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 Design Principles/Xeriscape

Watering, by hand, by sprinkler system, or by drip system, is meant to ensure that your plants have an ample reserve of water to draw upon when they need it. Since the soil acts as the water reservoir, you need to first consider the type of soil you have. 60%+ clay soil has the ability to hold water, but is inefficient at releasing it. Clay also dramatically inhibits root growth. Better water absorption/release, along with enhanced root development, can be achieved by incorporating organic matter. Refilling the soil’s water reservoir with two applications at least one hour apart rather than one continuous application also improves efficiency.

In 1926 a group proposed using xeric/zir-ik (from xeros, the Greek word for dry) as a generalized term for plants and animals. In 1986 the Denver Water Department introduced the term xeriscape/zir-i-scape with seven steps to help homeowners implement the program into their landscapes; principles that are used today as homeowners strive to create water-wise landscapes that require less maintenance and make better use of this valuable resource.

1. Planning and Design; Whether you are renovating an existing landscape or installing a new one, planning is a must. Many people create their own designs with excellent results. Shopping with a list of appropriate plants based on your design goals and website research will make the planting go more smoothly. Keep in mind that you can install your xeriscape in phases to minimize initial expense, trial plants and ideas, and make needed adjustments as you go along.

 2. Soil Improvement; Incorporating organic matter like mulch and compost allows for better absorption of water and improves water-holding capacity of the soil. Soils that have organic matter also release beneficial nutrients to plants. It’s easier to improve soils prior to the installation of the irrigation system and plants.

3. Limit Turf Areas; Locate turf only where it can provide a functional benefit; for cooling near home, deck, and patio and as play areas for children. Keep turf watering zones separate from other landscape plantings that not only require less water, but that will do poorly with too much water. Turf can often be replaced with less water demanding plants like groundcovers or mulch.

4. Use Efficient Irrigation; Well-planned sprinkler systems can save water. Group landscape plantings according to similar water needs. Turf areas are best watered with sprinklers while trees, shrubs, and gardens can be watered with low-volume drip, spray, or bubbler systems. Maintenance and regular, seasonal adjustments need to be made to your sprinkler system. Programmable timers can be used at the faucet with hand-set sprinklers. Either way, make sure you apply only as much water as the soil can absorb to avoid wasteful runoff.

5. Use Mulches; Mulched gardens with trees, shrubs, and perennials are an ideal alternative to turf areas. Mulches cover and cool the soil, minimize evaporation, reduce weed growth, and slow erosion. Mulches are also aesthetically appealing. Organic mulches have the added benefit of feeding organisms that live in the soil to benefit plant growth.

6. Use Lower Water Demand Plants; Grouping xeric plants together has the added benefit of creating a landscape with plants that thrive and require less maintenance. Attractive native and adapted plants are genetically designed to do well despite hot, dry summers and prevailing winds. Trees require about 10 gallons of water per caliper/trunk diameter inch, twice a week, through summer. Gardens that include trees can be easily watered with soaker hoses.  

7. Appropriate Maintenance; Gardening preserves the intended beauty of your landscape and saves water. Proper pruning, fertilization, pest control, irrigation system adjustments, and continued mulch applications all combine to provide the beauty of nature and the healthy activities that make us, and our plants, happy.


We all have areas that need attention and this step-by-step approach to a beginning, is a great start. Local artist, Kathryn Grider, was able to take a group of rough sketches that I had drawn up and turn them into artistic designs to inspire hopeful homeowners to transform bare areas of a landscape into gardens. 


Poorly Designed Landscape
Design That Attracts and Sustains Beneficials

Trending away from needless, high-maintenance lawn areas (notice how the lawn area is sloped, sending water downward to the street) landscape designs are incorporating native and xeric plants that are both, environmentally sustainable and aesthetically pleasing.

The goals of a landscape design vary with the individual homeowner. The design may be intended to soften or reduce the intrusion of nearby hardscapes (roadways, neighboring building, parking area, etc.), accentuate a vista, or simply provide an extension of indoor living spaces. For me, it is the influence of all three. Since my husband and I do the physical labor ourselves, work on a limited time and financial budget, and because our home sits on an acre lot, we decided that working on the landscape in stages is the most practical way to develop our property. It is also the best way for us to thoughtfully plan out how each new landscape feature will blend with existing gardens and hardscapes providing continuity in the overall landscape. It can be professionally drawn up or roughly sketched, either way the the goals and intentions are to formulate a plant list so you will be shopping, and planting, with an overall plan in mind.

There are seven Xeriscape principles that make a low-maintenance, water-wise Northern Nevada landscape both attractive and attainable:
• Thoughtful planning for beauty and water conservation
• Improving/Amending the soil if needed
Limiting turf areas
• Efficient irrigation; no more "set it, forget it"
• Mulching with organic products
• Select appropriate plants and group according to water needs
• Maintenance; proper weeding, pruning, and fertilizing.

Keep in mind that most trees and large landscape shrubs need 10 gallons of water each week through summer per 1 inch of trunk caliper. Ex: A tree with a four inch diameter trunk needs 40 gallons per week.  

Xeriscape Design 1
Xeriscape Design 2
Xeriscape Design 3

Conversations with homeowners in Spring Creek are especially driven by a desire to conserve water, while at the same time, make their outdoor living spaces a comfortable and manageable place to enjoy being outside. I have a well and water rights, but have dedicated some time and effort into following the water usage rates being charged by SC Utilities. The current base rate is at $34.55, the cost for use up to 5,000 gallons is at $3.19 per 1,000 gallons, and the cost up to 100,000 gallons is at $4.37 per 1,000 gallons. In July, we typically use 38,000 gallons of water to irrigate a fully developed acre lot with 5,000 sq. ft. of lawn, 52 nearly mature trees, 120 mature shrubs, thousands of perennials, dozens of container gardens, maintain the greenhouse and nursery areas, and for use in the home. That usage rate would be unattainable without the use of water-wise gardening. At current rates, on site in Spring Creek, our water bill would be at $194.71. If your water bill in July dramatically exceeds that amount, it is likely that you are either overwatering, using an inefficient water delivery system, or dedicating water towards large lawn areas.

Colorful Garden In Raised Bed
Colorful Display In Lawn Area

On smaller lots, gardeners are reducing oversized plantings and large sweeps of turf with designs that include colorful perennials combined with small-medium sized shrubs to make an artistic use of space and provide a break from an over reliance on one-dimentional turf throughout a landscape. Traditional foundation plantings of Junipers are on their way out to make room for hummingbird gardens and an overall design that is more colorful and interesting.

 Garden With Three-Dimensional View Sloped Design With Switchback Pathway
Slopes are natural drainways and whether created by natural or man-made forces, a practical design can use these features to give the landscape added personality and interest by providing a built-in, three-dimensional view of the gardens. Seriously sloped areas can include landings and switchbacks with seating or interesting plantings on leveled areas. Don't confuse a slope with a drop-off; tiered gardens turn an otherwise unusable area into an interesting design feature. Gravity pulls water from top to bottom so plant xeric plants towards the top and work down to thirstier plants at the bottom. 
Sloped Garden Path Down Sloped Garden
The path least traveled may be more interesting, but when you just want to get from here to there, the old adage that people choose the path of least resistance applies to the efficient landscape design. Pathways need to be wide enough to accommodate two people side-by-side or at least one comfortably. The basic difference between a pathway and a walkway is that walkways are more widely used, both should include surfaces that allow for ease of movement without fear of tripping.

On the design, features should be in scale to the lot size. For example, a 1,000 square foot garden area would be in scale on an acre lot and include a mix of large trees, shrubs, drifts of perennials, and colorful annuals in large containers.

For practical reasons, large plantings should be atleast 30 feet from structures.

Design For Large Area Landscapes

Create Spaces to Relax