Landscaping for Dry Climates

Written By: Matt Johnson, Sustainability Associate, Pierce Energy Planning

Do you love lush, vibrant, and colorful gardens? Do you live in an area receiving less than 10 inches of rain a year? Lucky for you, there’s a solution!

Throughout the warm Southwest, we live in a desert and water is the lifeblood for humans, plants, and other animals. To sustain a healthy life in the hot, arid desert we have to learn to conserve water resources without sacrificing for quality. Arizonans use up to 70 percent of their water on their landscape and up to 50 percent of this water is wasted from inefficient watering methods.

By carefully planning and implementing our landscapes in Arizona, we can reduce our outdoor water usage and continue to have beautiful yards which are easy to maintain with little water.

This type of landscaping is called xeriscaping. This landscaping technique is embraced in dry regions with little irrigation and drought-tolerant vegetation. Xero comes from the Greek prefix for dry. Xeriscape derives its name from plants native to arid climates, which are better at storing available water called xerophytes.

Xeriscape is built around seven horticultural principles. These principles includeplanning and designappropriate turf areasefficient irrigationlow water use plantssoil improvementsmulches, and appropriate maintenance.

A study in Nevada found areas converted to xeriscape can save 33% on monthly water usage and 39% of water usage during summer months. A Colorado program found xeriscape can reduce outdoor water use by 60%.  It can require 35,000 gallons per year to properly water 1,000 square feet of turf according to the City of Mesa. With xeriscaping and low water plants, this yearly number can be cut to 15,000 gallons. This reduction could trim as much as 50% from a person’s water bill each month.

Good planning can ensure a long-term energy efficient landscape that reduces water use and provides for beautiful vegetation. Any new plant in a xeriscape will need to be watered regularly. It is important to properly design anirrigation system to water different plants to keep water use low. You can avoid watering in the day to avoid evaporation. After the first year, plants will begin to establish themselves and will need less water in the subsequent years. A person should note the plant they choose and the level of initial water it will need to live.

During the first year, plants will need good drainage, so it would be beneficial to loosen the soil during planting to encourage healthy root growth. As a method to reduce evaporation, mulch can be used to cover the soil. The mulch can cool the soil below and inhibit weed growth or erosion.

Another advantage of xeriscaping beside water conservation is the reduction in maintenance and operating costs. Overtime, people will spend less and less time maintaining their xeriscape areas besides some occasionally weed pulling. Design of more drought-resistant, low maintenance vegetation will reduce waste  associated with standard landscaping techniques. The xeriscapes will utilize less fertilizers, which lowers the potential for safety hazards to vegetation, animals, and humans.

As for the costs, many factors will decide the final price for a xeriscape. Some of the factors include: square footage of the potential area, plant selection, irrigation system, soil, and rainwater harvesting. An average conversion to a xeriscape can cost $1.50 per square foot to upwards of $5 dependent on your preferences.

A study performed at the University of Georgia found a 7,000 square foot plot retrofitted to a xeriscape could save roughly $250 annually from reductions in water usage, sewage, and maintenance costs. The retrofitted xeriscape can support appreciated property values and enhanced resale potential. Many utilities in the area provide rebates to consumers who choose to convert their landscape to a xeriscape.

Plants suitable for xeriscaping include cacti, agave, juniper, Chihuahuan Sage, Red Yucca, and lavender. A variety of herbs and spices such as thyme, sage, and oregano cane effectively and efficiently be used in xeriscaping. For more resources on xeriscaping in Arizona, check out this link from the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Xeriscape will not only help conserve water and provide a more efficient terrain, it can be a great learning environment for students. Students can learn the benefits xeriscaping can provide for their schools, help maintain the vegetation, and learn about new species of vegetation. Students will be able to retain this information and help spread the word about sustainable landscaping practices throughout Arizona!