Learn from ‘Xperienced Xeriscape Gardeners

Photo © S Reilly

This member of the Habitat Network has spent the last twenty years creating incredible “water-wise” gardens around their beautiful Salt Lake City home. There is a wealth of information to glean from their experience if you are embarking on a xeriscape project. Read on to learn more about the Carlsons’ process, challenges, and successes.

front of house

Photo © Teresa Carlson

What are your main motivations for engaging in Xeriscaping? Why do you do it?
We had several reasons for xeriscaping with the primary goal to reduce the amount of water we were using. Utah is the second driest state in the nation and when we purchased the house most of the front and part of the back yards were grass which required a lot of water. Plus, once the summer weather reached 90 degrees or higher, the grass would go dormant and turn brown. Another reason is that we wanted to improve the overall look (curbside appeal) by including rock walls and a large mound in the front yard. Xeriscaping was the natural way to conserve water and we found there were a lot of plants to choose from that met our criteria. We also wanted to have a selection of plants that would bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall, and provide the bees and hummingbirds with ample food.


Photo © Teresa Carlson

What kind of plants do you use in your xeriscaping? What plants have you had the most success with?
Most of the plants that we are using are water-wise perennial flowers, trees, and shrubs. We’ve had great success with ornamental grasses since they make a great base and give good height coverage. We use Miscanthus giganteus in the back close to our fountain and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ (pictured above) for our side yard, with some Zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis, next to our bench area to add privacy. Other grasses we use to enhance the beauty of the landscape include Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and the stunning specimen in our backyard by our water fountain is North American native, Blonde Ambition Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), which creates eye lash-like seed spikes at the top of the plant.

Whirling Butterflies

Photo © Teresa Carlson

The design of the grasses look great from a distance and balance the overall look with the smaller plants. We have a show stopping group of native Whirling Butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri), pictured above, at the end of our driveway that bloom nonstop all summer; people literally stop their cars and ask us “Who did your landscaping?” The answer is Mother Nature and the Carlsons. I say Mother Nature because in the spring we are graced with the wildflowers on the hillside behind our house and we do not know who planted all of the irises and vinca that hold the steep slope firmly in place.


Photo © Teresa Carlson

Other plants that are on our property, but we did not plant, include: evening primroses, rabbitbrush, and sage. Native arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) covers the hillside and encroaches into our backyard. Purple vetch and sego lilies are rare but we have had a couple. The xeriscape plants that do extremely well, though not all natives: lavender, purple sage, zauschneria (Epilobium canum), russian sage, yarrow, penstemons, scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), hardly plumbago, coreopsis (all varieties), blue asters, columbine, blue bells, sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), coralbells (Heuchera sanguinea), Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), Jupiter beard, Veronica (gentian speedwell and spike speedwell), cosmos, nasturtiums, zinnias, pinifolis agastache, nepeta (cat mint), oriental poppies, yellow primrose, desert four o’clock (Mirabilis multiflora), mormon tea (Ephedra viridis), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), mexican hat and many others.

Lovely plants

Photo © Teresa Carlson

I love how my flowers have spread and naturalized with each other. It’s like seeing a lush mountain meadow–in the hot sun! For trees, we have our favorite Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin), pictured above on the left in bloom, a lot of shrub live oak (Quercus turbinella), curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), and pine trees.

bird bath

Photo © Teresa Carlson

What have you noticed as a result of this landscaping choice? Increased biodiversity? Less water? Anything else?
We’ve benefited from much lower water bills due to the xeriscaping and the watering drip system. Our lot sits on a 1/4 acre and our highest water bill during the peak summer month of August is $48.00. The neighbors have all indicated that our yard is one of the best and they continually inquire about what plants we are using. Insect life is diverse with lots of bee, ladybug, praying mantis, wasp, and other insect diversity. We do have several water features and bird feeders which attract a wide selection of birds and we don’t use any pesticides. What is most enjoyable is the wide selection of plants that flower throughout the spring, summer, and fall and that the yard looks spectacular without much effort on our part now that the plants are established.

early before all plants

Photo © Teresa Carlson

Some argue that Xeriscaping is more expensive as you have to invest in plants. Have you found this to be the case? If not, what has been your experience?
The perennial plants are very economical since they don’t require replacement every year and over time they will spread out and can be divided giving additional plants. Annuals are used in our garden on a limited basis and the cost is reasonable. Initially, the cost of the rock walls, mound, fountain, drip system, rock paths, and trees was a one-time expense.


Photo © Teresa Carlson

What are the benefits of this type of landscaping? Any unexpected consequences?

  • Low water bills
  • Yard full of flowering plants with a wide selection of plants that aesthetically flow together
  • Takes little effort to maintain
  • Excellent bird, insect, snake life
  • No pesticides or other harmful chemicals
  • Curb side appeal

Photo © Teresa Carlson

Pictured above is Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxa)

What advice would you give to someone just beginning to Xeriscape? Why do it?
First of all, congratulations on making the decision to xeriscape! Once your yard is cleared of all that unnecessary grass, you will have an effortlessly beautiful yard. Be sure and plan ahead for all the outdoor parties you will have to show off your yard. Secondly, look for a xeriscaped community garden where you can get ideas and talk with experts. We relied heavily on the Jordan Water District Conservancy in Utah for advice on design and plant selection. Spend several evenings or weekends walking through these gardens and your neighborhood arboretum or botanical gardens. Borrow books from the library, order a catalog from High Country Gardens, and drive around and look at other xeriscaped yards. This is best done during the winter when you are getting spring fever! Ask the nurseries or peruse the yellow pages for someone reliable who can help you with your drip system, if you require one. Good Luck, have fun, and thank you for wanting to conserve water and help the environment through xeriscaping.