Xeriscaping, the low-water landscaping concept and term developed in the early 1980s, has fluctuated wildly in the realm of public adoration. Called “zero-scaping” by critics for its often spare appearance, the gardening approach has now become as accepted in Utah neighborhoods as blue spruce and marigolds.
Xeriscaping had a bad rap because it was so misunderstood—or misapplied. A decade ago, when it gained popularity in urban areas, the common way to xeriscape was to rip out the parking strip and plant awkward little tufts of grass in a stiff, unnatural pattern. This look was especially unattractive if the rest of the yard was left as-is, creating an incongruity in style. And the sparse nature of this “design” really miffed the neighbors, especially those with perfectly manicured Kentucky Blue.
In the past, most people thought xeriscaping meant cactus and rock gardens. Today a broader understanding of the concept, a longer list of available of plant species, and the fact that municipalities and communities are mainstreaming the practice have brought xeriscaping into a new era. Xeriscaping can mean exotic, Mediterranean, lush and substantial, depending on plant choices and placement. It goes by many other names, including water-conserving (“xeros” is Greek for “dry”), regional or sustainable landscaping, but it’s still just gardening.
“It’s found its place,” says Jan Striefel of Landmark Design. “It’s gained popularity among average citizens who want to do the right thing, and now cities are recognizing that they can save money by saving water. It’s becoming institutionalized rather than fashionable.”
The Ground Work
For the busy homeowner or anyone interested in saving water and money, xeriscaping may be the perfect landscape. But first, Streifel recommends that you ask yourself a few questions: What are your expectations? Do you want it to be green and lush? Can it be brown when it’s dormant? Do you have children or dogs that need a little lawn? Do you entertain? All of these determinations must be made in order to settle on garden style, plant choices and hardscaping.
The next factors to consider, says Cory Whiting of In-Site Design Group, are time and cost, i.e. how much time and money you can devote to maintenance and how much you want to spend on the initial installation.
Xeriscaping does take less maintenance, he says, but it’s not maintenance free. Xeriscaping may also use fewer plants, but not necessarily less expensive plants. “Xeriscaping plants are more expensive,” he says, “for the same reason health food costs more than white bread—lower demand.” Another thing to note, Whiting says, is that “native” doesn’t necessarily mean that a plant uses less water, and savvy gardeners will learn the difference.
Once you decide that xeriscaping may be right for you, next you need inspiration. Before you bulldoze the petunias, begin to visualize the potential of your own garden plot and have a plan. The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s Conservation Garden Park (www.conservationgardenpark.org
) is a great place for ideas galore. This vast property has numerous demonstration gardens and educational exhibits, plus plant ideas and classes.
In Utah County, floundering gardeners may visit Central Utah Gardens (www.centralutahgardens.org
), created by Central Utah Water Conservancy District to support its commitment to conservation and to encourage an ethic that promotes responsible management of community water resources. Located in Orem, these gardens demonstrate that you don’t have to sacrifice beauty with a water-efficient landscape. This resource also provides classes, even for kids, and sample designs.
If you still can’t envision letting go of your lawn, there are ways to incorporate it into a new landscape and still save water and money. BioGrass, a Utah company, has developed BioNative, a drought tolerant native sod blend that needs little water or fertilizer. It can handle sun or shade, growing to heights of 12 to 36 inches. While it is designed to withstand extreme temperatures and dry spells, BioNative isn’t equipped to handle hoards of hyperactive children (or adults).
As with any type of design project, if you don’t have the time or patience to complete it to your satisfaction, hire an expert. Landscape architects will save you money, time, hassle and sweat, and they can draft the perfect plan for your needs. Experts have the resources, knowledge and manpower to make your vision a reality, with as little or as much input as a homeowner wishes to contribute. Some will even provide just the plan and you can do all the labor. Grab a shovel and dig in!