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Xeriscape Solutions For Common Landscape Problems

Xeriscape Solutions For Common Landscape Problems


By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden

There are plenty of common landscape problems that can tarnish the beauty of your yard, and almost every landscape has at least one problematic area. These problems range from something aesthetic, such as a rocky site or slope, to things that can affect the overall health of your landscape, like severe drought. So what is the best solution to handling them?

When you encounter these problems, it is a good idea to fix them as soon as possible. More often than not all you need is to implement xeriscaping techniques. Effective xeriscape design solutions allow the landscape to work with its natural conditions rather than against them.

Xeriscape Plantings

Many people think of xeriscapes as merely cactus and rock gardens. The truth is that these types of landscape designs are very efficient and make interesting landscapes.

Cacti come in many varieties and can be quite beautiful. Many cactus plants have lovely flowers. Cactus can add an interesting look to your landscape and distinction to your yard. There are different types of cactus plants, as well as succulents, that are great for xeriscaping.

If a rocky area or slope is your problem, then perhaps a xeriscape rock garden design could be implemented as a landscape solution. Rock gardens are also excellent for xeriscape landscaping. They take up space that bushes and lawn would use, but require less care. Additionally, rock gardens can look very interesting. There are many flowers, ornamental grasses, small shrubs and ground covers that can grow in the midst of your rock garden. Be sure to choose hardy plants, preferably native plants, which can tolerate living in close proximity to the rocks.

Just because xeriscape is about conserving water does not mean that your landscape has to be all cactus and rock gardens. In fact, you can combine these with more traditional landscape plants. Although xeriscaping is associated with drought-plagued areas, you shouldn’t underestimate the benefits this type of gardening practice can bring to landscapes far removed from desert-like conditions. Xeriscaping can save both time and money in the long run simply by incorporating low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants into your landscape and grouping these plants together with those requiring similar irrigation needs.

Xeriscaping is the act of landscaping using plants that do not need a great deal of water. Therefore, it is possible to create and maintain a landscape using xeriscape principles with more traditional flowers. The key is to carefully choose your plants and use water more efficiently. Some plants that are excellent in most xeriscapes are perennials, ornamental grasses, vines, shrubs and ground covers. The use of native plants in your xeriscape landscape design is essential in having a landscape that is not too high maintenance and one that conserves water.

How to Water Your Xeriscape

Efficient use of water can help your plants become part of the xeriscape. If you water wisely, you can help your plants become stronger, utilize the moisture better, and consequently withstand drought more efficiently. Instead of frequent shallow watering, water occasionally and deeply. The water will soak into the soil reaching the roots rather than evaporate or run off. Applying mulch can also help the soil retain moisture.

Xeriscaping is an easy, effective alternative to some of the most basic landscape problems.

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Read more about Xeriscape Gardens


1. Erosion. One of the most common landscaping problems we see is erosion. With the help of a professional, there are a number of manageable solutions. A dry creek bed works well when trying to control erosion and can offer unique aesthetics to your landscaping. If this isn’t an option for your space, your pro can offer other solutions like terracing, layered plantings, and more.

2. Dead grass. Trees and shrubbery can bring an unparalleled beauty to your Virginia landscaping. Unfortunately, the heavy shade can make it extremely difficult to maintain healthy grass underneath. Creating a shade garden for these areas may be the perfect solution.

3. Mushrooms everywhere. It’s not uncommon for homeowners to suddenly realize that there are mushrooms multiplying across their landscaping. In some cases, this common landscaping problem can easily become overwhelming. Mushrooms can be nearly impossible to get rid of, and you could spend some serious cash if you’re employing the use of fungicides to try. Unfortunately, the mushrooms you see are merely the tip of the iceberg. These are the result of an extensive root system below the surface of your lawn, so getting rid of them completely will take much more than just pulling them up.

Make your landscaping less appealing to fungi by correcting drainage issues and removing buried lumber and any organic matter that may be decaying. Other suggestions include replacing old mulch, aerating your landscaping, bagging grass clippings. Having tree stumps ground down is also worth considering.

4. Standing water. If your yard becomes a boggy mess with a hard rain, it may be difficult to maintain healthy turf and gardens. This water retention can be caused by low spots or excess run-off that can’t drain away quick enough. Professional landscaping services can suggest a variety of solutions for your drainage issues. Depending on the features of your landscaping, creative solutions can include a French drain strategically placed, a dry well, or even a small holding pond depending on the area.

5. Privacy. If you can’t enjoy your landscaping due to lack of privacy, there is a solution. You can make your landscaping work for you, not against you. Fencing can be expensive, and in some cases it can negatively affect the aesthetics of your landscaping. Consider working with a pro to plant a living fence. You can use fast growing evergreens, English laurel, or Japanese privet to create a lush green backdrop and privacy.

6. Wildlife. Nothing is more irritating than finding a garden or other area in your landscaping that’s been devoured by wildlife overnight. Deer, birds, and even those cute bunnies can wreck havoc on plants and gardens. Solutions include barriers, specialized plants, and even smelly sprays.


Xeriscape for a Water-Efficient Garden

“There are somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand pesticide formulations available today. Perhaps 10 percent of them have had some sort of safety assessment done on them.”
—From Building a Healthy Lawn: A Safe and Natural Approach By Stuart Franklin, Storey Communication, 1988.

The Xeriscape, or water-efficient, approach to landscaping offers so many outstanding benefits over traditional highly watered landscaping that it is surprising it hasn’t emerged as the most common form of landscape design. The extraordinary savings in water alone are so significant, both to individual property owners and to municipalities trying to keep up with water demand, that water-wise landscaping is commanding increasing consideration as a relevant part of water supply planning. In addition, the potential saving in initial landscape construction, as well as in ongoing maintenance, is substantial.

The Xeriscape approach to land­scaping is truly a good-news story. As Doug Welsh, president of the National Xeriscape Council, states, “Xeriscape is an opportunity to take a proactive stance and exhibit a true stewardship approach to the most precious of natural resources. It is a ‘win-win’ situation. Everyone wins: The water agency does its job of efficiently using its resources the landscape professionals help to bring beauty to the community and ensure their livelihood the gardener gets a quality landscape that requires less water, less maintenance, and ultimately less dollars and the educator receives satisfaction by being a facilitator in the entire orchestration of Xeriscape programs.”

Xeriscape Fundamentals

The seven Xeriscape fundamentals provide a quick idea of how water-efficient landscaping is able to provide so many advantages over traditional landscaping.

1. Plan and design comprehensively from the beginning.

2. Create turf areas of manageable sizes, shapes, and appropriate grasses.

3. Use appropriate plants, and zone according to plants’ water needs.

4. Consider improving the soil with organic matter like compost or manure.

5. Consider utilizing mulches, such as wood chips.

6. Irrigate efficiently with properly designed systems and by applying the right amount of water at the right time.

7. Maintain the natural landscape appropriately by mowing, pruning, and fertilizing properly.

Environmental Benefits

A general increasing concern about environmental issues is causing many people to rethink the way we use all natural resources, and this often raises concerns about hardship, sacrifice, and lower quality of life. Water-conserving landscaping, however, offers a very real way to reduce negative environmental impacts while actually improving the quality of life.

In a time of increasing awareness of limited resources, the rationality of ­investing so much in planting, fertilizing, mowing, and harvesting a “crop” [of lawn grass] that we usually throw away is questionable at best, especially with so many good alternatives.

Extensive use of plants that often require widespread use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers causes significant problems that can be avoided by using plants more naturally suited to each site.

The practical advantages of the Xeri­scape approach to landscaping clearly make it possible for everyone to do ­something about many environmental problems we face.

From The Xeriscape Flower Gardener by Jim Knopf. Copyright © 1991, James M. Knopf. Reprinted with permission of Johnson Publishing Company.

Easy-To-Grow Xeriscape Plants, Zones 4–9

‘Jupiter’s Beard’ (Centranthus ruber)
‘May Night’ meadow sage (Salvia nemerosa)
‘Moonshine’ yarrow (Achillea filipendulina)
‘Select Blue’ catmint (Nepeta faassenii)
‘Sunray’ coreopsis (Coreopsis graniflora)
‘Powis Castle’ silver sage (Artemisia)


Xeriscaping: Creative Landscaping – 7.228

by C. Wilson, J.R. Feucht and Susan Carter*(3/19)

Quick Facts…

    • Proper planning is the first step in landscaping to reduce water use.
    • Steep slopes with south and west exposures require more frequent irrigating to maintain the same plant cover as east or north slopes.
    • Terracing slopes reduces runoff.
    • Limit irrigated bluegrass turf to small or heavily used areas.
    • Soil amendment is a key to water conservation.
    • Proper irrigation practices, system design and audits can lead to 30 to 80 percent water savings.
    • Organic mulches can keep the soil moist and improve the soil overtime.

Xeriscaping (zer-i-skaping) is a word originally coined by a special task force of the Denver Water Department, Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and Colorado State University­ to describe landscaping with water conservation­ as a major objective. The derivation of the word is from the Greek “xeros,” meaning dry, and scape meaning the pattern of the landscape – thus, xeriscaping.

The need for landscaping to conserve water received new impetus following the drought of 1977 throughout the western states and the recognition that nearly 50 percent of the water used by the average household is for turfgrass and landscape plantings.

Unfortunately, many homeowners have cut back on turfgrass areas by substituting vast “seas of gravel and plastic” as their answer to water conservation. This practice is not only self-defeating­ as far as water conservation is concerned, it also produces damaging effects to trees and shrubs. This is not xeriscaping.

Planning — An Important First Step

Whether you want to redesign an old landscape, or start fresh with a new one, a plan is essential. Site exposure is an important component of the plan, no matter how simple the plan. As a rule, south and west exposures result in the greatest water losses, especially areas near buildings or paved surfaces. You can save water in these locations simply by changing to plants adapted to reduced water use. However, don’t be too quick to rip out the sod and substitute plastic and gravel. Extensive use of rock on south and west exposures can raise temperatures near the house and result in wasteful water runoff and increased temperatures.

Whether you want to redesign an old landscape, or start fresh with a new one, a plan is essential. Site exposure is an important component of the plan, no matter how simple the plan. As a rule, south and west exposures result in the greatest water losses, especially areas near buildings or paved surfaces. You can save water in these locations simply by changing to plants adapted to reduced water use. However, don’t be too quick to rip out the sod and substitute plastic and gravel. Extensive use of

Slope of Property

Slope or grade is another consideration. Steep slopes, especially those on south and west exposures, ­ waste water through runoff and rapid water evaporation. A drought-resistant ground cover can slow water loss and shade the soil. See fact sheet 7.230, Xeriscaping: Ground Cover Plants, for suggested ground covers. Strategically placed trees can shade a severe exposure, creating cooler soil with less evaporation. Terracing slopes helps save water by slowing runoff and permitting more water to soak in.

Reduce Irrigated Turf

Avoid narrow strips of turf, hard to maintain corners, and isolated islands of grass that need special attention. Not only is maintenance more costly, but watering becomes difficult, often wasteful. If your yard is already landscaped, see 7.234, Xeriscaping: Retrofit Your Yard, for information on ways to evaluate and eliminate unneeded turf grass areas.

Reduce bluegrass turf to areas near the house or that of high use. If appropriate, try using more drought-resistant grasses or even meadow mixes containing wildflowers. Refer to 7.232, Xeriscaping: Turf and Ornamental Grasses, for suggested alternatives to bluegrass.

Soil Preparation

Proper soil preparation is the key to successful water conservation. If the soil is very sandy, water and valuable nutrients­ will be lost due to leaching below the root zone. If your soil is heavy clay, common in this area, you will lose water through runoff.

A good soil is one that supports healthy plant life, conserves moisture and has a balance of soil clusters (aggregates) and pore spaces. The “ideal” soil has as much as 50 percent by volume pore space, with the soil itself consisting of a good balance of sand, silt and clay creating a loam soil.

A major problem with heavy soils is that clay tends to dominate the soil complex. Clay is composed of microscopic crystals arranged in flat plates. When a soil has a high number of these crystals, they act much like a glue, cementing the particles of sand and silt together and resulting in a compact, almost airless soil.

Such soils often repel surface water (hydrophobic soil), resulting in runoff. When water does get into these soils, it is held so tightly by the clay that it is not available to the plants. Plants in a clay soil, even though it is moist, often wilt from lack of moisture. Plant roots also need air to thrive. In clay soils, air spaces are small and fill with water, so plant roots often suffer from oxygen starvation.

In very sandy soils, the opposite is true. Sandy soils have very large particles creating large pore spaces. Because the particles are large, there is little surface area to hold the water, so they tend to lose water rapidly.

Creating a good soil takes more than a year. Add organic matter annually to garden areas. In areas to be sodded or seeded, add organic amendments as a onetime procedure. Since this is your one chance to add a good amendment thoroughly 6-8” deep. See: CMG Garden Note #241: Soil Amendment. This encourages deep roots that tap the water stored in the soil and reduces the need for wasteful, frequent water applications.

Proper Irrigation Saves Water

Proper irrigation practices can lead to a 30 to 80 percent water savings around the home grounds. Check existing sprinkler systems for overall coverage. See Lawn Irrigation Self Audit (LISA) website. If areas are not properly covered or water is falling on hardscapes, adjust the system. This may mean replacing heads, adding more heads, or adjusting to do a more efficient job.

With the system on, observe places that are receiving water where it is not needed. Overlaps onto paved areas or into shrub borders may result in much water waste. Overwatering trees and shrubs may lead to other plant health issues and other problems.

Irrigate turf areas differently than shrub borders and flower beds. North and east exposures need less frequent watering than south and west exposures. Apply water to slopes more slowly than to flat surfaces. Ideally, these are different irrigation zones (Hydrozones). Examine these closely and correct inefficiencies in irrigation system design.

If you do not have a sprinkler system and are just beginning to install a landscape, you can avoid the pitfalls of poorly designed and installed systems. Have a professional irrigation company do the job correctly. Make sure the system is designed to fit the landscape, the water needs of the plants, and is zoned to reduce unnecessary applications of water. Coordinate the landscape design to select plants that have similar cultural requirements and match the irrigation system to those needs, resulting in a sensible water-saving scheme.

Consider a drip system for outlying shrub borders and raised planters, around trees and shrubs, and in narrow strips where conventional above ground systems would result in water waste.

If you use hoses instead of an underground system, you can observe water patterns. Instead of watering the entire lawn each time, spot water based on visible signs of need, such as turf that begins to turn a gray-green color.

Avoid frequent, shallow sprinklings that lead to shallow root development. Compact soils result in quick puddling and water runoff. They need aeration with machines that pull soil plugs. Fine compost applied at ¼” depth after aerating can improve the soil.

Water trees and shrubs separate from the lawn ensuring that the soil is watered to a depth of 12-18”.

Mulching the Landscape

Properly selected and applied mulches in flower and shrub beds reduce water use by decreasing soil temperatures and the amount of soil exposed to wind. Mulches also discourage weeds and can improve soil conditions.

The two basic types of mulches are organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include straw, partially decomposed compost, wood chips, bark, fiber mats, and even ground corncobs or newspapers. Inorganic mulch is mainly gravel. Plastic film or polyethylene film and woven fabric is not recommended as oxygen and water does not penetrate it, hurting trees and shrubs root systems. A combination of both organic and inorganic can be used. Plastic mulches are options for annual vegetables.

If soil improvement is a priority, use organic mulches. Wood chips and compost are most appropriate as these materials break down becoming an organic amendment to the soil. Earthworms and other soil organisms help incorporate the organic component into the soil. Organic mulch is preferred because most soils in this area are low in organic content and need organic amendments to improve aeration and water holding capacity.

Inorganic mulches, such as rock or gravel, without fabric or plastic, allow for water and air exchange. See 7.214, Mulches for Home Grounds.

Selecting Plants

Carefully select plants to be compatible with soil, exposure and irrigation systems. For recommended plants, see:


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