In a nutshell, xeriscape is an approach to landscaping and gardening that conserves water and otherwise uses site resources appropriately. The phrase, coined by Denver’s municipal water department, combines the Greek word for “dry” with landscape.
Among other things, xeriscape encourages careful planning, efficient irrigation, soil improvements, the use of mulches and choosing appropriate plants for the site. Native plants need less watering and less chemical intervention to remain healthy.
Xeriscape is really about going to a site and finding exactly what you’d expect to find had humans not intervened. Suppose you bought a house lot in the desert. The last thing you’d find on the site was a lush, green lawn. But that’s exactly what our culture has encouraged, at the collective cost of millions of gallons of water and millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers and insecticides.
The issue is especially sensitive in parts of the western U.S. where water is in short supply. It’s hard to justify the flagrant waste of water when there is so little of it to go around. In Las Vegas, Nevada, these concerns have prompted city officials to pay residents to tear up turf and replace it with plants that don’t need as much water. Since the program began, six square miles of lawn have been removed. Each square foot of removed turf saves about 55 gallons of water per year.
Choosing appropriate plants is one of many ways that site development and landscaping can become more sustainable. Choosing permeable driveway and sidewalk materials, establishing rain gardens to control runoff and preserving deciduous shade trees to keep the house cooler in summer all are logical companions to xeriscape design.