Xeriscaping on a budget

Water is one of our most precious natural resources so we must constantly be looking for ways to conserve it. The landscaping industry has contributed by introducing xeriscaping as an alternative to the more traditional ways of beautifying our outdoor home environments. The success of xeriscaping has resulted in a high percentage of savings both in preservation and home energy costs.

The goal of xeriscaping can be accomplished with various outcomes. It doesn’t have to be limited to desert like plants and rock formations. A creative landscape designer can create something as lush looking as an English Garden and still adhere to the principles of xeriscaping.

Xeriscapes are divided into zones according to how much water will be needed for specific plants. The “oasis” zone will be the one closest to the main watering source and will incorporate those plants that need more water to thrive. They can also benefit from the excess water that may run off from the rooftop.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the arid zone. This is where the landscaper will place the plants that will do well with only the moisture from rainfall. This is a good place for native species that prosper in the natural environment.

An xeriscape will limit the use of expansive lawns that need a lot of water to survive. This will mean less maintenance for the homeowner and no need for expensive mowing equipment. Irrigation systems are installed with timing devices so that watering by hand will be a thing of the past. These are positive selling points if the homeowner ever decides to put his home on the market.

Organic mulches are popular choices for xeriscaping. They tend to keep the soil moist and the nutrients that they contain are good for the plants. Weed control is another benefit of using an organic mulch. Mulch can come in the form of wood chips, straw or compost materials. Since it will eventually be absorbed into the soil, the mulch will need to be replaced as needed.

CoCal Landscaping in Denver features an “offer of the month” for their customers. Check out the website at www.cocal.com.

Related Wonders for You to Explore

Have you ever been to the Wild West? If you’ve ever seen any old cowboy movies, you know that the American West had a reputation for exploration, wildness, and lawlessness.

Most Westerns pictured a landscape that was dry and dusty. If you live in the Western United States or have ever visited the area, you know that this stereotype can often be true. The Western U.S. tends to be much more arid than the rest of the country.

There are large desert areas throughout the Western U.S. The dry climate also causes problems for areas that are forested. If you pay attention to the news regularly, you know that wildfires have plagued Western states for many years.

In arid climates, water is obviously a precious resource. With relatively little rain to replenish water supplies, people must use the water they have wisely.

For example, many people who live in Western states do not have one particular luxury enjoyed by many people across the country: the freedom to water your lawn whenever you want. Many areas restrict the use of water for lawns, because there are more important uses for that water.

What are you to do then if you live in one of these areas, but you want beautiful landscaping around your home? Fortunately, there’s a solution for drought-stricken areas: xeriscaping.

The word “xeriscape” comes from the Greek words xeros (dry) and scape (view). The term and landscaping philosophy was developed in the late 1970s by Denver Water, the water department for the city of Denver, Colorado.

The goal of xeriscaping is to design a landscape that features mostly native, drought-resistant plants arranged in an efficient manner to conserve water. For example, xeriscaping might involve using cacti and rocks rather than grass and non-native flowers.

Xeriscaping involves much more than just rocks and cacti, though. Any native, drought-resistant plants can be featured in xeriscaping. This means most areas have dozens of varieties of plants to choose from.

Since the purpose of xeriscaping is to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation, you may be WONDERing how effective the practice is. Denver Water estimates that xeriscaping can reduce water use for landscaping by 60 percent or more!

7 Principles of Xeriscaping

Last week we discussed the benefits of xeriscaping portions of your community. From saving water to reducing pollution, it can be a cost-effective way to beautify the neighborhood, especially in drier regions. Xeriscaping was coined by Denver Water in the early 80’s by combining the word “landscape” with the Greek prefix “xero” meaning dry. It’s no surprise that this concept came to life in Colorado, as we live in a very dry region that does not have access to fresh water, making irrigation far more expensive and wasteful than in other regions.

Denver Water not only coined the term but developed a list of principles to help others around the world adopt xeriscaping. Here are these main principles of xeriscaping:

1). Plan and design for smart water use

Before you plant anything, determine the water resources for your landscape and how to use them properly. You’ll also want to take into consider budget, function, aesthetics, and expected maintenance.

2). Improve soil quality

Quality soil retains moisture, which encourages plant growth. Incorporating organic matter into your soil can help improve its quality. However, you must understand the type of soil that will help plants in your region thrive. Some native plants don’t require much organic matter, while other can drown in soil that retains too much moisture.

3). Reduce turf and other water-wasting plants

The main goal of xeriscaping it to reduce water waste, which means reducing the size of lawns. Look to replace lawns with drought-tolerant grass that’s best suited for your region. You can also replace all or part of your lawn with low-water groundcovers that are drought-tolerant and require little to no fertilizer.

4). Choose the right plants

Pick plants that are drought-tolerant, but also have aesthetic appeal. Select plants that are native to your region or thrive in your type of climate. It’s recommended that you select a good mix of plants at various heights that bloom throughout the year. Don’t forget that different plants require different amounts of sunlight, so plant accordingly.

5). Water efficiently

No, xeriscaping does not mean you’ll never have to water again. However, it does aim to ensure you water wisely and never overwater. Choose drip irrigation systems that directly water the roots and avoid wasteful sprinklers that leave excess water on the sidewalk or street. Aim to water plants deeply at their roots and do so infrequently to help them develop long, healthy drought-tolerant root systems.

6). Mulch

It’s recommended that you use two to three inches of natural mulch. Mulch helps prevent evaporation and prevents weed growth. It’s also a way to improve the aesthetics of your landscape.

7). Maintain your landscape

When you do the right amount of planning and research, you’ll end up with an attractive, low maintenance yard. But even xeriscaped landscapes still require some maintenance. Pull weeds, prune shrubs and trees, rake, and replace mulch as needed.

Maintaining a beautiful community is one way to improve resident experience. Download our free six-step guide for more tips!

by Emily Cross Reeves

Replacing a grass lawn with low-water, low-maintenance xeriscape seems like a no-brainer to many people who live through the dry, hot summers of Colorado, but somehow we still see grass lawn after grass lawn in neighborhoods across the state. Why? Oftentimes a grass lawn is left alone because people are concerned about the cost of replacing it with a xeric garden.

The truth is, a xeric garden can actually save you quite a bit of money over time if you can commit to a modest budget and a bit of hard work up front. So, if you’re ready to install a xeric garden and watch your water bill shrink (and your curb appeal grow), take a look at these tips on how to xeriscape on a budget.

1) Do the work yourself

The first step to xeriscaping your yard on a budget is to design and plant your xeric garden yourself. When you by-pass the professionals, you save a lot of money, but you also risk making a few mistakes. To decrease the risk, do your homework about drought-tolerant plants that will do well in your area and take some time to create a garden design on grid paper.

If you’re xeriscaping your yard in Colorado, one of your best options is to buy a pre-planned garden like Garden In A Box. These gardens arrive with plants that are known to thrive in Colorado and a few design options are included. Garden In A Box pre-planned gardens are one of the best ways to xeriscape your yard without spending a ton of money, thanks to a generous plant discount and free design plans.

2) Keep purchased hardscape to a minimum

If you already have hardscapes like boulders, river rock, and flagstone in your yard, consider yourself lucky. If not, consider using other design elements that are less pricey. For instance, one cost-effective option for pathways is to make your own stepping-stones with a fast-setting concrete mix and a mold. You can add artistic elements to the concrete like leaf imprints, small tiles, and marbles, too! Gravel, woodchips, and mulch are also budget-friendly alternatives to flagstone patios and pathways, and allow you to install hardscape overtime if you wish.

3) Grow from seed and collect plant divisions from friends and neighbors

The most cost-effective way to fill your yard with drought-tolerant plants? Grow plants from seed and collect divided, mature plants from friends.

Collecting or buying seeds are always cheaper than buying full-grown plants. However, there is a downside to growing most of your plants from seeds – the timeline. It will take your xeric garden longer to mature if you are starting from seed. The best fix to this problem is to grow annuals and biennials in your garden as the perennials get established. Of course, if you have to buy all of the equipment in order to grow your plants from seeds, this may not cut your costs all that much. But you have other options!

If you have friends or neighbors with established gardens, chances are that they will have some plants in their yard that can be divided and given to you. You may also find someone online who is giving away divided or volunteer plants for free. I picked up five free Salvia plants last spring from someone who posted on Facebook. Now, they are all planted in my new xeric garden and doing great.


4) Use non-invasive plants that spread

As long as you avoid invasive species and take care in researching your plants before planting them, xeriscaping with plants that spread by self-seeding, runners or division is an easy way to cut costs because you will be buying fewer plants to fill your space.

Some favorite drought-tolerant plants that spread or can be divided regularly include coneflower, sedum, bearded iris, salvia, lupine, Russian sage and bee balm (many of these are found in various options of Garden In A Box). Low-water groundcovers that spread easily include various types of speedwell, thyme, and low-growing sedum like Angelina stonecrop. Some annuals that spread by seed include zinnia, petunia, marigold and sunflower.

5) Make your own mulch

If you or a friend has a shredder/mulcher, you can make mulch that is of a much higher quality than anything you can buy from a nursery or landscape supply store. Shredded leaves and small clippings make great mulch that will stop weeds, slow water evaporation and improve soil health. Just be mindful of the extremely xeric plants that don’t like to “get their feet wet.” Avoid putting mulch too close to the base of these plants and opt for a bit of pea gravel, instead.

Ready to replace your grass with beautiful, low-water xeriscape and start saving money on your water bill? Want to accomplish that xeriscape on a budget? We can help! Check out our Grass to Garden turf replacement program, pre-planned Garden In A Box options and these step-by-step tips on xeriscaping your yard.

Xeriscape Design Considerations

Important considerations for designing a xeriscape garden By Genevieve Schmidt Swipe to view slides

  • The right balance of hard surfaces to planting areas is an individual choice which will depend on how you plan to use the space.
  • A landscape with a high proportion of plantings will cost less than one with a lot of hardscape surfaces like patios and paths.

A landscape designed with xeriscape principles in mind will make the most of any naturally-occurring water, while minimizing how much additional water is needed through careful design and plant selection. Here, landscaping professionals share their tips for designing low-water landscapes.

Why xeriscaping?

People develop an interest in xeriscaping for a few reasons. Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery of Boxhill Landscape Design in Tucson, AZ says the most common reasons people xeriscape are:

  • To save money on water
  • To be more eco-friendly
  • To reduce maintenance for vacation or rental properties

Each of these perspectives will have an impact on the decisions you make during the design process. For example, if you’re primarily interested in saving money, you may want to minimize added amenities such as large areas of hardscaping or water features. If you’re coming to xeriscaping from an environmental angle, selecting native plants and watering them using a rainwater harvesting system is a great way of enjoying beauty while benefiting the earth. Frequent travelers, or people with a vacation or rental home, should choose exceptionally low-water plants and use a rain sensor, which adjusts the automated irrigation system during times of natural moisture.

Patios vs. planting

The next consideration involves how you plan to use the space. You could have a higher percentage of hard surfaces such as patios and pathways for entertaining, or you could opt for larger planting beds, which soften the architecture and provide colorful beauty.

“Decks, patios, fire pits, outdoor kitchens and big water features are the expensive elements in our business,” says Mike Woods of J&S Landscape in Longmont, CO. “Usually people want one of each when the designing begins, but later in the process, people make choices based on what they’ll really use and enjoy given the costs.”

As for plantings, don’t think because you are using low-water plants, the landscape can’t be every bit as stunning as that water-hogging display down the street. “It’s not zero-scaping”, says Przygoda-Montgomery. “If people love plants, we can create something Monet-beautiful, a year-round pastel garden. Xeriscaping can adapt to any style.”

Both hard surfaces and plantings have their place in a successful xeriscape. Finding the right balance for how you will use your landscaping is key.

Choose a higher percentage of hard surfaces if:

  • You entertain a lot
  • You don’t like to garden
  • You live in a cooler climate, since many types of hardscaping can reflect heat and become oppressive under the beating sun
  • You have a generous budget

Choose a higher percentage of planting beds if:

  • You enjoy the natural beauty of plants and like to garden
  • You live in an exceptionally hot climate where the cooling attributes of trees and shrubs will be appreciated
  • You enjoy birdwatching, since plantings will attract more wildlife
  • You have a limited budget, since plants are always less expensive than hardscape

Whichever direction you’re leaning, pay attention to scale and balance. Greg Frugoli of Ecotones Landscapes in Cambria, CA asks, “How much hardscape do you really need? Are you parking an RV on the patio or just having a patio set?” If you need a large patio or entertaining area, he advises planting groundcovers in between the pavers to soften the look and force travelers to slow down and enjoy the journey through the landscaping.

Planting considerations

Choosing the right plants for your landscape, and getting them established properly, is the number one key to success when xeriscaping. Keep in mind these tenets of xeriscape planting design to ensure your plants get off to the right start.

When buying native plants, try to go local.

Przygoda-Montgomery points out that an Arizona native grown in a cushy California environment will be totally unprepared for harsh desert conditions. “If you start with locally-grown plants, you can take them off the water sooner,” she says. “When buying local, you’ll see a big difference.”

Plant deciduous trees to the south or west of seating areas.

In hot climates, hard surfaces can radiate heat and become totally inhospitable. However, if you plan ahead and plant trees to the south or west of seating areas, you can enjoy shade during the hottest part of the day. Choose trees that lose their leaves in winter, so they’ll let in light during the darkest times of the year.

Always use drip irrigation.

Drip irrigation with an automated timer is ideal in a xeriscape setting because it allows you to provide the exact amount of water needed at the exact right time, with no waste. Drip irrigation can be hooked up to a rainwater harvesting system like a rain barrel or tank so it uses your stored water before drawing from the city’s supply. Rain sensors can be used to automatically adjust the irrigation timer up or down depending on the amount of moisture in the air.

Use a 3 to 4 inch thick layer of mulch.

Mulch helps hold down the weeds, and keeps moisture in the soil from evaporating. Because the drip irrigation system is set on top of the soil but beneath the mulch, a thick layer of mulch preserves the water you apply with the drip system. Choose gravel mulch for desert or other xeric plants which are prone to rot, and wood mulch for plants which will appreciate a small amount of extra moisture.

Let plants benefit from one another’s water.

If you are planting a 15-gallon or boxed specimen tree, you’re going to need to provide extra water to help the tree develop an independent root system. This is a great opportunity to establish low-water groundcovers at the base, which will grow robust with the extra water you’re providing the tree.

Garden Design Ideas

The Trials and Tribulations
of Natural Gardening

Where did I get this urge to use low maintenance landscaping in my garden design ideas? Natural gardening, utilizing the drought tolerance of native perennials and shrubs to build the backbone of my garden came, well, naturally.

When I first moved to this dry climate and found the mountain side that would become my home, I had grand ideas of a lovely lush perennial garden, filled with blooming plants, buzzing insects and intoxicating scents.

The first thing I tried was to make a lawn. It was only a small lawn, but the native soil was rocky and sandy, and packed tighter than a drum.

I ran the shallow well dry.

This is our only source of water, so it could have been a disaster.

The lawn was left to its own devices and eventually, despite no irrigation it did become a green sward, mixed with clover and other plants that don’t go brown in the summer.

The secret to keeping the grass green and healthy, even growing in the shade of large Douglas fir trees, is the liberal doses of Dolomite lime in the fall. Timing the application to just prior to a rain fall is the key.

Looking for more ideas? Each picture links to another page with inspiring gardens;

I worked for a wholesale nursery in Grand Forks for several years; their stock in trade was prairie hardy shrubs and trees, including native plants.

I felt that this was a burgeoning industry, ripe for me to get a tiny piece of, so after building a greenhouse, I tried my hand at growing plugs of all kinds of nursery stock.

The propagating part was easy, as that’s my forte. Growing the plugs to a salable size with a lack of available water, well, that was another thing entirely.

A friend in the industry suggested I grow thyme plugs, and she said she would purchase off me, so I started assembling as many different kinds of thyme that would be hardy to Zone 3, and after a few trials, started to produce them.

The huge sale never happened.

I grew lots of thyme plugs to sell to home owners putting in thyme lawns; however, it became apparent that thyme really needs to be custom grown. It hates to be confined in those tiny cells for any length of time.

For my next xeric plants, I thought, Sedum, that’s the ticket! I grew Sedum for green roofs, for xeric gardens, all sold mail order – fantastic! I had a winner.

Then I discovered – or should I say – rediscovered – Sempervivum. Those ubiquitous hens and chicks that you and I remember from childhood – they were in every garden, as they’re easy to grow, impossible to kill.

My light bulb moment was when I became aware of the thousands of different ones. Small, fuzzy ones; smooth dinner plate sized ones; red, burgundy, lime green, almost black; the choice was endless.

As an offshoot of my attraction to Sempervivum, I also discovered some similar hardy succulents, Rosularia, Jovibarba and Orostachys. These are hard to find, but well worth the effort to locate them.

The Xeriscapers Creed?
What’s that?

Rules to Garden By…

My low maintenance landscaping is filled with all kinds of xeric plants.

These are the test gardens, where all manner of perennials are trialed for their real drought tolerance. There are no wimps here – all are tough, hardy and resistant to the challenges of growing in an arid climate. If they don’t survive – and thrive – in the conditions in my sandy, acid, zone 5 garden they don’t make the list of recommended plants for xeriscaping.

Natural gardening – even when not actually growing native plants – could be summed up with that old saw, the right plant in the right place. Nature knows which plants should go under and beside others of similar needs.

The beauty of low maintenance landscaping is that the shrubs and perennials that you grow don’t require water, pruning and constant attention.

The dormancy of late summer ends when the fall rains come. Snow contributes a warm blanket through the winter, and a good soaking once it starts to melt.

That lush, blooming perennial garden? I have that too, without any added water, using well adapted drought tolerant plants. Now, that’s my kind of garden design idea!

It can be hard to know where to start planning to redesign your garden. Not all of us are garden landscapers and it’s nice to have some visual inspiration. This infographic discusses some of the current garden design trends so you can get a feel for the type of style you want. Whether that be sprucing it up with lights and a Moroccan feel, adding an Indian fire pit or taking a fresh alfresco feel.

Interested in more about Indian Fire Bowls?

What Other Visitors Have Said

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Want your succulents to survive the winter? Learn how to bring them indoors and be happy and healthy with this free e-course; Fill in your name and email address on the form below to enroll!

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