Xeriscape: Earth-Friendly Yards

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Xeriscape: Earth-Friendly Yards

This article is geared towards gardening in the Lake Tahoe area.  I love the Sierras and have, for years, been experimenting with different plants and gardens.  Vegetables grow best in green houses at this elevation due to both late and early frosts.  But, you can still have wonderful landscaping, complete with rock waterfalls, streams and low maintenance plants.

According to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, urban areas use between 25 and 37 percent of their water supply for landscape and garden watering.  Californians see water rationing during summer months.  Water preservation is on everyone's mind these days even with the past winter's snowfall.  

For those who love their gardens, there is an alternative way to landscape. It’s called Xeriscape, and the official definition is “an attractive, sustainable landscape that conserves water and is based on sound horticultural practices.” This landscaping concept involves native plants and grasses, utilizing attractive and useful plants, flowers and trees. So if you’re interested in conserving water, helping the environment, decreasing maintenance time and saving money, read on.

There are seven principles of Xeriscape:

1. Plan and design comprehensively: A good place to start is to map out your yard, noting sun exposure, topography, soil quality and existing vegetation. Evaluate soil and improve if necessary: Improving the soil can include fertilization, aeration and mixing in sand and compost. The goal is to maximize water penetration and retention.

2. Create practical turf areas: This is where grass comes in, but ideally you’ll use native grasses in multiple smaller areas. This enables you to water them more efficiently and reduce water use but still have a recreation area.  The Sierra Nevada mountain range has a variety of native grasses. 

3. Use appropriate plants and group according to their water needs: The good news: most plants have a place in Xeriscape. Ideally, you’ll choose mostly low-water plants.

4.  Alpine plants typically grow at higher elevations.  With the high ultraviolet light levels, short summers and cold temperatures, alpine plants evolve and adapt to become extremely hardy perennials. They are ideal to use in rockeries and xeriscape landscapes.   Some of my favorite are pestamin, lupine, columbine, currant, dogwood, snowball bush, lilac, pines, maples, strawberries, phlox, lavender, and iris.  Look for plants that are native to your area and elevation.  I have tried transplanting native ferns without luck but some collect the seeds of natives and plant with success in their gardens.


5. Water efficiently with properly designed irrigation systems: The irrigation system should be well planned and managed, with turf areas irrigated separately.  Drip lines work well for garden areas.

6. Use organic mulches: This is key to successful Xeriscape. Mulches minimize evaporation, reduce weed growth, slow erosion and soil compaction and help prevent soil temperature fluctuations.

Much of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water used in yards is never absorbed. Some water is lost to runoff by being applied too rapidly, and some water evaporates from exposed, unmulched soil; but the greatest waste of water is applying too much too often.

Xeriscape can decrease maintenance by as much as 50 percent, thanks to less mowing; yearly mulching; elimination of high-need, unadapted plants; and more efficient watering techniques. Xeriscape is not only an attractive landscape alternative, but one that is environmentally responsible as well.