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Xeriscaping: An Idea Worth Understanding

The city of Muncie, Indiana, made the news this week by switching its City Hall landscape to the principles of xeriscaping. With droughts affecting so much of the nation these days, we just can’t waste water the way we used to. This blog has covered water issues in detail in the past several weeks, including this post about the City Hall in Falmouth, Mass.: www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2009/07/dont-waste-water-part-iv/

Here are the general principles, as spelled out by the folks at the New Mexico Cooperative Extension: The Principles of Xeriscape

By applying xeriscape principles to your landscape, you will not only save water, but you will also enjoy the beauty and diversity of native and other water-wise (drought-tolerant) plants. Many delightful varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses do very well in Albuquerque’s climate. The following seven principles serve as a basic introduction to successful xeriscaping.

Planning and Design

A beautiful xeriscape starts with a good design. The physical characteristics of the site should be considered and so should your needs and your aesthetic preferences. For example, here are a few of the considerations:
• Sun:What portions of the property receive hot, afternoon sun? What portions receive morning sun and afternoon shade? The amount and time of sun will affect the types of plants you choose.
• Function: Do you need an outdoor living area? If so, consider expanding the patio area with additional shade structures and low-water-use trees to provide privacy.
• Views: Are there views you want to protect or screen? Know the mature size of the plants you select to ensure the views and screening you desire.
• Time: How much time do you plan to spend maintaining your landscape? If you would rather enjoy your yard than work on it, choose low-maintenance plants.

A well-planned design enables you to convert to water-wise landscaping quickly or to install your xeriscape in phases. Whether you create your own design or call upon a landscape design professional, a properly designed xeriscape can help meet your life-style needs.

Soil Improvements

To enable your soil to better absorb water, you may need to add soil amendments before you plant. The water retention abilities of most Albuquerque soil is improved with the addition of organic matter. If you are landscaping with native plants, however, soil amendments may not be necessary. Some well-adapted xeric plants prefer not to have too rich a soil. For these plants, doing as little as loosening the soil is all the soil preparation you will need.

Limited Turf Areas

Kentucky bluegrass is not native to Albuquerque! While the Albuquerque average is less than 9 inches of rain per year, Kentucky bluegrass requires 40 inches or more to stay green and healthy. The difference in moisture must come from irrigation – lots of irrigation.

This is why it is important for Albuquerqueans to rethink lawns. Instead of using lawns to cover large areas, choose your lawn size and type to fit your family’s needs. Drought-tolerant grasses such as buffalo grass and blue grama grass may be substituted for water-thirsty bluegrass in many situations. Consider reducing the size of your lawn and planting water-wise groundcovers and shrubs instead.

Limited Turf Areas

Whenever possible, choose native and low-water-use plants. Many varieties can grow in Albuquerque’s climate. Some are perfect for adding year-round greenery and texture; others are great for adding seasonal color.

Xeriscaping uses the concept of zoning. By grouping plants with similar water needs together in specific zones, your landscape can use water more efficiently. Low-water-use plants should be grouped together, away from high-water-use plants and turf. Take advantage of warm or cool microclimates (the actual climatic conditions around your property which can be influenced by the placement of walls and shade trees) to create areas of interest and diversity.

Efficient Irrigation

A well-planned and well-maintained irrigation system can significantly reduce a traditional landscape’s water use. For the most efficient use of water, irrigate turf areas separately from other plantings. Other irrigation zones should be designed so low-water-use plants receive only the water they require.

Proper irrigation choices can also save water. Turf lawns are best watered by sprinklers. Trees, shrubs, flowers, and groundcovers can be watered efficiently with low-volume drip emitters, sprayers, and bubblers. For additional information see theIrrigation Manual (.pdf) entitled Low Volume Irrigation; Design and Installation Guide.

Mulching

Mulches cover the soil and minimize evaporation, cool the soil, reduce weed growth and slow erosion. Mulches can also provide landscape interest and offer protective cover until plants mature. Organic mulches- including bark chips, wood grindings, and composted cotton burrs- are commonly used in planting beds. Inorganic mulches, such as gravel and decomposed granite, can be used to add texture and color under trees and around shrubs. Note: do not use plastic underneath rock or bark. It prevents the soil from breathing and encourages shallow plant roots.

Proper Maintenance

Although most successful xeriscapes are low maintenance, they are not no maintenance. Keeping your xeriscape beautiful and water thrifty through a program of well-timed mowing, fertilizing, pruning, pest control, and weeding will ensure that your landscape will develop beautifully.

To ensure continued water savings, keep irrigation systems properly adjusted. Properly maintained, a well-planned xeric landscape requires even less work as it matures – leaving more time to enjoy your yard.

This page was adapted from the New Mexico State Engineer Office Water Conservation Program publication entitled The Enchanted Xeriscape: A Guide to Water-wise Landscaping in New Mexico.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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