Principles of Xeriscape

It is possible to have a beautiful yard, without using a lot of water.

Xeriscape is a type of landscaping that reduces water use. It was developed in 1981 by a team of landscape architects, contractors, horticulturists, irrigation specialists and Colorado State University Cooperative Extension representatives. It is a method of landscaping that produces beautiful, water efficient, water-sustainable landscapes that are in harmony with our dry, arid climate. 
xeric garden

7 Steps To Xeriscape

Step 1: Planning and design 

Create a landscape plan. It can be as simple as a freehand sketch to a detailed plan by a landscape design professional. Be sure to include existing structures, trees and shrubs. This plan will include “use zones” and “water zones.” Use zones are determined by how you will use each portion of your yard, such as entertainment (deck or patio), utilitarian (garden, dog run, play areas) or traffic or transition areas (paths). Water zones are determined by what you plan to build in each area of your yard, coupled with the amount of sun and moisture to which each area is naturally exposed. Shaded or protected areas may not need as much water as an area of your yard that is in full sun. Paying attention to the use and water zones also should allow you to install your landscape in phases. 

Step 2: Improving the soil

Soils can range from heavy clay to very sandy. Clay absorbs water very slowly, while sandy soil does not store water well and will dry out quickly. Soils will need organic matter (class I or II), such as peat moss or compost, added before planting landscape material. Add 4 cubic yards of organic matter per 1,000 square feet, and work into the soil, to a minimum depth of 6 inches. 

Step 3: Limit turf area 

Turf should be located only in areas where it provides a functional use. Turf requires more water, maintenance and nutrients than most other plant material. Turf is best if separated from plantings of shrubs, groundcovers and flowering plants. A traditional Kentucky Bluegrass turf requires about 1.5 inches of supplemental water per week when the temperature is over 85 degrees and should be irrigated separately. New varieties of grasses are available that require less water than traditional bluegrass. 

Consider using groundcovers and other low-water-demand plants in areas where foot traffic is infrequent. These will offer a similar neatness and uniformity as lawn but with less maintenance. Steep slopes and sharp angles are difficult to water efficiently and should be planted with plant material other than turf. Established groundcovers reduce weeds and help prevent erosion on slopes. 

Hardscape is a wonderful way to enhance your yard. This is the use of wood, rock or concrete to create pathways, patios or other areas of interest. Potted plant material can be used on hardscape areas to add color, and it’s easy to hand-water. 

Step 4: Right plant, right place 

Ideally, the ultimate goal is to use plants that will survive with only natural rainfall or with little supplemental water. Higher water-using plants should be used only where greater amounts of water occur naturally, such as in low-lying or runoff areas. Remember, water wise landscape will include areas of varying water needs, but plant materials with similar needs should be grouped together. This is called hydro-zoning. 

Step 5: Efficient irrigation 

A good irrigation system is planned around the needs of the plant material it is intended to water. Plan to irrigate turf areas separately from other plant material. Watering deeply to fill the root zone of the turf and then allowing the root zone to dry out before watering again will encourage a deeper root system that will be more heat- and drought-tolerant. The greatest waste is watering too much, too often. 

Turf areas are best watered with sprinklers that put out a large drop, as less will be lost to evaporation. Generally, rotors are more efficient than fixed spray heads. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses for garden and shrub areas. Drip systems apply water directly to the plant roots, reducing evaporation. 

Step 6: Mulch, mulch, mulch 

Mulched planting beds are an ideal replacement for turf area. Mulches cover and cool the ground, and minimize evaporation. The best mulches are shredded bark or wood chips. Organic mulches increase the soil’s ability to retain moisture and can improve the underlying soil as it decomposes. Apply about 3 to 4 inches to your planting bed.

Inorganic mulch includes rock and gravel products. Be careful where you use rock as mulch. Rock or gravel should be sized proportionately to the plant size. Apply about 3 inches for weed control. Use less directly around the plants to allow water to reach the root area. 

Step 7: Good maintenance 

Your water wise landscape still will need care and attention to keep it at its peak. Weeding, pruning, proper fertilizer and irrigation system adjustments are some of the maintenance practices you need to keep up with. Check for broken irrigation lines or sprinkler heads. Aerate your lawn twice a year, spring and fall, to help the water permeate into the root zone. Make every drop count! 


  • Approximately 50 percent of annual water production is used for landscape irrigation.
  • By grouping plants by water need, plants are healthier, easier to maintain and less susceptible to disease, requiring less use of pesticides and fertilizers.
  • There are different styles of Xeriscape - natural, cottage, alternative turf, mountain and informal.
  • A typical community could increase its total vegetated area while simultaneously reducing water use, primarily by replacing turf areas with trees and ground cover.
  • Many Xeriscape designs include plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.