Xeriscapes - How to make a 'dry' garden work

A xeriscaped garden next to steps
ARTICLE Jason Burgess

With recreation time at a premium and a growing global concern for the supply of water, savvy gardeners are adopting Xeriscaping principles into every zone of their landscape design. Until recently xeriscapes have most commonly been a feature around commercial sites, apartment buildings, roundabouts and traffic islands. As water conservation awareness grows, xeriscaping in backyards is catching on particularly in regions like arid Central Otago, windswept coastal areas and city burbs built on volcanic soils.

The term ‘Xeriscape’ was coined in America after a prolonged drought in Denver Colorado led locals to look for a less resource-dependent way of gardening. Xeros is a Greek word that means dry. A Xeriscape works with nature employing the natural flow of water through the landscape as the basis for water conservation. Creative xeriscaping not only conserves water through plant groupings, mulching and the use of native plants it keeps watering and weeding to a minimum and negates the use of any chemical fertilizers. Ultimately this all leads to healthier soils and a reduction in ongoing garden maintenance.

Xeriscaped garden with simple planting and water fountain

The trick to xeriscaping is choosing vegetation that is appropriate for your climate. Natives are the most obvious choice. Clay tolerant all-rounders like Griselinia littoralis , lacebark,  kowhai, bottlebrush, rock rose, coprosma, Eriostemon (wax flower, ) Manuka, flax, flower carpet roses and Carex secta grass, will handle parched summer soils yet do not mind wet feet in winter months. Grasses and trees like Cordyline, Lomandra, Phormium (Dwarf mountain flax), Libertia (native iris), Carex comans and testacea (native tussock grasses) tolerate drier soils and are wind tolerant. They are sure to add excitement and movement in exposed backyards.

 A xeriscape does not have to be comprised exclusively of natives or drought tolerant vegetation. By ‘hydro zoning’ or grouping plants with similar water needs together in your landscape plans xeriscapes can accommodate a range of plant options to achieve an overall look. Plants that require more water are placed in a shady spot or closer to a water source. With careful planning, contouring and understanding of natural drainage patterns, the landscape itself can be used to fully guide water to areas of the garden where it will be most beneficial. Terracing can stem soil erosion while mounds and berms at the edges of the garden will help redirect water flow back into the garden. If your design requires the use of impermeable materials like solid concrete pathways, then shape them to direct surface water back into planted areas. In a true xeriscape more porous paving options like gravel, flagstones and pavers are not only preferable they also provide natural looking, sculptural elements and tonal options.

A thick layer of mulch keeps the moisture in and weeds out.  A layer of leaves, seaweed, straw, compost, bark or gravel will also help keep moisture in and help prevent erosion. Mulch should be at least 6cm thick and applied twice a year. Lawns are water guzzlers, so they are not usually desired in desert conditions but in New Zealand they can be used as visual breaks, open areas for play or access ways, especially when planted in pavement wide strips.

A close picture of a  succulent plant next to a clay vase

Perimeter shelterbelts of trees and / or larger shrubs will add privacy, reduce evaporation and mitigate moisture loss caused by the wind. Where space allows try the coastal classic Pohutukawa, or the more pruning frienly Pittosporum, Olearia (daisy bush,) corokia, coprosma and griselinia. The nectar-laden imported blooms of anksia, and protea are also great in drier climes. New plantings may require thorough watering at regular intervals –particularly through the first couple of summers- to allow them to develop deep root systems.
Succulents are desert natives they store water in their cells, furry coats and waxy skins. Among the easiest to grow in New Zealand are, the dark maroonish Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’, the Mexican native Echeveria elegans, the pharmacy in a plant aloe, and the vividly flowering Sedum. Other popular desert borne drought-resistant plants include agave, lavender and juniper.
Herbs and spices can also be used in xeriscaping , think Mediterranean classics like, thyme, sage, and oregano. In truly dry climes augment that kitchen garden with drought resistant edibles such as black walnuts, Jerusalem artichokes, and the towering sapodilla, a sweet fruit tree from Central America.

While New Zealand is generally blessed with good rainfall, widespread droughts are becoming more common and with water intensive agriculture and industries making growing demands on our rivers and aquifers all around the country, water is becoming the new gold. Now is a good time to start saving.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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