Landscaping Au Naturel

Want to save a ton of water (and have a little extra free time on your hands)? Garden in harmony with the area’s natural conditions.

Xeriscape (xeris is Greek for dry) was coined in 1981 by Denver Water and refers to the principles of matching low maintenance landscape with low water usage.

But don’t be mistaken — low maintenance and low water use don’t necessarily equate to a landscape of rocks, cactus, agaves, synthetic turf and decomposed granite. Although, all of these things could be incorporated into a xeriscape.

Instead of trying to bend your landscape to a concept that requires copious amounts of water and fertilizer to make it thrive, xeriscape works in harmony with the region’s natural conditions.

Let’s take a look at what xeriscape really is.

Planning & Design

Consider aspect, shade, slope, soil, and existing and desired species. Always have in the back of your mind the goal of one third lawn, one third beds, and one third pervious patio or deck.

Soil amendments

Soil holds moisture. The more soil, the less supplemental water needed. One way to increase water-holding capacity is compost. Add one inch of compost to the soil. Expanded shale, while not organic, is excellent for heavy clay soils.

Efficient irrigation

Of course, the most efficient irrigation is rain. The second best is a hose. Let this sink in: an in-ground irrigation system will use 50 percent more water — 70 percent in the summer — than a hose-end sprinkler or hand held hose.

Appropriate plant selection

Drought-tolerant, native or well-adapted plants should make up the bulk of your landscape. Click here for an extensive list of plant options.


Two inches of mulch – whether organic like woodchips or organic like river rock – is sufficient. Very xeric plants prefer limited mulch.

Limited turf

It’s really simple. Lawns uses an inordinate amount water. Therefore, reduce the size of lawns. The recommendation of weekly mowing suddenly becomes much easier.

Appropriate maintenance

Excessive pruning and fertilization does more harm than good. I am going to keep it simple – mow weekly, prune perennials no more than three times a year, prune trees once every 5 years, and fertilize once a year or use compost in spring and fall.

A xeriscape is limited lawn, native flowering perennials and shrubs with no more than 2 inches of mulch, pervious patios or decks.

To visualize a true xeriscape, I suggest standing in the parking lot of Friedrich Wilderness Park and look to the hillsides. See other great xeriscape examples at WaterSaver Lane at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

Picture of Mark Peterson
Mark Peterson
Mark A. Peterson was a conservation project coordinator for San Antonio Water System before retiring. With over 30 years of experience as an urban forester and arborist, Mark is probably the only person you know who actually prunes trees for fun. When not expounding on the benefits of trees and limited lawns, you're likely to find him hiking San Antonio's wilderness parks or expounding on the virtues of geography and history to his friends.
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