What Is Xeriscaping? Definition, Tips, and Benefits

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Xeriscaping is landscaping with minimal or no use of water other than what nature provides. The term derives from the Greek word xirós, meaning dry, and gained popularity beginning in the 1980s when the utility service Denver Water coined the term in the middle of a drought. It is especially popular in the arid climates in the western United States, where water is scarce, but can be used in any climate to reduce water consumption. Increasingly, local governments are encouraging the use of xeriscaping, or, in some cases, banning homeowners associations from requiring their members to maintain water-hungry lawns.

Xeriscaping or Zeroscaping?

Xeriscaping and zeroscaping are different things. Both focus on the minimal use of irrigation in landscaping, but zeroscaping specifically emphasizes the use of native plants.

Benefits of Xeriscaping

The primary benefit of xeriscaping is the most obvious: reducing water use. Water scarcity is among the most pressing global crises, with some 40% of people around the world lacking access to safe and affordable drinking water. Despite the fact that water covers 71% of Earth's surface, only roughly 2.5% of it is freshwater, and two-thirds of that is locked up in glaciers and ice caps. The remaining surface water and groundwater is used for both drinking water and irrigated agriculture, yet it is being depleted at unsustainable rates. The problem is exacerbated by climate change: as average temperatures rise, increased evaporation dries the land more quickly, and disrupted weather patterns bring longer and more intense droughts.

Xeriscaping emphasizes the reduction or elimination of turfgrass, which is the most irrigated crop in the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landscape irrigation consumes an estimated nine billion gallons of freshwater per day—about a third of all household water use. An estimated half of the water used on landscaping ends up wasted due to evaporation or runoff. Xeriscaping can save each homeowner hundreds of gallons of water annually, making water usage more sustainable.

Reduced Reliance on Chemicals

Xeriscaping comes with other benefits as well. Especially if you use native plants that are more resistant to native pests and diseases, you can eliminate the need for pesticides. The use (and over-use) of chemical fertilizers leads to runoff into watersheds and waterways, damaging ecosystems by depleting oxygen levels and leading to algal blooms which can be toxic to plants and animals alike. The manufacture of chemical lawn fertilizers is also highly energy-intensive, emitting significant amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the process.

Saving Time and Money

Americans annually spend $16 billion on lawn care and gardening services, and $6 billion on gardening supplies such as fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides, and fossil fuels for lawn mowers, weeders, and other equipment. Reducing water usage also lowers your monthly utility bill. Many xeriscaping designs involve one-time purchases of plants or non-living garden elements, rather than repeated annual expenditures. Some water utilities offer rebates on the purchase of water-saving equipment like drip irrigation equipment or rain barrels, or provide incentives for replacing lawns with low-water use landscaping.

Americans spend an average of two hours per day on lawn and garden care, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet once native plants that have adapted to low-water environments are established, little maintenance is needed. Nature can take care of itself.

Aesthetics and Ethics

While a broad green lawn has its own appeal, so does variety. Lawns are by definition monocultures—a single species spread across an area. Traditional lawn maintenance involves eliminating competitors to that one one species. We call those competitors “weeds,” though bees and other pollinators consider them food. Creating a diverse habitat for other living things around you can stimulate your senses with a wider variety of smells, colors, buzzing insects, plant shapes, bloom times, as well as year-round interest.

No garden is natural, but one that is more adapted to its environment can leave you feeling more adapted to your environment. In an age of climate anxiety, this is no small satisfaction.

Xeriscaping Ideas and Tips

Unless you plan on hiring someone to design and create your new, xeriscaped garden, here are some ideas and tips to get you started. Keep in mind that it's best to have a garden design and implementation plan in mind before you start tearing out your water-hogging lawn.

  • Long-term savings will outweigh short-term costs. Xeriscaping can involve higher upfront costs than a lawn, but can save you money in the long run.
  • Check with your local water utility for rebates and other incentives for reducing your outdoor water usage.
  • Ground covers can be attractive, low-maintenance, and water-retaining. Look for sedges, thyme, speedwell, liriope, creeping phlox, low-growing sedums, creeping juniper, or sweet woodruff.
  • Rocks and small structures can add diversity, texture, and year-round interest to any garden. No watering or green thumb are required.
  • Native plants have spent millennia adapting to your environment. Ask your local garden center or do some research on native plant communities.
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