What is Xeriscaping?

xeriscaping with drought-tolerant plants in small pebble gravel

Don’t worry, you won’t be using a Xerox machine to landscape your lawn. A xeriscape is a beautiful, water-saving landscape alternative to a thirsty, green lawn. If you live in a dry region or simply want to reduce your water use, xeriscaping may be the perfect lawn solution.

We’ll walk you through what makes xeriscaping a healthy, low-maintenance lawn choice.

What does xeriscaping mean?

Xeriscaping (pronounced zeh-ri-skayp-ing) is the process of creating a landscape that requires little or no watering. In a xeriscape, your region’s level of rainfall is usually enough for plants to thrive. Xeriscaping comes from the Greek root “xeros,” meaning “dry.” You’ll wave goodbye to your old turfgrass lawn and welcome plants that can handle prolonged dry spells. 

Xeriscaped lawns are filled with:

  • Drought-tolerant and drought-resistant native plants
  • Mulch 
  • Sand
  • Soil
  • Rocks
  • Hardscape features, like footpaths, pavers, patios, and fire pits

Why xeriscape?

Xeriscaping has long been a water-wise favorite among homeowners in drought-prone regions, but now it’s gaining a following across the U.S. Xeriscaping means that you can have a gorgeous lawn without enormous water costs. Plus, planting more native plants and less grass means you don’t need to use fertilizer. 

A xeriscape is an excellent lawn alternative for your wallet and the environment. 

Xeriscaping: A water-efficient money saver

Within 50 years, many regions of the U.S. could see their freshwater supply reduced by as much as one third. Xeriscaping alleviates the potential for water shortages: When less water is used on lawns, more water can be conserved for drinking.

Homeowners in the western and southwestern U.S. are very familiar with xeriscaping. In Novato, California, homeowners who xeriscaped saved approximately 120 gallons of water each day.

Not only is xeriscaping an excellent choice for the eco-conscious homeowner, but it often comes with financial benefits like rebates. Plus, you’ll save money in the long run as you conserve water and cut down on fertilizer.

  • Cities across the country are providing incentives for homeowners. Check your local government’s website to see if your area is offering rebates or cash back programs. 

7 principles of xeriscaping

In the 1980s, the city of Denver responded to water shortages by coining the term “xeriscape” and compiling a list of seven xeriscaping tenets.

The seven principles of xeriscaping are: 

  1. Planning and design
  2. Soil improvements
  3. Efficient irrigation
  4. Limiting turf use
  5. Mulching
  6. Choosing drought-tolerant and drought-resistant plants
  7. Maintenance

1. Planning and design

backyard lawn with xeriscaping along the fenceline
Korye Logan | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

First off, put pencil to paper and make a plan for your landscape design. Measure impervious surfaces like driveways, patios, and sidewalks, and make a diagram of your existing lawn.

Take note of:

  • Trees, shrubs, and other plants
  • Downspouts and spigots
  • Slopes and low-lying areas
  • Areas that get heavy foot traffic

Next, decide what you want your new xeriscape to look like. Ask yourself:

  • How large do I want my xeriscaped area to be? 
  • What plants do I want to keep?
  • What plants do I want to replace?
  • What plants should I choose for different areas of my lawn (depending on sun exposure, foot traffic, and moisture levels)?
  • What hardscape features do I want in my yard (Where could I put a footpath? Do I want a barbeque pit?)

When planning out which plants go where, you’ll want to practice hydrozoning. Hydrozoning sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it really just means dividing your xeriscape into zones based on different plants’ water and sun requirements. This minimizes water waste and reduces overwatering and underwatering. 

Position plants that need more water in low-lying areas near a downspout or in a moister, shadier part of your lawn. Likewise, group sun-loving, highly drought-resistant plants in the driest, sunniest parts of your lawn. 

Consider the topography of your landscape: Plants that don’t need much water can grow at the top of a hill, whereas plants that aren’t as drought-tolerant will need to be located lower on your property. 

Figuring out your ideal planting design can be tough, but have fun while you’re at it. Add your own design flair, pairing plants based on their heights, textures, and colors to give your xeriscape a unique personality. 

Based on your desired lawn features, draw out a planting plan to scale. You can use this for personal planning or to show to a hired landscaping expert.

Pro Tip: Areas with south or west exposure — especially near walls or buildings — are ideal spots for xeriscapes because they are the driest.  

2. Soil improvements

Compost and manure help retain soil moisture without bogging roots down in water. For heavy clay or sandy soils, Denver Water recommends adding 1-2 inches of organic matter dug 6 inches deep to amend soil quality. 

However, this advice flies out the window when you’re working with native plants: They’re already adapted to your growing conditions, so all you need to do is loosen the soil and they’ll be ready to grow. 

If you’re planting cacti and succulents, stay away from compost and manure. They prefer low-nutrient soil.

It’s always a good idea to test your soil before a major landscaping change to ensure you’re making the necessary soil amendments. Contact your extension service for information on local soil testing.

3. Efficient irrigation

Ditch oscillating sprinklers and other sprinklers that spew mist high into the sky. Instead, opt for drip irrigation or soaker hoses. They’ll maximize the amount of water that reaches plant roots. 

A drip irrigation system is especially beneficial because it delivers water directly to plant roots even when they are growing on slopes. 

To save water (and money), you may want to install a sensor that automatically shuts off your water when the soil has enough moisture. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep roots, and minimize evaporation by watering before 10 a.m.

4. Limiting turf use 

front yard with xeriscaping
Cory Doctorow | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

A xeriscape doesn’t have to be completely grass-free. In fact, lower-water grasses can serve a valuable role in your landscape design, keeping your lawn cool and providing a play space for kids and pets. 

Instead of eliminating grass entirely, rethink your choice of turfgrass. For example, Kentucky bluegrass requires a great deal of water, whereas buffalograss and blue grama are more xeriscape-friendly. 

Consider which areas of your yard really need turfgrass and which spots could shine with other plants and hardscape features. 

5. Mulching

Make sure you give mulching the attention it deserves: It’s enormously important for an effective xeriscape. In fact, it’s so important that without it, homeowners may not qualify for a rebate.

  • Choose an organic mulch like wood chips or pole peelings and apply your mulch 3-4 inches deep.
  • You can add mulch directly to the soil or spread it over a landscape fabric
  • Mulch will insulate roots, retain soil moisture, reduce weed growth, and protect against erosion. Plus, organic mulch adds nutrients to give roots a health boost.

For windy areas, choose rock or gravel as your mulch: Rocks won’t offer the moisture and insulation of wood mulch, but they’ll keep soil and plants in place. Spread your inorganic mulch 3-4 inches thick. 

Pro Tip: Do not apply large swaths of rocks or gravel directly next to your house on the sunny south or west sides. Rocks and gravel radiate heat, so extensive use of them near your home can raise exterior temperatures. 

6. Choosing drought-tolerant and drought-resistant plants

xeriscape landscaping with small bushes
Tom Hilton | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Now it’s time for the fun part. Once you’ve decided how much turfgrass you would like to remove, choose your new, drought-tolerant plants (also known as xerophytes). 

From ground covers to flowering perennials to trees and shrubs, you’ve got a bouquet of gorgeous options

Choose plants that are native to your region to reduce the cost of maintenance, save time, attract butterflies and birds, and give wildlife a natural habitat. 

 7. Maintenance

Xeriscapes are low-maintenance, but they still require some TLC. Keep your xeriscape healthy with weeding, pruning, trimming, and mulching. Fertilize if necessary. 

  • For routine watering, note that areas with north and east exposure will need less water than areas with south and west exposure. 
  • Water slopes more slowly than flat surfaces. 
  • Aerate regularly, based on your soil type; if your soil is very sandy, you may only need to aerate every few years. 

Drought-tolerant plants for xeriscaping

Just because xeriscapes can tolerate dry weather doesn’t mean they’re desolate dust bowls. Your xeriscape can look like a desert scene or a lush Mediterranean garden, depending on the plants you choose. 

The best xerophytes for your lawn will depend on where you live, but here are some homeowners adore.

Perennials and succulents: 

Trees and shrubs:

  • Juniper
  • Myrtle
  • California sycamore
  • Cottonwood tree
  • Coast live oak
  • Palm tree
  • Laurel
  • Chokeberry
  • Elderberry
  • Boxelder

If you like the appearance of a traditional turf-type lawn, consider replacing grasses that need a lot of water (like Kentucky bluegrass, creeping bentgrass, and St. Augustinegrass) with lower-water grasses like: 

  • Buffalograss (W)
  • Bermudagrass (W)
  • Blue grama (W)
  • Zoysia (W)
  • Hard fescue (C)
  • Chewings fescue (C)
  • Creeping red fescue (C)

* “W” denotes warm-season grasses and “C” denotes cool-season grasses

Choose a cool-season or warm-season grass type based on your region. 

10 benefits of xeriscaping

You don’t have to live in the desert to benefit from xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is an eco-friendly choice for lawns all over the country. 

Xeriscaping your lawn will …

  1. Conserve (a whole lot of) water. 

A homeowner who xeriscapes in Flagstaff, AZ, saves an average of 8,000 gallons of water each year. In California, some homeowners are saving over 120 gallons of water each day. 

  1. Save money by reducing water and fertilizer use. 

Xeriscaping can reduce your water bill by up to 80 percent. If you opt for native plants, you won’t have to fork over money for fertilizer.

  1. Increase your property value. 

Xeriscaping is a great way to increase your curb appeal and attract future buyers. A xeriscaped lawn can increase your property value by 14 percent

  1. Give you access to financial incentives. 

Many local governments offer rebates and bill reductions for homeowners who choose to xeriscape. 

  1. Provide a habitat for wildlife and promote biodiversity. 

With native plants, you’ll soon see butterflies, bees, birds, and other native critters fluttering and buzzing around your yard. You can enjoy the cheerful view out your window. 

  1. Reduce or eliminate fertilizer and pesticides needs. 

Native plants are specially adapted to your region, climate, and soil type, so you won’t need fertilizer or harmful chemicals. 

  1. Require little maintenance. 

Xeriscaped lawns are often filled with drought-tolerant ground covers, perennial flowers, succulents, shrubs, and trees. These plants need infrequent watering (once every two or three weeks) and the ground covers typically don’t need to be mowed. Plus, rock cover will decrease your need for lawn maintenance.

  1. Decrease energy use and pollution. 

With little to no mowing, fertilizer, and water required, xeriscapes cut down on the energy needed to operate a mower, manufacture fertilizer, and treat water. When less energy is used, fewer fossil fuels are burned. 

  1. Extend the life of water resources. 

Lower water usage preserves the quality of reservoirs, treatment plants, and aquifers. That means that taxpayers don’t have to spend as much on damages and repairs. 

  1. Bring you some gardening joy. 

Many homeowners opt for xeriscaping not only for the environmental and financial benefits but also because they enjoy the aesthetic appeal: Creating a rock garden, edged patio, or decorated stone path can be fun and rewarding.

FAQ about xeriscaping

1. I’m interested in xeriscaping, but I don’t live in a desert. Can I still xeriscape?

Yes, you can xeriscape in any region. Many homeowners choose to xeriscape primarily because they enjoy the xeriscape aesthetic and the act of gardening. For them, water conservation is a secondary benefit. 

2. What are the downsides to xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping isn’t perfect for every lawn. It decreases the amount of lawn space for kids to play, diminishes your lawn’s noise-reducing and cooling effects, can be difficult to clean up (especially when leaves fall on rocky areas), and may dissuade property buyers who want a traditional green lawn.

3. Can I xeriscape and have a grassy lawn? 

Yes. A xeriscaped lawn doesn’t have to be grass-free. Instead, consider replacing your traditional turf that requires frequent watering with low-water grasses like fine fescues, buffalograss, and blue grama. 

4. How can I figure out how much water I use? 

Check out the Water Footprint Calculator to see your household’s water footprint. Once you’ve set up a xeriscape, your water footprint will shrink. The site also offers additional suggestions for how to save water. 

Zeroing in on xeriscaping

To save money, protect the environment, and reduce your water footprint, xeriscaping is an ideal landscaping option — with no copier paper or scanning involved. 

If you want to xeriscape a small portion of your lawn, you can get your friends together and make it a DIY project. For larger areas, call in a local lawn care pro to get your lawn in peak drought-fighting condition. 

Maine Photo Credit: leighklotz | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.