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Conserve water, beautify your yard with xeriscaping 

More than cactus

Click for larger image • Once thirsty grass, this yard now demands less water with drought-resistant plants.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • Once thirsty grass, this yard now demands less water with drought-resistant plants.

Xeriscaping finds its root word in the Mediterranean, the Greek xeros, meaning "dry," but xeriscape gardening can take root just about anywhere. This type of landscaping emphasizes using native plants to beautify your space and conserve water, a necessity in these drought-ridden times. (Even after recent rains, the Triangle's drought status is still classified as moderate, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.) But like any new idea with a fancy name, it can be intimidating. Read on to separate the fact from the fiction about xeriscaping, and soon you'll be eyeing the green (or brown) square known as your yard with a makeover in mind.

FICTION: A xeriscaped lawn is a dry, dusty eyesore.

If a heated letter from your neighborhood association is keeping you from xeriscaping your yard, stop worrying. In fact, your lawn may become the talk of the block. Though started in Denver and popular in the Southwest United States, xeriscaping does not mean turning your space into Death Valley. It means choosing native plants that are genetically programmed to thrive in the area; there are hundreds of options to choose from, including many beautiful green, leafy and flowering options.

FACT: Xeriscaping is a lot like cleaning your garage or starting a new diet.

It takes many small steps, but you have to take that first one in order to take the others. Xeriscaping does not mean ripping up your lawn and starting over. Choose a small section of your yard to begin, perhaps a corner in the back or around your front stoop. Karen Nash of Dickinson Garden Center in Chapel Hill also suggests planting in pots. They're easier to monitor, and you can always replant them if you choose to expand your garden.

FICTION: You have to know a lot about plants to xeriscape.

There already are people who know a lot about gardens—they're called gardeners. They're fabulous, and you can find them at garden centers throughout the Triangle. Use them and their expertise, and they'll help you tackle xeriscaping and make it a manageable and even fun project.

Because xeriscaping emphasizes efficiently grouping plants by sun and water needs, it is helpful to know before you go where your yard gets sun and where it retains water. After the next rain, be observant. What area dries up first? Which one stays wet longest? Take a Saturday and read on your porch (perhaps the "Water Wise Landscape and Watering Guide" (PDF link)) and watch the sun move across your space. Remember, mother (nature) knows best, so listen to her and choose the right plants for the right places.

FACT: You can do it yourself.

Yes, you can pay someone to come and redo your lawn. But what better way to appreciate a yucca plant than to know that the dirt around its roots is also under your fingernails? Soil preparation is important to provide the best environment to begin your new garden, and without a solid start, these plants won't have deep enough root systems to survive. Mulching is important for holding in moisture. For most small areas, this involves a shovel and turning over the earth to aerate and adding mulch and compost that can be bought for about $4 a bag.

FICTION: Xeriscaping means no grass.

Xeriscaping is a way to conserve water through creative landscaping, but it does not mean eliminating grassy areas. Instead of covering your entire area with a plant that requires fertilizing, watering and trimming, think of how you want to use your space and plan accordingly. Saving a grassy area for outdoor entertaining or a children's swing set is fine and encouraged. Longtime Durham resident Jacob Cooley recently xeriscaped his yard, covering much of his front and side lawn with mulch and ornamental grasses and flowers, but keeping his back yard with native grass that he continues to mow. Cooley also proves that you don't have to get rid of favorite non-native plants either, as he recently bought a banana tree to set in the area of his lawn that retains the most water. It's about making smart, efficient choices that will bring you enjoyment.

FACT: Getting your soil tested is a good idea—and free.

Your local cooperative extension can test your soil and tell you how to improve it, such as adding lime if it's too acidic. This is a free service. Go to for more info.

FICTION: Sprinklers are the best way to water the lawn.

Sprinklers lose a lot of water to evaporation and wind, and plants don't need water landing on top of them. Besides limiting how much gets down to their roots, it can also encourage fungus to grow. Sprinklers can also end up watering areas that don't need to be watered at all, like sidewalks and driveways, sending valuable resources pouring down the street. Using a hose to water the roots will help conserve water and maximize the plants' use of it. Garden centers have info on drip irrigation systems. Of course, a strong xeriscaped garden will need little watering at all.

FACT: Proper planning prevents poor plant performance.

Nash says that people often come back to the nursery soon after buying plants and complain that they died. Her first questions are about the placement and watering of the plants. People often put plants willy-nilly about their yard and then ignore them completely or water them too much in an attempt to beat the heat.

FICTION: I'll have to work to keep this up (and it will cost a fortune).

In the first year, xeriscaping does take some work to establish your garden. ("Even a cactus is going to want water at the beginning," Nash says.) Mulching and staying on top of the watering are vital to getting good roots started and creating tough plants. But once the garden is established, you can sit back, relax and enjoy. These native plants will survive just as if you found them out in a field somewhere, and unless there is a severe drought, rain will provide them with enough water to thrive. Cooley trims his plants in February but otherwise leaves them alone. "It's what people have been doing for years," he says. "And the plants have been doing for even longer."

As for prices, beginning your garden will take a small investment (most medium-sized plants cost between $10-$15), but you'll eventually start saving on your water bill, as well as have little need for the fertilizers, bug nets and pesticides necessary to assist non-native plants.

FACT: Your options are endless.

One of the hardest parts about xeriscaping is knowing where to begin, because any list of plants for this area can go on for pages. Here is a list of some favorites that show up in many local xeriscaped gardens:

  • Trees: crepe myrtle, magnolia
  • Shrubs: forsythia, mountain laurel
  • Groundcover: ferns, St. John's Wort
  • Perennials: Goldenrod, Black-eyed Susans, Butterfly Bush, Daylily
  • Herbs: Lavender, sage, rosemary
  • Ornamental Grasses: Blue Fescue, Indian Grass

In the end, xeriscaping should not limit your yard, but rather open up new options. Use what you have, appreciate what you create, and conserve the resources that we all share, and you'll be thinking outside the box (or square) of a traditional lawn in no time.


Correction (Aug. 13, 2008): Hoffman Nursery does sell drought-resistant plants, but it is a wholesale nursery and does not sell to the public.


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