Xeriscape Gardens: Pros And Cons Of Xeriscaping

By Mary H. Dyer | July 7, 2020 Co Author: Teo Spengler
Image by EuToch
by Mary H. Dyer
July 7, 2020
and Teo Spengler

When it comes to the benefits of xeriscaping, it is about the practical considerations of maintenance requirements, aesthetics, and expense. Xeriscaping means constructing a yard that uses less water, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. So, buyer beware!

Xeriscape Gardening Pros

(Mary’s viewpoint) For gardeners, xeriscaping is a smart way to adapt to the challenges of our changing climate, but xeriscaping doesn’t have to consist boulders, gravel, and cactus. As someone living in the high desert where this type of landscaping comes in handy, here are my thoughts on xeriscaping advantages:

  • A healthy environment: Global climate change is a huge problem. Xeriscaping is a small, but important, way to offset the effects of frequent drought, higher temperatures, and a growing dependence on toxic chemicals to control pests and disease.
  • Water: When it comes to the xeriscape gardening pros, conservation of our precious water supply is on the top of the list. Xeriscaped landscapes thrive with very little supplemental irrigation, and in some climates, you may not need to drag out the hose and sprinkler at all.
  • Aesthetics: With careful planning and use of attractive native plants, a xeriscaped landscape can be a wonder to behold. Cactus plants are lovely, but you can also include plump succulents, graceful ornamental grasses and colorful blooming plants. A xeriscaped garden may contain deciduous trees or shrubs, or evergreens that provide year-round color.
  • Versatility: Xeriscaping is typically a technique used in extremely dry climates, or in areas affected by drought, but the technique can be used nearly anywhere. It isn’t necessary to xeriscape your entire garden or to tear out a manicured lawn. Start with a small corner, maybe an area where nothing seems to grow or a spot in punishing sunlight. Have fun experimenting and see how the technique works for you before you jump in with both feet.
  • Maintenance: Ease of care is one of the major xeriscape gardening pros. Drought-tolerant plants typically grow slower, which means pruning, trimming, and weed whacking are rarely necessary. Desert plants and shrubs require no fertilizer, and they are highly resistant to pests and disease. After the first year, ease of maintenance is one of the primary benefits of xeriscaping.
  • Expense: When considering xeriscaping advantages, consider the expense over the long term. The initial investment may be a bit high but, once established, a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant garden can save gardeners a substantial amount of money. 

Cons of Xeriscaping

(Teo’s viewpoint) Xeriscaping glorifies “water-frugal” plants and gardening materials over supporting native wildlife and can result in a garden that doesn’t feel like a haven where you can retreat from the world. And it can cost you more in money than you will recoup by years of less water use. Here are my problems with xeriscaping:

  • Doesn’t support native ecosystems: When you pick plants for a garden, you have to use some guiding criteria in the selection process since there are so many species and cultivars available in commerce. Many gardeners – myself included – like to plant native flora to help retain an ecosystem’s diversity and support native insects, birds and small mammals. Xeriscaping is a system of selecting plants that focusses on water conservation. While this obviously keeps water usage down, it doesn’t support native ecosystems in the same way a natural garden would. Not every native plant is drought resistant, yet every native plant plays a role in the ecosystem you live in.
  • Rougher soil and less insects: Xeriscaping means an entire landscape, not just drought-resistant plants. You need to cart out or cover up all that topsoil you’ve enriched with organic compost over the years and replace it with rough materials that retain and efficiently distribute what little water is available. This usually means bringing in hard, chunky materials like wood chips and gravel. And the plants themselves often are rougher and tougher, vegetation with sharp thorns and edges. While some insects may prefer this type of ecosystem, it won’t be the same ones that rely on softer plants, big flowers or lots of foliage. The starker landscape won’t please every gardener or homeowner either. I personally count the time I spend working in my garden as the happiest, most peaceful hours in the day and would deeply miss the lush, green foliage and over-the-top flowers in summer.
  • More time and money: While xeriscaping is billed as a good choice for a gardener who wants to save time and money, take a hard look at these claims. While it’s true that if you take out your lawn, you won’t have to mow or water it, that’s hardly the be-all and end-all. Taking out your lawn and changing your landscape isn’t cheap.
  • Improper design issues: One of the major reasons xeriscape gardens fail to please homeowners is improper design. Xeriscape gardens must be designed carefully, as design mistakes will haunt you for years. That means you probably will want to bring in a landscape specialist and that means even more money.

Final Thoughts on Xeriscape Gardens

Unlike traditional landscaping methods, xeriscaping is sustainable into the future. It is also a wise use of available resources and an answer for busy gardeners who don’t have a lot of time for high-maintenance landscaping. That being said”¦using less water is a noble plan, but let’s avoid the all-or-nothing solutions!

There are real disadvantages to taking anything too far, as celery-only diets have shown us. Consider well before taking out a backyard that focuses on native plants to replace with a landscape that focuses on low-water plants. This can hurt rather than help native wildlife and you may not like what you get. So if you want to give this landscaping method a try, start small.

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  • Cindy Odgers
    Comment added November 21, 2022Reply

    You need to do your research on Xeriscape™️. Xeriscape™️ was coined by the Denver, Colorado Utilities Department in 1980. The term was defined as "landscaping for water conservation". Saying that "Xeriscaping glorifies “water-frugal” plants and gardening materials over supporting native wildlife. And it can cost you more in money than you will recoup by years of less water use" is simply not true and never the intention of the original concepts. Xeriscape does not mean you cannot have vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees, swimming pools, etc. It does not mean that the only ground cover used is decomposed granite. All of the "cons" bulleted in the above article are just not true or correct for a Xeriscape™️. The term and concepts over time have been twisted and misinterpreted into something almost unrecognizable. If you live where water is plentiful and readily available, it is still not advisable to use water in a wasteful manner. You speak of wanting to attract wildlife. Wildlife lives and thrives in native plant habitats, not nonnative created habitats. The most important bullet in your list of cons is that poor or improper design is at fault in implementing a Xeriscape™️ landscape. That is exactly right! An excellent reference for Design is the current edition of Norman K. Booth FASLA and James E. Hiss'FASLA book "Residential Landscape Architecture: Design Process for the Private Residence." The third chapter on Sustainable design outlines how all the principles of Xeriscape™️ are incorporated into good design. The book itself is the leading text on residential landscape design in the US. Please do not further the misconceptions of Xeriscape™️.

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