Principles of Xeriscape Design


xeriscape  xeriscape design is more than using cactus


Xeriscape, or 'dry-scape', is a set of principles originally developed by the Denver Water Department for water-conservative landscaping. Although the name implies the use of drought tolerant or dry land and desert type plants, its principles actually incorporate components of other green forms of landscaping.    


Sustainability, dry-land farming, rain water harvesting, natural landscaping, wildlife gardening, native plant gardening and water conservative designs all form the core principles of Xeriscaping.    


Since Xeriscape's essential message is the wise use of water, it targets homeowners and other properties that are designed using irrigation systems, plants, turf and soils. When planning and designing a landscape, a site can be evaluated and designed in such a way that reduces the need for water while at the same time balance the aesthetics of the site.    


Some of the advantages of Xeriscape include:  

  • Lowers consumption of imported or ground water.  
    • More water available for other domestic and community uses and the environment.  
  • Less time and work needed for maintenance effort, with gardening simpler and less stressful.  
    • Little or no lawn mowing  
  • Xeriscape plants in appropriate planting design and soil grading and mulching, takes full advantage of rainfall retention.  
  • When water restrictions are implemented, by municipality or water costs, xeriscape plants will tend to survive and thrive, while more ornamental plants may be unable to adapt.  

The 7 Strategies to Xeriscape Designing:  

Planning and Design Stage 

  • Create a site plan in order to understand your property, its drainage patterns, topography, water retention opportunities and soil characteristics.  
  • Understand the sun exposure by noting areas of full sun, full shade, and the potential to create areas for more shade.  
  • Identify your areas in terms of water demand by plant type and sun exposure to create Watering Zones.   
  • Use appropriate plants for the region and by the amount of sun exposure within the site.  

Select Low Water Use Plants 

Choose plants adapted to your area, then based on their individual requirements for sun, water, soil drainage, appearance and form, place them in your design to maximize their effectiveness as Xeriscape suitable plants. Since the plants are the users of the water, careful planning will go a long way to reducing water demand. 

Identify suitable plants that are either water-conserving or drought tolerant. Check with your local water conservation authority or cooperative extension office for a list of such plants suitable for your region. Drought tolerant plants need not be native or indigenous to your area; they simply have to tolerate your particular climate Zone. 

Water-conserving plants have the ability to retain the water they receive. Consider the type of grass you choose as well as a part of your plant choices. Bermuda is an example of a water-conserving choice for a lawn. 

Soil Type and Site Drainage 

Soil preparation starts with knowing what kind of soil you have. You can have your soil tested by your local cooperative extension service to get a report about its profile and a recommendation as to what amendments it may need. Soil amendments such as organic matter will increase the soils water retention ability, improving the health of the plants and reduces the demand for water. Organic amendment will also offset the soil if it of a very sandy and fast draining type which will tend to not hold water very well. 

Grading and improving the ability to capture some of the rain that falls onto and flows across the site will reduce the amount of natural free rainfall that may otherwise be wasted. Areas can be created that take advantage of drainage and runoff to irrigate a grouping of plants and or trees. 


  • Protects the plants roots  
  • Retains soil moisture  
  • Slows evaporation of soil moisture  
  • Reduces weed growth  

Just a few inches of mulch can significantly improve the "micro-climate" within each of the plant zones. In fact, mulch is a natural component of a forest ecosystem. Think of mulch also as a form of compost that helps to feed the soil with nutrients. 

Mulch can be organic or inorganic material. Organic mulches such as forest shavings, straw, bark or compost are good choices because they retain moisture. They also break down and need to be replenished. In desert areas, however, organic mulches are not feasible over large areas and must be used only around the plants root ball and tree drip line. Mulch can also blow away, so the use of inorganic mulches such as gravel is necessary in harsher environments as a layer over the organic mulch. 

Do You Really Need All That Grass? 

Xeriscape principles allow for the "appropriate" use of what you desire. Just be sensible about it. Think carefully about how much grass you really need before you sod the back forty acres. 

If you already have a fair amount of lawn but don't want to give it all up, consider converting some of it to Xeriscape approach that would end up saving a lot of water and maintenance. 

If you still have grass to water, feed and maintain, why not select low water use varieties such as Bermuda, Zoysia or Buffalo grass? 

Smart Irrigation 

Saving water includes not only reducing the demand for water by smart plant choices, but the wise use of the water as delivered through an irrigation system. An automatic irrigation system with programmable settings for the various zones is essential to be efficient at watering. Smart controllers that work with moisture sensors and rain sensors add a further level of efficiency to the system. Using a drip irrigation system that delivers water only to the root zone is far more water efficient than overhead spray nozzles. For lawn areas you can incorporate low volume sprinkler spray heads. 

For the most water reducing device of all, use rain barrels to capture rainwater and deliver it to the plants during periods of drought to further offset your dependence on the municipal water supply. 

Think Maintenance While You Make Design Choices 

Proper maintenance of a Xeriscape design involves pruning trees and shrubs at their proper times. Selective pruning compared to sheering and hedge trimming is preferred and will significantly reduce how often you are out in the garden pruning. Reducing the amount of water you put on your lawn and the amount of fertilizer you use will reduce how often you have to mow. The right plant in the right spot is the most effective low maintenance principle you can perform.  


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John Stuart Leslie John Stuart Leslie, MLA, Licensed Landscape Contractor holds a Masters in Landscape Architecture where he studied Xeriscape, Permaculture and Natural Ecosystem Design and Planning.