Xeriscaping is landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for watering to supplement rain or snow by using native plants and arid-adapted plants. Care is taken to avoid losing water through run-off and evaporation. Nearly any landscaping style is possible with xeriscaping.
• reduced cost and labor to maintain landscape
• lower water consumption with efficient irrigation
• less fertilizer and pesticide use
• wildlife habitat created
• home values enhanced
Low-water-use plants save money: Outdoor irrigation is 30 to 50% of domestic water use. Using a drip system reduces water bills. Little or no fertilizer is required, thus lessening expense. Xeriscaping reduces the cost of maintenance equipment and supplies compared to more traditional landscaping, such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers, gas, etc.
Xeriscaping saves labor: Low-water-use plants are well adapted to the hot, dry Southwest environment. Frequently they are smaller and grow more slowly requiring little or no pruning, application of fertilizer and pesticides, and other maintenance that water-loving plants require.
Xeriscaping enhances the value of homes: Colorful, unique plants in a design with rock walls, decorative rock, curbing, and other features create visual appeal. Low maintenance costs attract potential buyers.
Creating wildlife habitat: Native vegetation and arid-adapted plants provide food and shelter for local wildlife, such as birds, bees, butterflies, and mammals. Their habitat is enhanced by the lack of pollution caused by gasoline-powered devices and less use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer.
Plants for Xeriscaping
When people hear xeriscaping, many immediately think of cactus. Cacti are indeed low-water-use plants that are well adapted to the Southwest and contribute to an attractive yard with their different shapes, sizes, and flowers. There are included among several plant groups that have evolved with survival strategies to thrive in arid, high temperature environments. These groups are succulents, drought tolerators, and drought avoiders.
Succulents include cacti, agave, yucca, ocotillo, aloe, elephant trees, and euphorbias, which have fleshy tissue that expand to soak up and store water for dry periods. Some species have spines instead of leaves; this minimizes the surface area, reducing water loss by transpiration. Extensive, shallow root system absorbs water quickly in infrequent rainstorms. A thick waxy skin retards water loss in the intense desert sun. Their special type of photosynthesis enables the stomata to open at night to access and store carbon dioxide when it is cooler, reducing water loss. Photosynthesis then occurs during the day without opening the stomata and losing precious water.
Drought tolerant plants, which can withstand a low water, high-temperature environment, include desert shrubs such as mesquite, catclaw, acacia, four-wing saltbush, Mormon tea, creosote, red barberry, and more. Survival strategies include small, shiny or waxy leaves that retard water loss. Thorns provide protection from grazing predators. Some have small hairs on their leaves to protect from sunlight and desiccating wind. Other shed leaves during droughts or position leaves at an angle to the sun to minimize water loss. A few desert shrubs, such as creosote, produce a chemical that prevents other plants from growing near them, eliminating competition for scarce water.
Drought avoiders complete their entire life cycles or active growth periods before the dry portions of the year occurs. These include many perennials and grasses, which actively grow during wetter seasons, and annual herbaceous species with very short life spans in spring or summer. They fit their entire life cycle, including seed production into wet periods, then go dormant or die off. These types of plants are mostly responsible for the stunning displays of spring flowers.
When building on or landscaping previously undeveloped land, preserving undisturbed “set-asides” of native plant communities provides instant and established xeriscaping. Native plants communities protect desert soils by decreasing erosion and provide the best-suited habitat for native wildlife. The value of undisturbed land to an ecosystem is great, as restoration may take decades or even centuries in our fragile desert environment.
With all of its benefits – especially water conservation – and so many plants to choose from, xeriscaping is an excellent landscaping choice. You can feel great about supporting the food web, contributing to the ecological health, and saving time and money. Our limited and precious groundwater currently supplies almost all residential and municipal water needs. Xeriscaping is an important tool for helping to protect our groundwater and live within our means.
Arizona Department of Water Resources hosts a resource webpage for xeriscaping principles and finding drought tolerant plants. For Yavapai County and areas nearby, the University of Arizona Yavapai County Extension has many resources, including a native plant list.
by Chris Jensen
Board Member, Verde River Basin Partnership