The Seven Principles of Xeriscape

Photo © Patrick Standish

Xeriscaping continues to gain popularity around the world as people discover the benefits of this landscaping technique. In Latin, xero means dry and scape means landscape or view. As an official landscaping technique, xeriscaping seems to have ‘originated’ in the 1980’s as a result of ongoing, multi-year droughts plaguing the Western, United States, but people have been planting to match their climate for centuries.


Photo © Teresa Carlson

Landscapers–from California to the Rocky Mountains–were seeking a way to create gardens less dependent on irrigation without sacrificing aesthetic-appeal. Denver Water, the largest and oldest public water utility in Denver, Colorado, coined the term and began to formally define the main principles of xeriscaping for members of the Denver community interested in modifying gardening practices to save wateropen_in_new. Though it began in an effort to engage in water conservation in dry areas, it evolved to include a broader set of goals captured in the guidelines below.

Seven Principles of Xeriscapingopen_in_new
1. Sound landscape planning and design.
2. Limitation of turf (commonly referred to as lawn) to appropriate, functional areas.
3. Use of water efficient plants.
4. Efficient irrigation.
5. Soil amendments.
6. Use of mulches.
7. Appropriate landscape maintenance.

Many arid communities, from the deserts of the southwest to the chaparrals of California have adopted xeriscape principles. Given the routine dry periods these regions experience, xeriscaping is very logical. As recently as 2006, researchers identified that in the southwest 60-80%open_in_new of water used by individual households was for landscape irrigation (watering a lawn accounts for a majority of it). Installing xeriscape gardens, as a Nevada studyopen_in_new showed, reduced water bills by 50% (with massive 70% average reductions during summer months). Participants also reported reduced labor effort of 26.4%, since their new yards required less maintenance, like lawn mowing and manicuring.

creek in xeriscape

Photo © S Reilly

Xeriscaping doesn’t just have to be for arid climates. These principles can be implemented in all ecoregions and lead to positive outcomes like reduced weeds, the creation of dense native plantings, less yard maintenance, minimized use of pesticides and fertilizers, and reduction of non-native lawns. In an attempt to understand why people choose to engage in xeriscaping, researchers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada identified two neighborhoods with homeowners that had engaged in xeriscape landscaping.open_in_new Twenty families were interviewed regarding their choices for their yards, their motivations, and the consequences of their gardening choices. They discovered water conservation took a back seat to aesthetics and the joy of gardening as the primary motivations for adopting xeriscaping principles.


Photo © Teresa Carlson

The results of this research show that households with xeriscape landscaping were motivated mainly by factors related to landscape aesthetic and physical activity rather than water conservation.

Must I use native plants for xeriscaping?
Notice that using native plants is not specified in the principles of xeriscaping. However, many gardeners do embrace using native plants in their designs. Why? The simple answer is native plants are better adapted to the regional climate variations than non-native plants. This often results in native plants success without excessive watering, fertilizers, or pesticides. Ecologically speaking, native plants are also thought to provide more beneficial habitat for wildlife, making them an excellent choice to support the birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, amphibians, and other creatures that share our neighborhoods with us. Homeowners can design xeriscape gardens with non-native plants, but our recommendation would be to exhaust native plant options first.
xeriscape aerial of yard

Photo © Jay@MorphoLA

Xeriscaping does not come without costs. One study found that modifications were between $1.30-$2.00 per sq ft depending on whether homeowners did the work themselves or hired a contractoropen_in_new. These inputs are upfront costs for materials like native plants, mulch, stones, and tools. Over time, however, there are substantial savings with lower water bills and reduced maintenance costs. There are also cash-back incentives and rebates associated with improving resource use in your landscaping in some areas. Check with local city and state websites to determine what might be available in your area.

Not convinced yet? Need a dose of aesthetic motivation? Check-out these beautiful xeriscapes in houzz for creative ideas for your yard.

Add your xeriscape to your map

On your map, create a Ground Habitat () for your xeriscape

Click on ground

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Open the Basic Information tag and label your ground Xeriscape (or whatever you like).

title xeriscape

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Now open the Characteristics Tab and describe the type of ground in your xeriscape feature (gravel, mulch, rock, sand, and soil are the options).

fill out ground type

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You are also encouraged to add any comments about your spot; where it is located, what types of plants are used, how often you water or if you do not water…etc.

can comment here on watering and plants

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Now, zoom in on your ground habitat and add objects that are located in this area. For example, the specific shrubs (), trees (), cactus (), flowers (), bird baths (), boulders (),…etc that can be found in this habitat.

zoom in and add plants

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Make sure to complete the characteristics for each plant and object you add. Identifying plants by species is a great way to make your map complete.

provide characteristics on plants

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ALTERNATIVE HABITAT CHOICE: Some may find that their xeriscape garden is more of a flower and herb garden, or grassland. This is especially true in non-arid regions that use xeriscape techniques. In this case, use the Flowersherbs or Grassland habitat options. Make sure to label the habitat and complete the characteristics (for flowers and herbs you can even set irrigation frequency, which for true xeriscaping should be pretty infrequent once the plants are established).

Flowersandherbs irrigation

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Other Resources:
For looking up native plants to use: Lady Bird Johnshon Wildflower.
When you search for a native plant make sure that it is adapted to the type of light, soil, and moisture conditions of the site.

Basic google search for Xeriscape Brochure will provide links to brochures that are regionally focused and may provide some plant ideas. Be cautious as not all recommendations are native plants.

Ideas for plants for Southwest Xeriscaping.

Information on xeriscaping with some plant recommendations.

General article on xeriscaping.