When North American landscaping enthusiasts get together to discuss landscaping trends for the new millennium, the word "drought" is on their lips with an alarming frequency. A relatively new concept for the mainstream is also cropping up more and more, as a solution to drought and the economic costs it brings: the use of xeriscaping plants, in lieu of lawns. It may be time to look into the cheaper landscape alternative represented by a so-called "xeriscape."
Pronounced as if it began with the letter z, the use of "xeriscaping" originated with the Denver Colorado Water Department in 1981. A compound of the Greek xeros, dry, and "-scape," as in landscape, "xeriscape" landscaping essentially refers to a creating a landscape design that has been carefully tailored to withstand drought conditions.
Xeriscape landscaping can take many forms. For some landscapers, xeriscape landscaping simply means grouping plants with similar watering requirements together on the landscape. This makes for more efficient watering. In my opinion, this policy is more a manifestation of common sense than of true xeriscape landscaping. There is a theme that runs through landscapes that can more properly be pointed to as examples of xeriscape landscaping. That theme is a challenge to the hegemony of lawn grass. And herein lies the inevitable resistance to the use of xeriscaping plants.
America's love affair with the lawn is a well-documented chapter in the annals of landscape design history. The assumption that a landscape will have lots of grass and that it will stay green all growing season is as firmly rooted in the American psyche as the assumption that a house will have windows. A major premise of xeriscape landscaping, by contrast, is that turf grass is problematic, because it is a water-guzzler. Not that all practitioners of xeriscape landscaping totally eliminate lawns, mind you. Some simply switch to types of lawn grass that demand less water (possibly making aesthetic concessions in the switch). Others cut back on the expanse and expense of lawn, relegating the lawn area to an accent on the landscape rather than maintaining the lawn in its position as the dominant element.
Then what, you may ask, fills the void in xeriscape landscaping left by the receding lawn? To some degree, the answer to that will depend on your location. In the southwestern U.S. cacti and extended patios may dominate, perhaps entirely eliminating grass if the lawn area is small. An extended patio is simply an enlarged patio that takes up space where lawn grass would otherwise be planted. In regions not quite as desperate for water, the answer may lie in ground covers, shrubs, mulches and a reduced lawn area.
But almost regardless of where you live in North America, you should start considering cheaper alternatives to lawns. While many are aware of the danger posed by drought, relatively few seem willing to make concessions to it and look for drought-resistant alternatives to lawn grasses. Many homeowners simply watch helplessly as their lawns die sooner and sooner each summer. Else they pay dearly for the water required to prolong the lawn's life, as water becomes less and less cheap. Automatic irrigation systems, incidentally, can end up saving you money in the long run; you can learn more about them in my FAQ on lawn irrigation systems. Nonetheless, water restrictions of increasing severity are a fact with which we may have to live for the foreseeable future.
Rather than bemoaning the loss of lawn space, think of the present predicament as an opportunity to experiment. In addition to extended patio areas, walkways and other hardscape elements, a myriad of interesting xeriscaping plants and themes can be incorporated into a xeriscape landscaping plan. Just to name a few:
- Rock garden plantings
- Wildflowers native to your area
- Ornamental grasses:
- purple fountain grass
- yellow pampas grass
- Mexican feather grass
- blue oat grass