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What is xeriscaping?

Much has been said concerning water shortages and our water use habits. The arid southwest and parts of northern California as well as Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas are under a constant alert to problems with water supply and use. Fortunately, the Midwest only has to deal with periodic shortages. However, we should all be concerned about water use. In more recent terms, the word xeriscaping has been coined to describe the use of water efficient plants, soil improvements and maintenance practices to maximize water use in our landscapes. Here are few xeriscaping practices that can work for you.

The best defense against drought is a healthy plant. Nutrition is very important in areas where water use is restricted. A healthy plant will have a strong root system and stem which improves the plant's defense against diseases and pests. Fertilization of landscape plants should be done early during the growing season and stopped during drought periods when growth slows down as a general response to high heat. This is true for herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees. Certain plants are known for their drought resistance and next to cold tolerance, this should be of prime concern in plant selection. Unfortunately, this information is not easily obtained. Good general advise is to select as many native plants as possible and to save the exotics that need more attention and usually more water for use as specimen plants only. Experienced growers recommend the hardiest plants and the earliest varieties for the area. Early flowering bulbs, flowering shrubs and early spring and summer flower gardens take advantage of winter moisture. This gives these plants a good start since most water stress situations typically do not show up until mid-summer. Although too numerous to be complete, a few trees with exceptional drought tolerance include honeylocust, juniper, Japanese pagoda tree, linden, amur corktree, ginkgo, Japanese zelkova, scotch pine and hawthorn. Of the shrubs, consider smokebush, cotoneaster, burning bush, holly, Oregon grape-holly, fragrant sumac, mock orange, butterfly bush and barberry.

One of the easiest ways to retain limited water supplies in the root zone is to have a healthy soil. A well aerated soil full of rich humus will retain water longer than a sandy or light soil. Our problem here is with clay soils. In the spring, these clay soils retain water to the point of being difficult to dry out. If compacted while wet, problems will show up in the summer drought. Once dried, clay soils become hard to wet; a condition only remedied well by working in plenty of organic materials and expanded clay products.

Most gardeners have gotten use to the idea of using organic or plastic mulches to protect plants from drought conditions. Within the context of xeriphytic gardening, this is an absolute must. The principle effects of mulching are to lower the root zone temperature and water loss. Organic mulches like wood chips, shredded leaves and bark do this much better than plastic fabrics or sheets.

Lastly, common sense water conservation practices are in order. While it is tempting to water in the evening or night, this practice encourages disease problems. Alternatively water in the morning. Avoid light waterings which promote shallow root development and drought susceptibility. Apply water only as fast as the soil can absorb it and only when it is actually needed.