Xeriscaping 101: Sustainability, Costs and the Quest for a Better Lawn

A Beginner's Guide To Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping 101: Sustainability, Costs, And The Quest For A Better Lawn

A Beginner's Guide To Xeriscaping

You turn all taps off tightly to avoid dripping, use low-flush toilets and have a high efficiency washing machine. The water-saving dishwasher runs only when full and your showers are about as long as a brief song.

In other words, you’re doing your best to conserve water for a greener planet, but have you thought about your water usage outside? Indeed, every time you water the lawn, you could be undoing your conservation efforts.

Perhaps that’s why xeriscaping has become so trendy. This means of lawn care reduces the need to water surrounding plants and flowers very often, sometimes even at all. If you’re curious about xeriscaping, you should weigh both the pros and cons carefully before redoing your lawn. Here’s what you need to know.

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Xeri-What Now?

Xeriscaping (pronounced “zee-ra-scaping”) is defined as “landscaping with slow-growing, drought-tolerant plants to conserve water and establish a waste-efficient landscape” according to the University of Florida. “The word ‘xeriscape’ is derived from the Greek ‘xeros,’ meaning dry, and ‘scape,’ a kind of level or scene.”

Jen Wallace at Organic Authority notes the word itself has existed since the 1980s, when Denver, Colorado’s Water Department came up with it. However, in today’s world, where natural resources are scarce and becoming scarcer, it makes for people everywhere to consider xeriscaping.

You can live anywhere in the country and have a xeriscaped backyard, Wallace adds. In some cases, your backyard may already be in ideal shape for xeriscaping. If not, it can be remodeled for better irrigation.

Why Xeriscape?

Is your interest piqued but you’re on the fence about whether to xeriscape? Check out these four compelling reasons to redo your lawn. You may just be convinced.

1. Appeal

Everyone wants a beautiful home. That appeal starts with the home’s exterior, including the front and backyard. A well-manicured, xeriscaped yard “improves property value by creating curb appeal and reducing water costs,” says Xeriscapes.net.

2. Less Maintenance

A traditional lawn doesn’t take care of itself. It still requires watering, mowing, pruning and other maintenance. Not so with xeriscaping, according to Xeriscapes.net. “Xeriscapes usually need fewer pest control measures and less fertilizer than traditional landscapes.” The site notes these lawns also “eliminate the time required to mow and fertilize…Drip irrigation systems save time spent watering.”

3. Cost Savings

The less money you spend on water, the lower your monthly water bills. Over time, those savings can be significant. Plus if you don’t have to spend money on fertilizers and other chemicals for maintenance and if you don’t have to gas up the lawn mower every few weeks or months, that’s also more money in your pocket.

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4. Better for the Environment

Jen Wallace with Organic Authority writes “the average American household uses about 320 gallons of water per day, of which about 30 percent is for outdoor use like watering lawns and gardens” based on information from the EPA. With xeriscaping, homeowners can stop using so much water. In fact, gardening store Coastal Farm & Ranch says “a combination of lawn sculpting and xeriscaping is a great option…helping the average homeowner save time and reduce water usage by 50 percent.”

How to Xeriscape

You’ve decided you want to xeriscape your lawn, but where to start? Julie Mitchell at insurance company PolicyGenius recommends getting in touch with the neighborhood power and/or water companies, since “your city may help you pay to xeriscape your yard.”

Remove Turf

Coastal Farm then suggests assessing the yard. “Start by deciding how much of your lawn you want to keep,” they say. “…Trimming your lawn down to a manageable yet enjoyable size is key. If you have hills in your yard, you might consider taking turf out of those areas first. Once you have that planned out, you’ll want to start pulling out the rest of your lawn to make way for your new shrubs, plants, and flowers.”

According to Coastal Farm, shovels and rototillers are all that are needed for this stage of xeriscaping. That said, Mitchell at PolicyGenius cautions homeowners to know when to call in the pros.

“Contractors or lawn services can get discounts on rentals and supplies, they have trucks that can haul a (literal) ton of rocks, they have people who can help get it done faster, and they’ll (presumably) do it right the first time…and with a guarantee of their work.”

If ripping out the grass from the dirt seems too tough, Emily Reeves at athletic clothing company Sierra Trading Post has a few other ideas for turf removal:

  • Glyphosate herbicide — This is a chemical and can be dangerous if used improperly. Reeves says “glyphosate is a non-specific contact herbicide, so be sure to use it on a calm, warm and sunny day.”
  • White vinegar — For a non-chemical alternative, this vinegar can “kill grass when applied like an herbicide, but it is best used in small areas because it can get expensive.”
  • Sheet covering — Reeves suggests making layers of mulch, grass clippings, 10-sheet newspaper, cardboard and compost. Keep layering the paper materials and then finish with mulch or grass clippings.
  • Solarization — “Kill turf with the heat of the sun by covering it with a black polyethylene sheet,” says Reeves. This is a simple option but one that requires up to eight weeks to work.

Repair Soil

Once the grass is fully removed, get a look at the soil underneath. What shape is it in? Mary Dyer at Gardening Know How says to “work towards a goal of soil that drains well while retaining adequate moisture to sustain plant life. Drought-tolerant plants require well-drained soil and won’t survive in soggy, poorly-drained soil.”

What should you do to keep your soil free of excess moisture? Dyer recommends the same thing as Emily Reeves with Sierra Trading Post: compost, particularly “adding several inches of organic material…worked into the top six to eight inches of the soil.”

Choosing Plants

Once you get the soil in suitable condition, you can figure out which plants you want. “Your new xeriscaping yard doesn’t need to be filled with native plants, but it doesn’t hurt,” says Coastal Farm. “The vegetation you choose should be able to survive on rainfall alone — or just a little added water from you.”

Stumped on which plants and flowers to pick? Emily Reeves with Sierra Trading Post has a few suggestions great for beginners.

  • Wild 4 O’Clock — With its “huge, deep growing taproot that keeps it healthy even in a severe drought,” the Wild 4 O’ Clock is ideal for beginners because of its soil versatility. Its pink/blue flowers are sure to charm.
  • Yarrow — Able to “thrive in climates that get up to 50 inches of annual rainfall,” yarrow can survive with much less water. That makes these yellow flowers another good option for beginners.
  • Jupiter’s Beard — It’s no wonder the Jupiter’s Beard has another nickname, the red valerian. The pinkish-red flowers are striking, and this plant can sprout up 36 inches in height. Whether planted in the sun or the shade, it should thrive.
  • Penstemon — Reeves calls the penstemon a “must for the xeric garden.” She says bees, moths, butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to some varieties of this plant, such as the Rocky Mountain Penstemon.
  • Salvia — For beginners who want a reliable plant, Reeves recommends the May Night Salvia, which “will continue to bloom all summer long if you keep it deadheaded.” Deer and rabbits won’t be attracted to this plant, but bees definitely will.

Want even more ideas for xeriscape-friendly plants and flowers? Eartheasy has lots of examples of grasses, succulents and flowers that are great for these yards.

The Pros

While we’ve already mentioned some of the benefits to xeriscaping above (including cost savings, less time on maintenance and greater curb appeal), the biggest benefit to xeriscaping is sustainability. The National Wildlife Federation approves xeriscaping as a good means of reducing water usage.

The EPA has a few suggestions for the water-conscious about how they can cut back on water consumption but still keep plants and greenery alive in a xeriscaped yard:

  • Micro-irrigation — Also known as drip systems, the EPA notes these “are generally more efficient than conventional sprinklers, because they deliver low volumes of water directly to plants’ roots, minimizing losses to wind, runoff, evaporation or overspray.” Even better, these “use 25 to 50 percent less water than conventional pop-up sprinkler systems and can save up to 30,000 gallons per year.”
  • Sprinklers — Although these require more water than the EPA recommends, they do have their place. The organization suggests buying water-efficient sprinkler heads.
  • Rain sensors and rainfall shutoff devices — By turning off irrigation and other water systems when it’s raining, these devices prevent excessive water use.
  • Soil moisture sensors — These sensors detect whether the yard needs more water by measuring the amount of moisture in soil.
  • Irrigation controller — This is a “‘smart’ irrigation control technology that uses local weather data to determine when and how much to water.”

The Cons

There are few cons to xeriscaping, considering that a homeowner is doing their part for the environment, enjoying lower water bills as a result, avoiding using fertilizers and other chemicals and minimizing maintenance. However, if you decide to rip up your lawn, fix the soil and plant succulents and flowers yourself, this can be time and labor-intensive. It can also be expensive.

If you want to save cash but still xeriscape your yard, follow these tips from Julie Mitchell with PolicyGenius.

  1. Need retaining walls on the cheap? Concrete blocks get the job done. These are inexpensive, and, as Mitchell notes, “can be stuccoed, painted and capped.”
  2. It’s cheaper to buy sand in bigger quantities. When you buy smaller bags, you’re paying for the packaging on top of the quantity of sand.
  3. If you look around your neighborhood, you can often find much of what you need for mulch. When you cut your lawn, don’t throw away all the grass, as the clippings can come in handy for covering soil.
  4. Don’t overdo it on the succulents or other plants. “An ‘instant’ yard costs a lot more money. Younger plants and trees cost less than mature plants. Seeds cost even less. You can get grass for a quarter of the cost of turf (though it may require more watering at first). Same for vegetables and fruits, you can get a bag of seeds for the cost of one plant,” Mitchell writes.

The Future

In the grips of climate change, the world has certainly felt the effects of humankind’s overuse of resources. A xeriscaped yard is cheaper and nicer to look at compared to most yards and it requires less effort while still helping the planet. Next time you’re in your backyard, you may just want to start mentally planning a way to xeriscape the area.

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