The American obsession with the perfectly manicured lawn is sucking our planet dry. According to the EPA, the average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day, 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor use. What’s more concerning is that a large percentage of that large percentage is completely wasted on over-saturated plants and grass. Indeed, climate change and increasing temperatures are making it not only wasteful to absentmindedly spray water on a lawn for 30 minutes, but also downright dangerous.
“In hot and arid climates in particular, water is a precious resource,”says Naima Green, partner in Blue in Green Gardens. “Using valuable drinking water to irrigate lawns and northeast-inspired temperate gardens, can be wasteful and not environmentally friendly.”
On average, home owners have a lot of bad lawn-watering habits. Not only do they tend to water their lawns for too long, but they also do it too frequently: In most cases, it is not even necessary to water a lawn every day. In fact, the EPA suggests stepping on a patch of grass. If it springs back, it’s fine and doesn’t need water.
“Plants that are suited for their natural environment, like a succulent in the desert, need little to no additional fertilization,” explains Green. “The runoff from the over-fertilization of, for example, grass in a golf course in Arizona, can be extreme. Pesticides are also an issue, as plants that are not naturally suited to the environment tend to be attacked more readily when drought and nutrient-stressed.”
In short, there has to be a better way. And there is: Xeriscape landscaping. Despite sounding suspiciously like Star Trek jargon, xeriscape landscaping is as down-to-earth a concept as possible. In fact, it’s so earthbound that it might just help us get through the increase in droughts, excessively high temperatures, and other red flags that indicate our home planet is kind of dealing with a lot of stress at the moment.
At its core, xeriscape landscaping is a philosophy that has water conservation as its major objective. The root of the word is the Greek xeros, which means “dry.” It takes into account things like managing ground sloping to avoid excess water runoff, strategically-placed trees and bushes to provide more shade (which cools the ground and slows water evaporation), and the avoidance of weird islands of grass or plants that require special — and often wasteful — watering.
In addition, xeriscaping encourages the use of local plants that don’t need to be tricked into thinking they’re living somewhere they’re not. Desert climates don’t tend to foster lush patches of green grass, and cold climates don’t tend to support a lot of mangos. So being considerate about where you live, what you plant, and how you maintain it makes a lot of sense.
“The use of plants that synch with the natural landscape of these desert climates not only saves water in the long run, but also helps to nurture and maintain the native pollinator population in the area,” adds Green.
Part of the problem with most traditional landscaping plans is that it simply puts things where they don’t belong. No wonder someone in Southern California has to spend hours watering their grass, because grass doesn’t belong there and it knows it. It’s a desert climate. So not only do succulents make more sense for their ability to survive without water, but they also grow naturally in that region.
Experts suggest creating stone pathways and other staggered designs — especially if you’re dealing with harsher plants like cacti — so that you can still have a walkable and playable lawn space without a lot of thirsty grass.
But the concept behind xeriscape landscaping isn’t to remove all greenery and replace everything with rocks. It’s about utilizing local flora, planting less water-dependent plants, and adopting a more conscientious landscape layout. If done properly, xeriscape landscaping can reduce your overall water use by 60 percent according to the Nevada County Resource Conservation District. The town of Novato, California, for instance, actually offered its residents conversation incentives if they replaced their lawns with xeriscaping. Officials estimated that houses that agreed to the program saved roughly 120 gallons of water daily.
Transitioning to xeriscaping doesn’t require a masters in botany. Just a bit of research and planning.
“You can find out [which plants work best for xeriscaping] by looking at what plants grow wild where you live, or in other places with similar climates,” professional landscaper Michelle Pekko-Seymoure explained as part of a NASA-sponsored educational program around xeriscaping. “For us [In Southern California], that would be the region around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as some coastal areas of South Africa, Australia and Chile.”
Some other drought-resistant plants recommended by experts include agave, juniper, and lavender. A lot of herbs and edible plants make for excellent xeriscaped lawns, too, and bring with them extra environmental benefits.
“By growing their own food, people prevent a lot of carbon dioxide from getting into the air, because no trucks or planes are needed to deliver their food from far away,” says Pekko-Seymoure. “Also, their plants take carbon dioxide out of the air.” So consider things like thyme, sage, oregano, black walnuts, Jerusalem artichokes, and sapodilla (a fruit native to Mexico).
The biggest challenge with xeriscape landscaping is convincing people to do it, per Green. Changing the mindset of those who are drawn to traditional yards with vast lawns, flowering shrubs, and so forth is not easy. But as our planet continues to change, it’s essential. Those who make the change won’t be dissapointed.
“When people see what beauty can be created by using plants native to their area, encouraging pollination and local wildlife, their minds may be changed,” says Green.
Xeriscape Landscaping: Region by Region
Obviously, living in a desert climate makes deciding which sturdy, drought-resistant plant to put on your lawn a bit easier, but what if you live in the Northeast? The deep south? Your choices may not be as obvious as a cactus. Here, then, are some suggestions for those looking to xeriscape in their hometown.
For the Northeast, you’ll want to look for plants that thrive in dry soil, such as wild columbine, wild blue indigo, cockspur hawthorn, and Pennsylvania sedge.
A little further south, you’ll find options that include more coastal-friendly plants such as sea myrtle, common winterberry, sand pine, and farkleberry (which we assure you is not a Wonka Factory product).
For the great plains, you get a lot of dense, low perennials that do well under intense sun and very little moisture. Such as aster, salvia, and Penstemon.
Places like Willamette, Oregon already provide handy resources for finding local, drought-resistant plants. Xeriscapers can choose options like sea lavender, sage, California poppy, and yucca.
Places like New Mexico not only offer the most variety – being already inclined towards drought-friendly native plants – but also the best names. Who wouldn’t want a lawn filled with giant snapdragon vine or coyote bush or alligator juniper or blue ranger?