While you may not be familiar with the term xeriscaping, if you have much experience gardening or landscaping in an arid climate, chances are you are familiar with some of its basic practices. At its core, xeriscaping is a way of designing a landscape that uses a minimum amount of water to produce a maximum effect. It is both straightforward to maintain and a cost-effective landscaping solution. Here's a quick look at how xeriscaping works and how it was developed.

What are the origins of xeriscaping?

Drought tolerant landscaping in Southern California
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The term xeriscaping was popularized by the Denver Water Department during a period of intense drought that occurred in the late 1970s and lasted until the early 1980s. The term combined the Greek word xeros, meaning dry, with the suffix -scape, meaning view (as in "landscape" or "seascape").

The city was trying to find a way to encourage responsible water use while still maintaining its citizens' high expectations for beautiful lawns and landscapes. The architects of the program sought to find which plants native to the semi-arid Colorado region would prosper with only the bare minimum of extra water.

How does xeriscaping work?

Garden with lavender, echinacea, ornamental grasses
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Using plants that are native to the region helps with maintaining minimal water requirements — after all, the plants in the region have survived to this point without the aid of irrigation techniques, so they should be able to thrive in a city without using excess resources.

Xeriscaping is different than zeroscaping, which seeks to utilize no additional water whatsoever. Xeriscaping tries to focus on the responsible use of the water that should be naturally available, and to this end, many xeriscaping techniques depend on tools such as drip hoses and soakers to deliver water to the base of plants. This is in contrast to using a sprinkler or full sprinkler system, which sprays water across the entire environment and leads to excess water waste due to evaporation or run-off.

What kind of plants can you use for xeriscaping?

Up close view of plants commonly used in xeriscaping, purple and blue flowers
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Those who are unfamiliar with xeriscaping sometimes think that it means a landscape filled with rocks and maybe the occasional cactus. This is not the case. While cacti are wonderful additions to a xeriscape design since they require little water and stay green year-round, there are a variety plants that work within this system.

Herbs such as thyme, juniper, and sage can all thrive in a xeriscaped yard, and Mediterranean plant varieties such as black walnut, sapodilla, lavender, and wormwood. In addition, flowers like daffodils, blackfoot daisies, and lyreleaf greeneyes can be used to add color.

That’s not to say there aren’t a number of cactus varieties that would be a welcome addition. Saguaro are a staple in the southwest United States, along with agave, aloe, and yucca plants — all of which are drought-resistant and need a minimal water.

What are the benefits of xeriscaping?

Cactus garden, decorated with Cactuses, Agave, Crown of thorns plant, brown sand stone, green leafs shrub on background
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There are many great benefits that can be enjoyed with a good xeriscaping design. One of the most important of these is ecological — a well-designed yard can cut down on water usage for a lawn by as much as 60 percent, according to Colorado WaterWise. While this great for the environment, it can also have direct financial benefits for homeowners.

Additionally, converting a high-maintenance yard to a xeriscape design can increase a home’s value by 10-12 percent. Some states such as California — where water conservation is a primary concern — even offer incentives for homeowners willing to convert to a dry design. Considering the importance of water conservation, trying a mindful, ecological approach to gardening is a good way to give your green thumb a new challenge.