. Speaking of lawns, when you swap grass for xeriscaping, you can also spend less energy mowing your lawn.

Challenges of xeriscaping

While the grass may be looking greener on the xeriscaped side, there are some challenges to be aware of before you jump into xeriscaping.

Upfront cost

According to LawnLove, xeriscaping can cost anywhere from $5 per square foot to $20 per square foot. That’s because in addition to buying plants for the landscape, you may also hire landscape designers, plus you’ll need to either pay professionals to remove your grass and install the new landscaping or buy or rent the tools necessary to DIY.

But for comparison, traditional landscaping averages around $4.50 to $17 per square foot, but with higher monthly maintenance costs. So while xeriscaping may seem costly upfront, it’s similar in price to other landscaping types but can save money in the long-run.

Xeriscape landscaping in Palm Springs, California.
Xeriscape landscaping in Palm Springs, California. Image: Constantgardener / Getty Images

Time

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to starting your xeriscaping journey. This process doesn’t happen overnight. First, you or a team of landscaping pros will spend some time removing grass and other non-native plants from the landscape. Grass can do a number on soil health, so you’ll need to take time to nurture the soil back to health before you start planting native plants. This process can take several months.

Once soil health shows improvement and you’ve planted your seeds or seedlings, you have to give them time to establish in their new home. It may take a few growing seasons for the plants to mature, but the water and cost savings in the meantime will make xeriscaping worth the wait.

Adjusting to appearance

If you’re used to a lush, green lawn, switching to native plants and a low-water landscape design can be a big visual change. At first, especially while the seedlings are getting established, the landscape can look sparse.

Newly xeriscaped yards can look sparse.
Newly xeriscaped yards can look sparse. Image: Constantgardener / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Have you read?

May face restrictions

Depending on where you live, your property may be within the regulations of a homeowners association. Some HOAs may have restrictions on landscape design, including what plants each landscape is allowed to have or expectations about grass upkeep.

If you do have property that is part of an HOA, make sure you know local laws as well. For instance, in California, HOAs are not allowed to enforce policies that prohibit low-water landscaping.

Discover

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Xeriscaping v conventional landscaping

Water-wise landscaping is beneficial for just about any property, whether or not you live in a dry climate. Here’s how xeriscape stacks up against conventional landscaping:

Water use: Xeriscaping saves about 50% on water usage compared to traditional landscaping.

Soil health: To keep grass dense and green and free of pests, many homeowners must use fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm beneficial organisms in the soil. With xeriscaping, you need fewer of these chemicals.

Cost: As mentioned earlier, xeriscaping is slightly more upfront, at $5 to $20 per square foot compared to traditional landscaping, which costs $4.50 to $17 per square foot. But xeriscaping can save you money on water bills, maintenance costs and even home energy costs.

Emissions: Non-road sources of emissions, like lawn mowers, lawn trimmers and leafblowers, contribute about 242 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. But xeriscaping can minimize or full eliminate the need for these polluting tools and machines.

A xeriscaped front yard garden that has replaced a typical grass lawn in Los Angeles, California.
A xeriscaped garden that has replaced a typical grass lawn in Los Angeles, California. Image: ROBYN BECK / AFP via Getty Images

How to implement xeriscaping

You’ve looked over the facts and figures, considered the pros and cons, and now you’re ready to rip out your lawn and start xeriscaping. Congratulations are in order! You may be wondering where to start. Here are some steps to take to transform your lawn into a low-water landscape:

Analyze your area’s climate

To start, you’ll want to better understand your climate, so you can choose native plants that will work well with your location’s average sunlight, precipitation and temperature from season to season. You can better plan for these factors by checking the USDA Hardiness Zone map, choosing plants that will work for your Hardiness Zone.

Remove lawns

There are many different methods to removing a lawn:

  • You can use a machine, like a rototiller or a power tiller, to quickly remove grasses with shallow roots.
  • For a good workout, even a shovel will suffice for removing grass in a smaller lawn.
  • In the summertime, you can use solarization to essentialy kill off the grass by cutting it as short as possible with a mower, covering it with a clear sheet, then letting the sun cook the grass.
  • Some property owners use herbicides to kill off grass, but this could also worsen the soil health and run off into local waterways.
  • You can smother the lawn with mulch or compost, which can also help improve soil health before you start planting low-water plants. Just keep in mind this process can take several months.

Boost soil health

If you choose to kill off your lawn by smothering it with compost or mulch, you’re already on the right path to improving the soil health. Organic matter, like fallen leaves or homemade compost, can help restore nutrients in the soil. Minimize or avoid using chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which can harm the beneficial organisms in soil.

It may take several months of soil amendments to get the soil to a healthy state that can support growth for your new plantings. Before planting, make sure to aerate or loosen the soil for better air flow and to help water better penetrate the soil and reach plant roots.

Add native plants

Use this Native Plant Finder, or talk with garden and landscape experts, to find native plants best suited to your region. Make sure to review climate and soil needs and compare them with your specific property to give each plant the best chance of thriving, especially when water will be limited.

When planting the native plants, consider arranging them in water zones, so plants with higher water needs are close together for easier irrigation. You can also place these plants near downspouts or in drainage areas of your property, so rainwater is more likely to reach them.

Succulent plants in a xeriscaped yard in Berkeley, California.
Succulent plants in a xeriscaped yard in Berkeley, California. Image: Melinda Young Stuart / Flickr

Water the landscape

After transplanting plants from a nursery or planting seeds, you will need to water plants according to their specific needs to help them establish roots and minimize transplant shock. After watering, you can set up an efficient irrigation system or set up a watering schedule that complements natural precipitation patterns in your region.

Use mulch

As one of the final steps in xeriscaping, mulching helps minimize evaporation of water from the soil. Plus, mulching with organic matter continues to feed healthy soil by adding more nutrients as the organic matter breaks down.

Xeriscaping maintenance tips

Once you’ve established xeriscaping on your property, there are some maintenance tips to keep in mind that will help your plants thrive, even in low water conditions.

Collect rainwater

Rather than watering plants from the garden hose or sprinkler system, why not set up a collection system to store rainwater for irrigation? You can set up barrels to collect rainwater or design hardscaping, like paved walkways or rock rivers, to naturally collect and divert rainwater toward your planted areas.

Note: While collecting rainwater from the sky is a free resource for irrigating your low-water landscape, rainwater collection isn’t legal everywhere. Make sure to check your state and local laws for any restrictions. This map from World Population Review notes state-by-state cases where rainwater collection is legal, legal with restrictions or illegal.

A resident of Tucson, Arizona demonstrates a home rainwater collection system.
A resident of Tucson, Arizona demonstrates a home rainwater collection system. Image: The Washington Post / Getty Images

Remove weeds

Weeds will compete with your plants, taking more of the share of soil nutrients and water. While you won’t need to mow your lawn every week or spend time fertilizing the grass when you switch to xeriscaping, you should still grab those garden gloves and pull any pesky weeds when you see them. Again, try to skip the herbicides to promote better soil health. Typically, you’ll only need to be diligent about weeds for the first year or two, as your new plants get established.

Set up drip irrigation

Some xeriscapes will need occasional supplemental water in addition to rainwater. Even if you aren’t able to set up a rainwater collection system, you can install a clever drip irrigation system in your xeriscape. Drip irrigation limits water use by efficiently supplying small amounts of water directly toward each plant’s roots with a series of water tubing.

Key takeaways

Xeriscaping is a win-win method to improve your landscape. By planting native plants with low water needs, you can conserve water and save money on your utility bills each month. Native plants can add a unique, beautiful look to your home, even boosting property values and attracting pollinators. Plus, native plants require less maintenance and fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can not only harm soil on your property but can also run off into local waterways, impacting aquatic life.

Freshwater is a finite resource on our planet, and many people will face worsening water shortages in the coming years. One major way to help conserve this precious resource at an individual level is to limit outdoor water use with water-wise landscaping.

A home with a xeriscaped front yard in Burbank, California.
A home with a xeriscaped front yard in Burbank, California. Image: Cory Doctorow / Flickr
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