You may be resistant to changing your existing landscape into a xeriscape, or drought tolerant landscaping. If it’s important to you to not only beautify your surroundings but use less water too, think of making the change. Everyone wants to make their carbon footprint as small as possible.
Drought tolerant landscaping seems like a misnomer, but there are many plants growing right in regular gardens that tolerate dry soil just fine.
Some of these you may call ‘native’ plants. They have adapted to be resistant to all kinds of variations in available water, heat and sunshine.
There are also many ‘heritage’ plants that pioneers planted in their homestead gardens to remind them of home. Think of their journey from wherever they came from. If they could survive an ocean journey in the days before plastic, they must be tough.
Drought tolerant plants quite often have fleshy root systems, or have resinous scented sap.
How To Create Drought Tolerant Landscaping
Where do I start?
The ideal landscape has drought tolerance built in.
1. Divide your property into three zones
The three zones you need to know about are Zone 1, 2 and 3. All this means is that Zone 1 is closest to the water source (the house). Zone 2 is where you’ll plant shrubs like lavender and rosemary, ornamental grasses and perennials. These need less water. Zone 3 is where you’ll find the plants that thrive without any extra watering at all, like Junipers, pine trees and others.
If you have favorite plants that are a little demanding, don’t despair! You won’t have to give them up, but you may have to move them.
You’ll decide which plants belong in each zone, with the plants you can’t do without planted closest to the dwelling. If you just can’t bear to lose your lawn, this is where it would go. As you move away from the house, you choose plants that don’t mind a little less care. In all cases, whether the plants are in direct view or only at the outer edges, take care with the soil preparation. Good drainage is essential, even in a drought tolerant landscape.
2. Create a planting plan
Following a planting scheme gives your plants the best chance of success. All your plants are grouped together, according to their needs. Plants that prefer to grow in damp soil and get frequent watering go in one spot together. Those that like a drier soil and less water will be next. Then the outer zone will be where less demanding plants go.
Don’t worry, it’s not going to be boring!
Thyme and flowering pots on your patio
One feature that many people already have is a patio, made from blocks of concrete or stone. Plant thyme among the pavers and display pots and containers of flowering plants where you can see them from the house.
Give rain gardens a try
Another interesting feature could be a rain garden, using the downspouts from the house to direct rain away from it.
The rain gardens that are most successful are those that are beautiful even when it’s not raining – constructed like a dry stream-bed.
Some plants that enjoy this kind of variable watering are sedges, willows (the smaller growing species only please!) and Siberian iris. The moisture is stored under the large rocks you’ll use to make your pretend stream bed.
Trees and shrubs
The outer end of the dry stream bed or rain garden will be in Zone 3, directing occasional moisture to places which get little extra water. This is a good place to plant trees and shrubs that otherwise wouldn’t thrive as they’ll get a little more water.
Make sure you plan in some pathways so you can see how it’s all doing.
It’s also important to have a way to redirect excess water away from the house and drought tolerant plants. Just because they’re tough, doesn’t mean they can stand wet feet. Swales and shallow ditches work well to get the water away from where you don’t want it.
For getting water to the plants that like it, drip irrigation or simple wicking beds are a time saving option. Rain barrels will fill with rainfall, or from a hose. Keep the rain barrel up off the ground, and use gravity to feed your drip system.
How To Care For Your Drought Tolerant Garden
The biggest chore you’ll have is making sure that weeds don’t get established anywhere. Cover the soil with cardboard, sheets of newspaper, or just a thick layer of mulch, right on top of the weeds. Do this before they flower and produce millions of seeds.
Mulch to prevent weeds, and protect the soil from erosion. Lava rock, river rock, gravel or pebbles are good choices. Stay away from organic mulches like straw, bark mulch or sawdust, which will rot away in time.
Pruning, even something as simple as cutting some flowers for the house, can take only a few moments. Don’t think of this type of garden as needing a lot of maintenance.
Without lawn, there is little else that needs doing on a weekly basis.
In the fall, replenish the mulch, and remove dead twigs and stalks. You can also leave the cleaning till spring, so the overwintering insects have somewhere to hide.
Luckily, plants that are not stressed (ie: planted in perfect conditions) don’t get plagued by insects or disease. There is less need of pesticides when the plants are happy and healthy.
Accents For The Best Drought Tolerant Landscape
Drought tolerant landscaping depends on accent pieces such as larger rocks and boulders, driftwood, or even statuary for impact.
Drifts of flowering perennials or shrubs give a three dimensional background to collections of pots and containers.
This gives you the perfect opportunity of creating a ‘movable feast’. Even herbs and certain vegetables thrive in confined spaces, such as deck planters. Getting tired of how it looks? Move them around and replant them.
Over the seasons you can go from a spring time display of flowering bulbs, to a kitchen garden right outside the door, to a winter display of evergreens or deciduous shrubs, all grown in containers on the patio, where you can see them from the house.
Starting your own drought tolerant landscaping doesn’t mean you have to do it all at once. Be aware of the zones, and move your plants around over time. Within a short time, your garden will be much easier to maintain and care for, and it will be drought tolerant too.
Jacki Cammidge is a Certified Horticulturist. Want more information on gardening with less water? Go to Drought Smart Plants.