Eastman: Xeriscape Fantasy vs. Reality

As I sit down to write, I check the 10-day weather report and see ten daily high temperatures at or above 80 degrees and very little moisture. I love the heat, and this is looking like a classic hot Colorado summer to me.

Of course, the plants in our gardens may have a slightly different opinion. They will get thirsty. Although we are not subject to the watering restrictions faced during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, being water-wise is no less important. The good news is that a xeriscape (pronounced ZIR-a-scape) garden doesn’t have to look like a desert.

A well-planned xeriscape can incorporate all kinds of plants, even those typically considered to be “thirsty” plants. Sure, plants like Russian sage, yucca, potentilla, and hyssop will thrive in sunny dry conditions, but if you have shady flowerbeds, even plants like hostas and ferns can thrive without a huge amount of irrigation.

Before planting in your yard, pour yourself a cool drink and take a day to watch how the sunlight hits your yard. Afternoon sun is hotter than morning sun, so pay attention to the time of day sun is hitting a particular flowerbed. The more sun an area gets, the more xeric the plants in that area need to be.

Another factor to consider in creating a beautiful and lush xeriscape is the way water moves through your yard. The next time we get a heavy rainstorm, grab an umbrella and see where water puddles. Areas where water collects, including where your gutter downspouts pour out, make great locations for any of those must-have plants that aren’t officially drought-tolerant.

Of course, we still must consider using plants that are actually well suited for hot dry locations. All too frequently first-time gardeners, and even some seasoned pros think drought-tolerant plants can be planted and never watered. Unfortunately, this is not true. You wouldn’t take a child with the potential to be a great sprinter and match him against an Olympic athlete. Like a child, even drought-tolerant plants need some care and guidance before they can truly excel.

A majority of plants that exhibit drought tolerance are able to survive dry conditions thanks to extensive root systems that reach deep into the cool moist soil below the surface.

Now consider the size of the root system on a plant at the moment you pull it out of the nursery pot. Not a lot of room for roots to grow is there? Because potted plants start with a relatively small roots system, initial supplemental water is critical in helping them get established your garden.

Water with a slow feed of water over an extended period to allow the water to soak in and reduce surface runoff. When the water soaks in deep, the roots follow it and will soon be able to seek out deep water for themselves.

Additionally, using a product to promote root growth such as Age Old Root Rally with Mycorrhizae, Hi-Yield Bone Meal, or Fertilome Root Stimulator will help establish a healthy and vibrant root system.

Among xeric plants, there is some variability in regards to just how drought-tolerant a particular plant is. Garden Centers of Colorado, a non-profit organization of independent garden centers in Colorado, produced a great list of plants for xeriscapes called X-Rated Plants (Xeric plants, get it?), and gives them all a “X” (Thrives in slightly dry conditions) “XX” (Thrives in dry conditions) or “XXX” (Thrives in very dry conditions).

Finally, I want to encourage everyone to explore the wonderful world of drip irrigation. It is a great way to get just the right amount of water to your plants without wasting any on over-spray and evaporation. By keeping overhead water off leaves, a number of fungal problems can be avoided.

Drip irrigations systems are easily customizable to each individual yard. Basically, drip irrigation is amazing and deserves it’s own article. Suffice to say, a well-planned drip system can improve plant health and reduce water bills.

The single most important part of any low-water garden is planning. Hopefully the tips in this article provide a good starting place, and remember: our experienced and helpful staff is always here to help you plan for success. Our goal is to help you turn your drought-tolerant garden into a thriving xeric wonder!


Jesse Eastman, Owner and General Manager

Originally published on June 30th, 2011.