Is this hot, dry summer turning your once-green lawn into straw? Do you live in a dry climate and find it difficult to maintain the stereotypical immaculate suburban yard? Do you want to do more for the environment by using less water, fewer resources, and incorporating native species into your garden? Try xeriscaping, a style of landscaping that conserves water, relies on native plants, and reduces areas devoted to turf. In regions such as the Western US that are subject to frequent and severe drought, gardeners have been using xeriscaping for years to cope with chronic water shortages.
Xeriscapes do not have to be desert gardens. They can be lush and full of color. Use these seven principles in your garden design to not only help the environment, but to turn your dead, brown lawn into an oasis.
Strive to conserve water
Map your yards unique soil types and microclimates, particularly areas that retain water longest, dry fastest, or are hardest to water. Use this map to plan zones of low, moderate, and high water usage. Group plantings by water requirements within these zones. If you must have a few plants that rely heavily on water, place them to maximize your enjoyment of them, such as near an entrance or outdoor living areas such as patios.
Improve your soil
We’ve already discussed many organic methods to improve your soil in our posts Improving Difficult Soils and Soil Improvement Techniques. For a xeriscape that incorporates a few plants with high or moderate water requirements, dig deeply and add a lot of organic matter to the soil before planting. Drought-tolerant species often prefer un-amended soil, so group them together and leave their soil unimproved.
Reduce the amount of your lawn devoted exclusively to grass
An immaculate, healthy green lawn requires large quantities of water. There are estimates that the average family only requires roughly 800 square feet of lawn. Maximize this area by siting it next to a driveway or patio. Keep the shape of your lawn rounded and regularly-shaped to minimize edges that will absorb heat more quickly and accelerate the loss of moisture. Choose native grass species that are drought-tolerant and well-adapted to your local climate.
Mulch areas that will not be planted to a depth of 2 to 3 inches using an organic mulch, gravel, or stone. The rainfall you do receive will pass through these mulches to increase soil moisture.
If you will be incorporating an irrigation system into your xeriscape, plan it for your garden’s different zones of water use. Once plants are established, water them only when the soil is dry several inches beneath the surface. Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation rather than sprinklers.
Choose drought-resistant plants
Choose native species that have evolved to flourish in your local climate and soils. Talk to a local Master Garden, Extension Service, or gardening center to determine what native species are best suited to your area.
Maintaining your xeriscape
Continue to weed, fertilize, prune and patrol for pests in your garden. Regularly inspect irrigation systems for leaks and adjust it to account for dry and wet seasons.
Many state and local governments offer guides on water conservation and xeriscaping. To learn about plants native to your area, check out http://www.wildflower.org/plants/, with its Recommended Species page that is searchable by US state. They also have a Drought Resource Center with useful information on helping your lawn and garden deal with the stresses of drought. Search the National Xeriscape Council’s web page for more information.
All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors