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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Xeriscape for Sustainability


David M. Brown

Our desert is dry, but your environmentally sensitive landscaping doesn’t have to be. Correctly designed by you or a professional, it can be green and colorful while still conserving water.

Since the late 70s, “xeriscaping” has referred to landscaping with plants native to a region and requiring minimal supplementary water. The word derives from a combination of the two Greek words “xeros” (dry) and the suffix “scape” (view), explains Leeann Yacuel, senior business development analyst for SRP, the metropolitan Phoenix area’s largest supplier of water and also its largest provider of electricity.

Today, the more common expression is “sustainable.” 

“Sustainable landscaping is more encompassing and includes the context within which plant materials are installed and maintained,” says Janet Waibel, principal of Waibel & Associates Landscape Architecture, Tempe.

An ASU graduate, she has been a Valley landscape architect since 1985, providing design, installation and consulting for a variety of public- and private-sector projects. 

“The goal of a sustainable landscape is that landscapes increase in value as they mature through application of appropriate maintenance practices. Thus, they are cared for in a way that allows their best qualities to be accentuated, noticed and appreciated, with less regular maintenance,” adds Waibel, the author of Sustainable Landscape Management – A Guide to Care in the Desert Southwest, available in English and Spanish.

The Seven Principles

Professionals follow seven basic principles of xeriscaping, all with the goal of reducing or eliminating supplemental water needs, notes Kenny Zelov, assistant director of Landscape Design and Garden Care at the world-famous Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Celebrating 80 years as a conservation leader, the Garden has 50,000 desert plants, trails, world-class exhibitions, events and classes.

The septet for sustainability:

  •     Practice sound planning and design: Understand the characteristics of your yard, including drainage, sun exposure, soil types and wind direction. Identify already landscaped areas and ideas for areas you would like to add while planning your yard.
  •     Eliminate or limit lawn areas to appropriate functional areas and square footage.
  •     Plant water-efficient plants, not necessarily native plants, although they tend to be better adapted to the regional climate. Build a palette of plants with similar water requirements.
  •     Install an efficient irrigation system with programming.
  •     Improve your soil by tilling and adding organic matter to improve deep-water penetration and moisture retention.
  •     Place mulch in plant beds, and around shrubs and trees. Mulch retains moisture and protects the plants from deleterious effects of the sun.
  •     Maintain your landscape through weed control, by avoiding heavy pruning, and by adding a light top dress of compost or organic fertilizer seasonally.

“Ultimately, a xeriscaped yard saves time, money and precious water,” Zelov explains, noting that landscaping for low water consumption is particularly appropriate here in the often intensely hot Sonoran Desert because we receive only about seven inches of rain a year.

The positive effects also include beauty and comfort.

“In areas where you have no need for turf, xeriscaping uses drought-tolerant plants which absorb a lot of the heat after the sun is down,” Yacuel explains.

Suggestions, Trends & Opportunities

Pick the right flora for our climate, your design, and the location on your property.

Yacuel recommends reserving turf for the back yard and installing xeriscape out front.

“In the front, the only time you’re using the lawn is when you’re mowing it. In the back, the children and dogs can use it and you can sit on the patio and enjoy it —weather permitting,” she says, noting that the best time to water turf and all flora in the summer is in the very early morning or late at night. In the winter, to avoid mold, water in the morning instead of at night.

“There are many layers to a truly sustainable landscape, of which the most important is to know the needs of your plants. If they are properly selected and placed in appropriate microclimates, they will grow to their best potential,” Waibel says.

Zelov adds that in choosing the correct plant, consider the water needs, sun-exposure requirements and the size of the plant at maturity. 

“Native plants are great, but we can also successfully grow plants from other arid regions of the world including plants from Africa, Australia and South America,” he says.

Succulent plant groups work well: cactus, agaves, yuccas, euphorbias and aloes.

“Within those groups, you can find the right plant for the right space in your yard, but it’s important to do your homework and learn about the plants you choose, as all of these plants have unique requirements,” he explains. 

Meeting the Different Requirements

Choose the best spot for each plant and consider the size of the space as it grows to maturity: Trees, shrubs or accent plants have differing requirements. Also, determine exposure not only to the sun but also reflected heat and cold, he adds.

The large trees Waibel recommends are ironwood with great lavender blooms, mulga acacia and evergreen elm. The small trees are acacia willardiana, white orchid and Texas olive, which does not bear the same fruit as the avoided European variety.

For shrubs, she likes hop bush as a dependable low-maintenance, low-water-use evergreen screen, and says Tecoma, which is available in many sizes and colors, is a great hedge or accent, though it can be frost-sensitive and appropriate protection may be required.

She also recommends agave, torchglow bougainvillea, hesperaloe, also known as red or hummingbird yucca because the birds love it, and desert spoon for accents. For a unique focal piece, with great early spring color, take a look at the gopher plant.

A trend is creating arrangements, as well as massing of, accent plants: “This makes an impact, but even more so when planted at the proper spacing and with a decomposed granite, you like to show off the plants,” she says.

Rain Water Harvesting

Another popular idea is rain-water harvesting, such as with swales lined with river rock and wooden casks that hold graywater and distribute it to the garden through irrigation lines.

“Creating water retention basins by capturing, holding, and dispersing rain water is not a new idea, but it requires an understanding and manipulating drainage patterns within the yard to direct water to plants in the garden,” Zelov says.

Yacuel notes that most Valley cities offer an incentive to convert turf into xeriscaping: Mesa, for example, up to $575, Avondale to $400, Chandler to $3,000, Glendale to $750, Peoria to $1,650, Tempe to $2,000, and Scottsdale to $5,000. In addition, most offer xeriscape as well as other water conservation classes.

Year-round, SRP schedules a two-hour xeriscape class every few months; attend and you receive two low-water-use native trees for your yard. See www.srpnet.com/energy/ for more information.

And, annually SRP holds a Water Conservation Expo; in 2020, it will be March 7. If you attend, you can purchase a smart irrigation controller for your yard. It’s smart because it can be scheduled and knows when not to turn on if it’s raining. You’re already smart, by landscaping, and living, green.


Brown is a Valley-based freelancer (azwriter.com).

Photos Courtesy of Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix.


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