Xeriscaping

The word “xeriscape” is derived from xeros, the Greek word for dry, and landscape. Also known as water-wise landscaping, xeriscaping involves selecting plants that are suited to the moisture conditions of the site. In the arid regions of Alberta, it involves selecting drought-tolerant plants that require minimal watering once established.

Recommended Practices

The following are eight general principles of xeriscaping[1] that can be adopted by municipalities, developers and homeowners alike:

  1. Plan and design. Design green spaces to take advantage of the existing site conditions (sun, shade, moisture, etc.). Plant drought-tolerant plants in dry, exposed areas and plant more water-loving plants in naturally wet areas or in rain gardens (link).
  2. Create practical turf areas. Limit the area of lawn to places where it is actually used and consider replacing lawn with alternative ground cover plants (e.g., clover, chamomile, wild strawberry and creeping thyme) or expanded garden beds.
  3. Use mulches. Apply a 1-3” layer of mulch to soil to reduce evaporation, keep weeds at bay, enrich soil fertility and minimize erosion. Locally-sourced organic materials (i.e., shredded bark, straw, ground corn cobs, bark chips, compost, fallen leaves and grass clippings) are usually the most cost-effective source of mulch. Avoid inorganic mulches (i.e., pea gravel) as they do not help retain soil moisture or enrich soil fertility.
  4. Irrigate efficiently. If you need to irrigate, opt for drip irrigation systems that provide water directly to plant roots and reduce water loss to evaporation. The City of Edmonton recommends watering 1” per week; watering more deeply and less often promotes healthy plant root growth.[2]
  5. Improve the soil. Amending soil with compost is an effective way to improve soil fertility and improve water retention. Test soil composition and nutrient levels before amendment.
  6. Use appropriate plants. Choose plants whose moisture needs are compatible with your climate. For most of Alberta, choosing drought-tolerant plants will be most appropriate. Often the hardiest plants for a given are also the native species, since these are already well-adapted to the local climate extremes and moisture conditions. The added benefit of using native plants is that they will provide some habitat value      for local insects and wildlife. Choosing climate-appropriate plants helps conserve municipal water supplies and can help protect the aquatic habitat from which a municipality draws its water.
  7. Maintain your landscape and garden properly. Healthy plants are more disease resistant and require less pest control. Regular maintenance should include monitoring plants for pests and disease, pruning when appropriate and removing invasive species.
  8. Capture rain and snow runoff. Rain gardens, bioswales and bioinfiltration basins are all tools that can help capture and infiltrate rainwater on site.

Project Considerations

Some people may have the perception that a xeriscaped yard is synonymous with a desert look, with rock “mulch” and low, scrubby plants. In fact, xeriscaped yards can be designed in a variety of green space styles. Within each style of gardening or landscape design, plants can be selected for drought tolerance and hardiness without sacrificing style and aesthetics.

Annual maintenance of irrigation equipment is very important, as eliminating the unnecessary waste of leaks can lead to significant water savings.

Avoid purchasing wild-dug plants or digging plants from the wild. Source plants that are nursery propagated.

The Business Side

The use of drought-tolerant plants in arid areas of Alberta greatly reduces demand on municipal water supplies during the growing season. This impacts demand on municipal water treatment and distribution systems. The water savings from the reduced use results in more water being kept in rivers, lakes and aquifers and therefore being available to support aquatic ecosystems. Selecting hardy native plant varieties also reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers, which saves money are reduces the amount of these potentially harmful substances that may wash off of yards and gardens into local water bodies.

Municipal gardens and greenspaces will greatly benefit from adopting a xeriscaped approach, due to the great cost savings of reduced watering and weeding. Individual homeowners also reap the cost savings from not having to water, fertilize or otherwise maintain their gardens to the extent that more susceptible plant selections would require.

The Nature Side

Increased use of native plant species across urban and periurban landscapes provides greater opportunities for attracting songbirds and butterflies to cities and towns. Xeriscaping reduces nutrient and sediment loading into waterbodies after storms and conserves valuable water resources while enriching soils.

The Community Side

This example of NBS can help municipalities, developers and homeowners establish healthy green spaces that require minimal maintenance. Since the plants selected for xeriscaping are well-suited for the climatic conditions, they are likely to thrive and provide gardens that are aesthetically-pleasing. The use of native species increases the likelihood of wildlife using the garden. Wildlife and bird viewing can have positive impacts on human health.

[1] City of Hamilton. 2007. Eight Principles of Xeriscaping. Green Venture.

[2] City of Edmonton. 2021. Eco-Landscaping. City of Edmonton.

City of Edmonton. 2021. Eco-Landscaping. City of Edmonton.

City of Hamilton. 2007. Eight Principles of Xeriscaping. Green Venture.

Primeau, S., Bell, M., Riopel, M., Ewaschuk, E., & Doell, D. 2009. Green Communities Guide: Tools to Help Restore Ecological Processes in Alberta’s Built Environments. Land Stewardship Centre of Canada.