Park the mower and reel in the sprinkler: Plant a Xeriscape
By Cindi Myers
For some people, the only perfect landscape is the one nature makes, without interference from man. But most of us like to lend nature a hand at time, especially around our homes. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, we enjoy, as one country neighbor put it, "a little bit of a yard."
Even a tiny area designated as "the yard" can require a tremendous output of money, effort and resources that could be better used elsewhere, whether resting in a hammock or toiling in a vegetable garden. There has to be a better way, and there is: it's called a xeriscape.
Xeriscape is defined as "water and energy conservation through creative landscaping." The term and the gardening methods used in xeriscaping were developed by the City of Denver, Colorado, in an effort to conserve one of their scarcest resources, water. But the seven principles used in xeriscape gardening can be applied anywhere in the world to create beautiful landscapes with a minimum of waste. Start with a plan.
Perhaps the most important work you'll do in creating a xeriscape will be done on paper. Draw a diagram of the area you want to landscape. Be sure to show the location of your home, outbuildings, existing trees and other plants you want to keep, paths, patios and anything else you can think of that will affect where you can and cannot plant.
Next, think about how you'll use your yard. Will you entertain there, with backyard barbecues off a patio? Do you want a grassy area where children can play? Can the view from your windows be improved? Do you want to shade the house for energy conservation or find a way to cut down on dust and dirt being brought into your home?
Finally, read over the xeriscape principles listed below and determine how you can apply them to your situation. Your plan can help you set landscaping goals. Remember, you don't have to accomplish your yard's transformation overnight. You can work a little at a time as your budget and energies allow. Add compost.
The quality of your topsoil is a big determining factor in how well things will grow in your yard. Healthy plants, well- rooted in good soil, naturally require less care and effort on your part. Whether you live in the rocky Vermont hills or the sticky "gumbo" of East Texas, your soil can be improved with the addition of organic matter. Compost is a favorite addition, but rice hulls, fallen leaves, grass clippings, peat moss, and green manure crops also work well. These materials help aerate the earth, improving draining and water absorption. To determine exactly what nutrients your yard is in need of, test your soil, either with a home test kit, or with the help of your local agriculture extension agent. Based on your test results, your extension agent or local nurseryman will be able to tell you how you can improve your soil.
Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch acts like a blanket on the soil and around plants. It helps keep the ground, and therefore the plant's tender roots, from getting too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It soaks up water and keeps it near the plant, instead of allowing it to run of into the street or another part of the yard where it isn't needed. Mulch chokes out weeds that steal water and food from plants. As the mulch decomposes, it contributes nutrients that help further improve the soil.
Some good choices for mulch are composted leaves, grass clippings or hay, pine needles, wood chips or bark. Keep in mind that mulch can be used as a part of your landscape design. Expanses of attractive mulch such as bark can be interspersed with shrubs or flowers to highlight plants and reduce the areas that require care.
The biggest single energy-gobblers in any yard are those smooth green carpets of what we call "the lawn." The larger the lawn, the more house you will have to spend mowing and trimming and edging and watering. Since a xeriscape is designed to be less effort for you, one of its basic principles is to reduce lawn area.
Plant more flower beds, keeping in mind that shrubs, bulbs and other perrenials require much less work than annuals. Or consider wildflowers, which can provide beauty in all seasons, year after year with no additional care after the initial planting. Create graveled paths, decks, or a rock garden. Plant groundcovers which require very little care and never need mowing. Or simply let more of your yard revert to the wild, if you live in an area where deed restrictions and the neighbors don't prevent your doing so. Returning part of your land to its natural state will reward you with increased bird and wildlife activity near your home.
Plants that are native to your area are able to survive on the annual rainfall and weather conditions of your locale without any additional help from you. They are also naturally resistant to plant diseases and pests found in your part of the country. Other plants from parts of the world with similar climates can also be adapted to grow in your area. If you plant native or adaptive plants in your landscape, you will eliminate years of fertilizing, watering, and worrying about bugs, blight or what to do when it freezes. To find native plants, first take a look at what is already growing in undeveloped areas near you. This will give you an idea of the variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants you have to work with. You'll find native plants that provide color and beauty throughout the year with very little care. Do not attempt to transplant from the wild unless you have the permission of the owner of the property. Be warned, however, that most wild plants are difficult to transplant, though they may be easier to raise from seed, if you can collect it.
A better choice is to visit several nurseries and ask what they have available in native plants. A nurseryman or your agricultural extension agent should also be able to help you find adaptive plants to use in your landscape.
Watering -- Do it right. You may live in a part of the country where lack of water for your plants is not a concern. Even in drier parts of the country, if you've followed the steps listed above, you should only have to water during extended dry spells. Still, there may be occasions when you will need to add water to your landscape. It is especially important to water plants, even natives, during the first year after they're planted, to insure they become well established.
Don't water too much. Don't set up a rigid watering schedule. Instead, learn to notice when your plants need water by their drooping leaves, or probe the soil several inches beneath the surface to be sure water is needed.
Avoid runoff. Use drip irrigation when possible. If you use a hose-end sprinkler, shut it off when water begins to run off or stand in puddles. You may have to let the water soak in and then turn the sprinkler on again, but at least you'll know the water is getting to the plants, where it's needed. Nip trouble in the bud.
No landscape, even a xeriscape, will be totally maintenance- free. But if you take care of little things promptly, you can avoid having them turn into big things that require a lot of work to remedy. Mulching should eliminate most weeds, but when they manage to creep through, get rid of them as soon as possible. Prune woody plants to keep them healthy. Allow longer time between mowing, and keep your mower blade sharp. Raise the blade to its highest height; longer grass shades roots and keeps the soil cooler. Don't rake up your grass clipping, since they act as mulch for your lawn. Now you can relax.
It may take several years for you to establish your xeriscape. You may find that your original design changes over time as you experiment with native plants, and that you are never really 'finishes.' But once you've laid the groundwork, you'll have time to sit back and sip a cool drink while your friends are out plucking aphids off the roses or trying to start the lawnmower. Enjoy!