The Principles of Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping (pronounced zera –skay-ping) is the term given to landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water. It is most often promoted in regions in North America that do not have easily accessible, plentiful, or reliable supplies of fresh water but it is gaining acceptance in other areas, especially in parts of Canada with drier climates. Not only can xeriscaping be an alternative to various types of traditional gardening but can be a great option for those who don’t have time to spend on watering or have access to water, such as at the cabin, or are away from home or the cabin for periods of time, causing the gardens to dry up.
When planning for xeriscaping, plants whose natural requirements are appropriate to the local climate are emphasized, and care is taken to avoid losing water to evaporation and run-off. The specific plants used in xeriscaping depends upon the climate. Xeriscaping is different from natural landscaping, because the emphasis in xeriscaping is on selection of plants for water conservation, not necessarily only selecting native plants, but in many cases, many native plants within the area, can be considered drought tolerant.
Listed below are seven principles that xeriscaping is based on, but can easily be adapted to any type of garden.
Planning and Design
Planning is key, as you need to assess your specific property and figure out where the sun is throughout the day and where you are going to place your garden. The design should group low-water-use plants together and if you chose to use higher water-use vegetation, they must be placed elsewhere. Remember to arrange plants according to their full growth size and light requirements, too. Good planning prevents heartbreak down the road and is the key to success.
Soil Improvement
Soil conditions are critical to the success of a xeriscape as it must provide support, air, water and nutrients to the plants or they will be weakened. Texture, organic content, pH, drainage, salinity and fertility are the important characteristics of soil that should be considered before planting anything. Most drought-resistant plants need good drainage. Check your soil’s drainage before you plant. Dig a test planting hole and fill it with water. If it drains quickly then you need to improve the soil by adding organic matter to help absorb and retain more water. Soil improvement steps may include using adding peat moss, manure or compost to improve moisture retention, sand to increase drainage and applying fertilizer carefully to promote strong root growth.
Appropriate Plant Selection
Plants must suit the climatic and microclimate conditions, intended function, soil characteristics and the intended water use at the planting site. Look for the drought-resistant trees, shrubs, perennials, ground cover, grasses and vines at your nursery supplier and do some research before you head out to shop. Perennials generally demand less water, fertilizer and pesticide than annuals. Keep in mind that even though a plant is labelled drought-resistant, it is important to provide adequate water until it is well established during its first year after planting.
Efficient Irrigation
Even though you are planting plants that will tolerate drier than normal conditions, you may still need to provide some supplemental watering. Efficient irrigation means applying the amount of water that is required by a plant, when it is required, where it is required and with minimal wastage. In May, as the plants begin to grow, you would not be watering at the same frequency as you would in July when the weather is hot and dry. Usually watering once a week is sufficient, even for grass, if the water is applied to the depth of the root zone. A soaker hose system can be installed as it is the most efficient and conservative form of watering, especially in a xeriscape garden. Water reaches the plants’ roots more slowly, is absorbed better and doesn’t evaporate as quickly as with a sprinkler.
Mulches are applied to the soil surface to reduce evaporation and to lower plant water use by moderating soil temperature. Wood chips or bark are best but you can also use rocks, straw, etc., as mulches. Mulch when applied properly (from previous columns) also works to deter weed growth.
When water is efficiently applied in a garden and xeriscape principles are used, less maintenance will be required. A well planned xeriscape garden planted with plants appropriately matched to your soil conditions and our climate will naturally be a low maintenance type of garden. Now isn’t it nice to enjoy a great garden without too much work?