Renovation & Design

The benefits of xeriscaping

Enjoy an environmentally sustainable landscape that is lush & green

Water gardens are not excluded from xeriscapes. This well-constructed shady water garden located in Balboa Park Friendship Garden, San Diego, features a grouping of plants with similar water needs.
At left, a prolific bloomer, Blanketflower (Gaillardia) is a hardy drought and heat-tolerant perennial that flourishes with little maintenance.
A xeriscape needs to be properly planned. Liatris and daylilies, shown in the foreground, are drought tolerant whereas the hydrangea standard in the background has high water needs. Below, succulents have a unique ability to retain water and provide vivid colour and texture in the garden.

When many people hear the term xeriscaping, they immediately think of a desert landscape or a landscape filled with rocks, stones and gravel either placed in a seemingly unkempt naturalistic look or even as ornamentally co-ordinated patterns of different-coloured pebbles that vaguely resemble an Asian meditation garden.

Although these landscape techniques may be part of the concept, this image is erroneous.

According to popular sources, Xeriscaping means environmentally sustainable landscapes that use materials and planting technologies that maximize the available water for productivity. The focus is on vegetative horticultural aspects and not just water harvesting. By doing so, you are able to achieve a finished landscape that maintains lush green vegetation and not just an arid-looking terrain.

Many of the benefits of achieving a xeriscape include:

A landscape with longevity that consumes less time to maintain than traditional landscapes such as lawns

More environmentally friendly solutions that use less chemical intervention (optimally, none) to stay healthy

A reduction in the burden on municipal infrastructure with respect to storm water runoff that could potentially harm or contaminate the fresh water supply

Less demand on the treated water supply, leaving it for more essential uses such as human consumption.

These are but a few general benefits, as there are many more related to specific needs.

A xeriscape needs to be properly planned as it does not naturally occur in the urban environment where humans have had an impact on the land. To simply decide one day that you are tired of the work that goes into maintaining a garden and then let your garden go (a xeriscape of the fittest) will only result in a landscape of unwanted perennials -- weeds. That could land you in hot water with your neighbours and municipality.

Begin instead by analyzing your existing landscape to determine its environmental characteristics, especially as they relate to watering needs. Landscape architects refer to this as hydro-zoning. By creating hydro-zones, the more arid areas need less of your horticultural attention.

Not all of the hydro-zones in your garden/yard need to be arid in nature. It is not unheard of to have an area established as an oasis where you can focus your more intensive watering needs. These areas are usually vegetable gardens, primary sitting/entertaining areas, or other high water use areas.

A secret garden for meditation may also become an oasis of more water use, though an arid garden could also provide such an area of reflection depending on your personal relaxation techniques and objectives.

A water garden may initially appear to be a high water use area just by its visual aesthetics, but depending on how it is constructed, it could easily be a xeriscape due to the self-sustaining ground water for the plants that it supports.

Five key factors are necessary for a successful xeriscape: appropriate plant material, moisture retaining soil, appropriate surface or ground cover, irrigation and maintenance.

Plant material

Plants have diverse ways to absorb water and reduce evapotranspiration. Some have modified leaves as needles, such as junipers and bamboos. Other plants have spines, such as sea buckthorn and cacti. And many others, such as euphorbia and Mediterranean herbs, have fine leaves that reduce the exposure to the air.

The popularity of ornamental grass use in many contemporary landscapes is due to their deep roots that allow the plants to absorb water well below the surface. Turf grass, on the other hand, has shallow roots that only penetrate the top layers of soil. This makes them more susceptible to drought than their ornamental relatives.

Though generally considered ideal for xeriscaping due to many millennia of evolution, native plant material is often considered to be the primary vegetation to establish a water-wise garden. However, this is not necessarily true. Many ornamental plants have all the characteristics needed for a xeriscape to be sustainable.

With new pathogens becoming a global issue, it is important to leave all options open so that if a species or genus becomes susceptible to an insect or fungus, there is an alternative to ensure that a landscape keeps its longevity. Isn't that really the impetus behind xeriscaping? Naturalizing is only one method but should never be considered the only option.


One cannot speak to any type of landscape without addressing the soil. Soils with sufficient moisture-retaining capacity are important to any landscape and especially those designed for xeriscapes. Soil testing is an important first step, whether starting from a virgin site to restructuring an existing established landscape.

Testing helps identify what plant material the inherent soil can support. Besides determining the levels of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), soil testing can also determine organic composition in the soil. Organic materials present in soil provide nutrients but also act as sponges for subsurface water retention to be available when needed. Having good water-retaining soil means less dependency on irrigation.


Irrigation within a xeriscape is a somewhat necessary oxymoron. Relying on soil moisture and rain is paramount in xeriscapes. However, it doesn't always rain and with climate change it is expected temperatures will rise, resulting in more arid environments throughout North America. Rain gardens or using rain barrels to capture rainwater provide a source of water for a xeriscape if needed. Underground sprinklers should only be used as a last resort and watering of hydro-zones at separate times for their specific rate is dually important.


Using mulch on the surface is the best way to ensure that once the water gets into the soil, it stays there longer, remaining available to the plants. Mulch applied at an appropriate depth dependent upon the material used, also helps to cool the soil, making it less likely for premature evaporation.

Organic mulches such as bark chips, evergreen needles and cones also absorb water to help ensure that the ground below stays moist and cool. However, stone mulch is often necessary for aesthetic and practical reasons (sloped areas) and should be carefully considered for its use in a xeriscape.


No matter how diligent you are and how much forethought you have in your design, every landscape has a level of maintenance. Minimizing the maintenance is a primary object of xeriscaping. How much time and effort may be required? Does the technique suit your needs? These are important questions.

Keep in mind that often the method that uses the least amount of regular weekly maintenance could require a greater amount of maintenance on a one-time basis in the future.

Buzzwords come in two varieties: those that are temporary and will fade away like the winter snow and those that stay around, evolving from a trend into a mainstream application.

Use the word xeriscaping and some in your gardening circle are likely to raise their eyebrows. If you are a slave to your garden, endlessly watering, fertilizing and weeding, this may be the year that you switch to a practice that results in less water usage and less maintenance, freeing up your time to relax and enjoy your garden.

Whether or not you embrace the notion of climate change, past summers have seen record-low amounts of precipitation combined with soaring temperatures. This can put a strain on plants and increases the amount of maintenance required to ensure their longevity.

Today's contributor, Stefan Fediuk, explains the concept of xeriscaping and outlines the basic principles of achieving a low-maintenance, environmentally friendly garden that satisfies the desire for a visually attractive, water-efficient landscape without backbreaking effort.

A former Winnipegger, Fediuk is a professional landscape architect and horticulturalist with more than 25 years of experience. He writes a weekly column for, an online resource for northern gardeners.

Xeriscape plants

Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia)

Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)

False indigo (Baptisia australis)

Gaillardia, blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata)

Gasplant (Dictamnus alba)

Globe centaurea (Centaurea macrocephala)

Globe thistle (Echinops ritro)

Malva hollyhock, musk mallow (Malva spp.

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale)

Peony (Paeonia spp.)

Pincushion cactus (Coryphantha vivipara)

Potentilla (Potentilla spp.)

Sea holly (Eryngium spp.)

Sea lavender, statice (Limonium spp.)

Stonecrop (Sedum spp.)

Veronica, speedwell (Veronica spp.)

Yucca, small soapweed (Yucca glauca)

And so many more!

Source: Willliams, Sara. Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Extension Division, University of Saskatchewan, 1997


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