Salt Lake Xeriscape: Design Challenge

Photo © Matt Lavin

Design Challenge takes photos of tricky spots in people’s yards and puts them out there for advice from the professionals at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and from our broad audience of participants, some of whom have some serious wildlife gardening credentials (just check out our Featured Sites for proof).

The Details

Location: Salt Lake County, Utah
Eco-Region:Southern Rocky Mountain Steppe Open Woodland Coniferous Forest Alpine Meadow Province
Planting Zone: 6b
Learn more about this place by reading it’s Local Resources Page.

A Salt Lake County mountain property, which is largely scrub oak in the back, is fenced in with a thicket of oak, chokecherry and native maple, complete with a lot of dead wood. The homeowners have permission to thin out the dead wood and have done a bit of that. Further up the hill they have built a few brush piles from the downed woody material. The spot inside the fence is very shady and receives only 2-3 hours of sun or less per day.


Photo ©

The thicket is well loved by juncos, towhees, and many others and that matters to us.


The owners would like to keep or enhance the features that make this accommodating for birds (they see towhee fledglings every summer, and suspect they nest in the thicket), but would also like to thin out the dead wood to reduce some fire concerns. Can we figure out a balance? Does building brush piles compensate? Should they leave dead wood that’s on the ground and just focus on branches?

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Photo ©

Cornell Says:
This desert mountain location is prime terrain for xeriscaping! From the Latin xero, meaning dry, this gardening technique is becoming a widely popular form of landscaping in desert and drought stricken yards. Xeriscaping utilizes efficient irrigation and drought resistant plants surrounded by mulch or rocky ground covers to protect soil moisture. A xeriscaped garden will not only save copious amounts of water, it can also help reduce fire risk in dry environments. Many of the principles involved in landscaping for fire suppression, like using drought resistant and evergreen plants, as well as incorporating rock and open space into the design, are similar to those used in xeriscape.


Photo © Alan English CPA

Choose fire-resistant native plants in your water-wise garden to improve that protection. Some shade loving, showy natives that are excellent for wildlife and are known to be fire resistant and drought tolerant include Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus), and Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) pictured right.

Removing downed limbs and branches from around the home is important for fire suppression. Creating brush piles, away from any buildings, is an excellent idea for mitigating the habitat disturbance from clearing the dead wood. For fire safety, the lower dead branches of the thicket should be removed but you can replace some of the habitat structure for wildlife with small evergreen or semi-evergreen, non-resinous shrubs like Snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus) or Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) pictured in the title image above.

To our readers: There are many native species that would do well in a xeriscape yard. What are your favorites? Have you done any “firescaping” for your property and what species have you found to work best? Let us know in the comment section below.

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