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Don’t confuse xeriscape with zeroscape

Recent questions concerning the conversion of landscapes to make them more water-efficient have prompted this article on xeriscaping. It is hoped that a better understanding of the concept will aid readers in their plant selection and design process.

Xeriscaping is a term that was developed by the Front Range Xeriscape Task Force of Denver Water in 1978. The term xeriscape (combining xeros, which is Greek for dry, with landscape) was actually trademarked by the City of Denver.

The concept was developed in an effort to reduce water consumption to sustain landscape. For a while, no one else could use the term and numerous lawsuits were initiated to prevent others from using the phrase. Eventually, the trademark issue was relaxed a bit as more and more municipalities adopted the concept.

Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about xeriscaping and what it involves. Above all, it is not zeroscaping. Certainly one can save water by placing rock and gravel around the house, with a few ornaments like a wagon wheel or a cow skull strewn about. However, this is not a sustainable landscape that can be enjoyed. It is hot and inhospitable. True xeriscapes embrace water conservation, but not at the expense of the inhabitants.

In actuality, the concept is more about zoning the irrigation system to properly deliver water in regulated amounts (known as hydrozoning). If we create zones of varying water consumption throughout our landscape, then we can enjoy the areas where we spend the majority of our time, while conserving water where little time is spent.

If you would, picture an oasis in the middle of the desert. Imagine a spring-fed pool where the inhabitants sustain themselves with ample water and noticeably cooler temperatures. This living area is just that, a place where people and their animals spend most of their time. The plant material is lush, producing considerable shade and often edible fruit. As we move away from the oasis, the plant material gradually becomes less dense due to the reduced availability of water. At the furthest point from the oasis the plants are all water efficient and drought tolerant.

If one jumbles the order in which the plants are grouped, then the irrigation hydrozoning becomes inefficient, often at the expense of the plant material. Likewise, if plants from humid climates are placed in the middle of a hot, sunny location, it is not only inconsiderate of the plant’s needs, it is brutal.

This is why proper plant selection is crucial to develop sustainable desert landscapes. For example, plants like flowering plum and Japanese privets do not belong against the west facing wall of your house!

If you practice the oasis concept then you can’t go wrong. Lush plants, and if you wish even small areas of lawn, should be placed near the living area to make the most of the water consumed. Moderate the amount of area for your oasis to save water (money). The density and the type of plants used should reflect the use of the area. You certainly don’t need boxwood hedges along the front curb. The most inhospitable part of the landscape should contain the toughest plants with proven tolerance for heat, drought and wind. Now that is sustainable landscaping.

Call it what you want, water-efficient, drought tolerant or desert-adapted landscapes, all embrace the concept of xeriscaping. If we get the design right, the result can be lush, colorful, enticing and certainly livable. If we choose the right plants and place them correctly by their water requirements, then we have truly created an oasis where we can enjoy life.

Dennis Swartzell is the marketing director for Mountain States Wholesale Nursery. As an ISA board-certified master arborist and a member of the Southern Nevada Arborist Group, Swartzell has been helping Southern Nevadans with their gardening questions for over 25 years. If you have a question about a particular plant, or a general gardening issue, send them to Swartzell at treemender@cox.net.

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