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A 7-step guide to Xeriscaping for a climate-friendly yard

Xeriscaping reduces the need to water plants, making it one of the most eco-friendly, low-maintenance and impressive forms of landscaping. This is how to incorporate it into your yard.

A xeriscaped front yard in a hot climate
(Image credit: duckycards / Getty)

If you haven't yet heard of xeriscaping and you'd like a striking way to landscape a garden or yard, you should definitely consider this cool climate-friendly process. It almost eliminates the need for water, making it way more self-sufficient, not to mention, eco-friendly.

Mike Riha, Principal Designer and Landscape Architect at Yardzen (opens in new tab) says 'The term “xeriscape” was coined by the utility Denver Water back in the 1980s. The term combines the Latin “xer,” meaning “dry,” with “landscape” and it’s used to describe a method of landscaping that promotes water efficiency through the use of native and climate-adapted plants.'

A xeriscaped garden with agave

(Image credit: constantgardener / Getty)

So if xeriscaping has been around for decades, why aren't more of us doing it? Naturally, it is the way to go for those living in dryer climates, however with climate change and our want for more low-maintenance outdoor spaces, there's no reason why you can't explore the possibility of xeriscaping your own backyard.

How to start xeriscaping

As Riha says, xeriscaping is a term invented by Denver Water in 1981, and the idea behind it is landscaping with the aim of maximum water conservation. 

Today, xeriscaping has been embraced enthusiastically in Western parts of the United States where water conservation is a top priority. 

Xeriscaping is known for its distinctive look that provides an interesting alternative to the traditional lawn with borders. Instead, plants are surrounded by gravel, which helps retain moisture in the soil. We would describe the look as a Japanese Zen gravel garden meeting desert plants and/or drought-tolerant plants.  

Here are seven basic principles of xeriscaping to follow if you want to get started, as defined by Riha:

1. Create a plan for your new landscape design

Riha notes: 'To execute xeriscaping, it’s important to create a plan with your landscape designer and contractor. This will help to assess the climate factors in your yard, such as light and shade patterns throughout the day, heat and wind exposure, and mapping out existing natural elements like slope or trees. Having an intentional and well-thought-out plan will ensure that you will have thriving and low-maintenance plants down the road.'

2. Assess you soil type

As when designing a garden in a wet climate, knowing the type of soil you have to choose your planting scheme wisely is a must. 'Soil conditions are just as important as light and water when it comes to xeriscaping. While native plants generally do not require soil amendments, xeriscape principles suggest amending soil with organic matter such as compost to help retain and release water for non-native plants.' Adds Riha.

Xeriscaped landscape with a tree and plants in gravel and mulch in front of a house

(Image credit: Yardzen)

3. Limit lawns

'Lawns commonly receive double the water they need, and the spray systems used to irrigate them lose significant amounts of water both to evaporation and overspray onto hardscaped surfaces. While xeriscapes can have lawns, try alternative turf species that require less water and skip grand ornamental lawns. Instead, keep them small and reserve them for play or other functional uses.' Says Riha. There are a ton of no-mow lawn alternatives to weave into a mostly xeriscaped yard. 

4. Plant for water efficiency

Water efficient planting means really working with your climate to choose the right garden plants. 'You want to start with native plants, as they thrive in the local climate and can make do with little irrigation, generally surviving off the existing natural precipitation. You can also plant climate-adapted plants, which have evolved to thrive in conditions similar to the local climate, and won’t require much extra water or maintenance to look good. Whichever species you choose, try to mimic local wildlands and plant in the conditions that match their needs. An easy tip: group plants with similar light and watering requirements together so you can minimize maintenance requirements.' Says Riha. 

Xeriscaping garden scheme in mixed sand bed

(Image credit: RM Floral / Alamy Stock Photo)

5. Consider more efficient irrigation

'Your irrigation and watering plan should be done upfront at the same time you design your plant layout. While xeriscape designs require little supplemental irrigation, all plants require irrigation in their first one to two years to get established. Other tips for maintaining efficient irrigation include regularly checking for leaks, incorporating a weather sensor to cut operation when precipitation is detected, and capturing runoff or precipitation to recharge your groundwater supply.'

6. Mulch

'When it comes to xeriscaping, mulch is your multitasking friend – it preserves soil moisture, insulates, and prevents weeds from competing for precious water. You can use organic mulches such as bark or wood grindings, which you’ll need to replace year-to-year as it decomposes, or you can opt for rock or gravel, which should only be used in shaded areas where it won’t retain as much heat. Groundcover plants can also be leveraged to act as mulch because they do a great job of retaining water and lowering ground temperatures.' 

Riha adds that 'If the xeriscape area is going to include a new aggregate mulch (gravel, pebbles, etc.) and is bumping up against a driveway or walkway edges, it’s a good idea to dig out some earth or “trench” these edges. Creating three to four-inch deep and wide mini trenches along the pavement edges prevents the aggregate from spilling onto these spaces once it’s installed.'

7. Plan for lower maintenance

'Like any landscape, xeriscaping does require some maintenance. However, if you stick to the core principles, you’ll find that they require less maintenance than traditional landscape designs and the upkeep decreases over time.'

Is xeriscaping only for arid climates?

Not at all. This is the biggest misconception about this form of landscaping. The idea is simply reducing the amount of irrigation needed in your back or front yard, not necessarily creating a desert look. 

Xeriscaping can work surprisingly well in a wetter climate – you just will need to rethink which plants to grow. Instead of the cacti, drought-tolerant grasses and succulents typically grown in dry-climate xeriscapes, you might consider growing ferns and shrubs suited to temperate climates. Gravel is a near-universal landscaping material that works in just about any climate.

Don't like gravel? You can use pink bark mulch (opens in new tab) instead, or even rocks, for more of an Alpine look. Any material that helps the soil retain moisture (i.e. not grass) is welcome.

A fall garden with rocks

(Image credit: Solidago / Getty)

Does xeriscaping mean I can't use grass?

Not necessarily. usually, switching to xeriscaping does mean ditching the traditional large lawn in the center of your yard, but you don't have to get rid of all of the grass you have. Your or a landscape designer can carve out a specific area for a smaller lawn and use garden edging to separate it out from the xeriscaped areas. So, you'll still be able to enjoy your lawn, it'll just be covering a smaller area. 

Also, you do need to bear in mind that many local municipalities in the United States still require that a certain percentage of a homeowner's land be used as a lawn, but these laws are changing fast. In fact, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, and Florida all now allow homeowners to xeriscape their yards to conserve water. You should check with your local environmental authority or housing association before you xeriscape.

Xeriscaped yard with succulents

(Image credit: Solidago / Getty)

Can you xeriscape on a budget?

Riha notes how 'It’s possible to reduce the costs of xeriscaping by reducing the amount of plant material that gets installed initially. You can start with the installation of aggregate, such as gravel, decomposed granite, or river rock, and then a few key, sculptural plant species – think cacti, agave, feather grasses, etc. More plants can be added over time to spread out the costs.

Xeriscaping can be more expensive to install than laying sod for grass, but when you consider lifetime costs, it’s actually quite cost-effective. Grass requires watering, mowing, fertilizing, overseeding annually, and weed control to keep it looking good. Over the lifespan of an area, these inputs are more expensive than xeriscaping. Xeriscaping by nature doesn’t require many of these inputs, so while xeriscaping might be more costly initially, over time it’s for sure a smart money saver.'

The best plants for xeriscaping

Apart from the obvious cacti and succulents, there are lots more cool plants that thrive in xeriscaped yards. Riha notes how you'll need to remove grass and plant beds ahead of installing your new additions if you're xeriscaping your entire yard. 

'You can either do this the old-fashioned way by digging them out or try your hand at sheet-mulching, which involves a process of layering cardboard and organic materials over the existing grass. Sheet mulching takes time, but it’s a great way to smother the lawn while enriching the soil as the layers of sheet mulch break down. '

Look to include:

  • Pine 
  • Japanese cedar
  • Acers
  • Juniper
  • Hawthorn
  • Lavender
  • Sage
  • Pentstemon
  • Eryngium or sea holly
  • Wisteria
  • Santa Barbara daisy
  • Pelargoniums
  • Most types of ornamental grass
  • California poppy
  • Yucca
  • Tree ferns

Many of these plants are suitable for colder and rainier climates as well as hotter ones. The key is to choose tough plants that don't mind going for a little while without water. Just don't try to xeriscape with roses or hydrangeas – they will die. 

Does xeriscaping mean that I don't need to water my yard?

Unfortunately, not quite. You will still need to water plants, just a lot less than you normally would – 60 percent less, according to Denver Water (opens in new tab). Obviously, if you've only planted cacti, you could get away with watering your yard once a month, if that. Other plants will still need to be watered about once a week, or every other week if it's not too hot. 

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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