Xeriscape for Drought-Tolerant Landscaping

Yard landscaped using drought tolerant plants.
Yard landscaped using drought tolerant plants.

In our changing climate, water is becoming a precious resource. For many communities, municipal water restrictions are now commonplace, requiring innovative approaches to landscaping and gardening. One solution is xeriscaping, derived from the Greek word for “dry,” which employs drought resistant plants and water conservation measures to limit the use of irrigation in landscaping.

Xeriscapes do not follow a specific design but apply a set of principles to determine the most efficient and pleasing layout based on the climate and topography.

Planning and Design

In order to work in harmony with the natural features of the land, a detailed plan is essential. A xeriscape plan differs from traditional landscaping plans in that it attempts to adapt to the existing features and climate, rather than forcing change through watering or amending.

Start by making a scale drawing of your yard and its existing features. Be sure to include your house, driveways, walkways, patios, trees, planting beds, spigots, downspouts, buried cables and drains. Take note of the slope of the land, sunlight and shade, and which areas tend to be wet, dry, windy, hot, humid, or cool.

The next step is deciding how you want to use your yard. Pencil in any new features, such as a vegetable garden, an area for pets, or a shady spot for relaxing. The final step is determining which types of plants are best suited for each area and how they will receive water.

Improve Soil

If you are using only native plants, soil amendments may be unnecessary, and some plants actually thrive in poor soils. For most plants, however, a nutrient-rich, well-drained soil is essential to hold in moisture without drowning the plants. For flower beds, work 1 to 2 inches of compost into 6” or more of soil. Deeper planting holes for trees and shrubs should have compost or organic matter added as well. If your soil is particularly compact with clay, consider a drainage amendment such as Perma Till.

Minimize Grass

Rethink the concept of a traditional “lawn” since traditional turf grass requires a lot of water. Limit grass to walking and play areas, and consider the use of mulched or naturalized areas, along with patios and walkways, as alternatives. Do not plant grass where grass does not like to grow! Choose drought-tolerant grass suitable for your climate—such as zoysia, Bermuda, or buffalo grass—and plant during rainy seasons to minimize watering.

Choosing Plants

Using plants native to your area reduces the need for fertilizer, soil amendments, and irrigation. Xeriscaping uses the principle of “plant zoning,” in which plants are grouped according to water, light, and soil needs. This minimizes water waste and makes maintenance much easier. If you love certain plants that require lots of water, group them together close to a water source such as a drainage area or downspouts to make use of rainwater runoff.

As much as possible, choose plants that are drought and heat tolerant, particularly for dry sunny areas. Instead of irrigating an entire bed, tuck in containers for a splash of color, and water them by hand.


Using a layer of mulch around plants increases moisture retention and helps keep roots cool. See Using Mulch in Your Garden.


If there are areas that require extra irrigation, install drip systems or soaker hoses that conserve water by targeting specific plants. Avoid sprayer-type irrigation systems that waste water through evaporation and misting. Install water collection systems, such as rain barrels, close to plantings with higher water needs. Water after 9 p.m. and before 9 a.m. to reduce evaporation. Water less frequently but more deeply to encourage stronger roots that can withstand drought.


Xeriscapes require less maintenance than traditional gardens, because the detailed planning ensures that each plant will be naturally suited to the area. Nevertheless, routine weeding, pruning, irrigating, and fertilizing (if needed) are necessary to keep plants healthy and to reduce competition for nutrients and moisture.

Xeriscaping Tips

  • Check your local ordinances to find out if there are any restrictions on watering or turf installation. Some communities change the water restrictions throughout the season, depending on rainfall and temperatures.
  • Research your area’s annual natural rainfall, particularly in recent years, so that you can choose plants with similar water needs.
  • Research your region’s native plants – they will be naturally well-adapted to your climate and soil. Check with your local agricultural extension service for a list of plants native to your area.
  • Dig a few “test” holes to get a sense of the soil makeup of your yard. You’d be surprised how it can vary over a relatively small area.
  • Have your soil analyzed to determine needed soil amendments and to place plants according to soil requirements. Again, your local agricultural extension service is a great resource. Soil analysis will tell you the pH value, current levels of major nutrients, and recommendations for soil amendment.
  • Redefine how you interact with your patch of earth. Rather than trying to conquer or rehabilitate problem areas, work with the land’s natural habits to create a low-maintenance landscape that thrives on its own resources.

Further Information

For more about xeriscaping, check out the Denver Water Department website.

Maps showing the average rainfall in each state can be found at the Western Regional Climate Center.

Charts giving the average monthly temperature and precipitation for many cities and towns in the United States are available at Country Studies.

To check current drought conditions in your area, go to National Drought Mitigation Center.


  1. I moved from out in the country to a small town and it is a dry climate(north of Kamloops,BC), and I removed the front lawn(about 50 feet by 30 feet). I covered it in 7/8 minus rock(about 4″ thick,with a commercial grade weed barrier under) and put in various plants that flower throughout the summer and by next year will need little water(but ground is coarse sand below), so I added a good dose of soil around the planting and enough low dose fertilizer to ensure many years of good growth and health(soil helps to hold moisture).
    Meanwhile the neighbors cut their grass once a week and some water twice a day, every other day(as per restrictions), to achieve the green lawn look for the whole summer and don’t use the lawn for anything(other than waste water). My back lawn is still in(have vegetable gardens as well), but since I do not water the lawn more than needed(have a dog), I also do not need to cut it every week.
    Now removing your front lawn under Home Owners Association rules will be difficult without a lawyer. As some HOA’s ‘mandate’ green lawns all year. Even some towns mandate in their by-laws, plantings to irrigate, which to them means grass. And these rules are enforced during drought conditions, or you will be fined and your house stolen and sold under penalty for not conforming to ancient notions of property care. But who really owns your property? The HOA or the Town or You? California is in official drought and still people keep lawns green.
    A brown lawn that is properly cut before going dormant is also a good looking lawn…..
    50% of tap water can go to watering lawns. And that means less water in the rivers for nature.
    Set your lawn mower up at 2 1/2″ from the ground to the blade to allow the grass to grow stronger and shade the roots.
    Do not use fertilizers with a high first number. It will cause the grass to grow quickly up, without putting down strong roots and will require even more water. But there is a conspiricy by the fertilizer industry to get you to use a mix like 30/4/4, 4 times a year.
    “7/7/7″=”Up/down/all around”

  2. I am building a new home and wanted to install and underground tank to catch rain water from the gutters but have bee unable to find one. The only thng I can find are the rain barrels that sit at the end of the gutters. Do you have any idea where I can find and underground tank for water collection?

  3. Heres a general idea of an underground storage system.

    Otherwise the tanks are available at Farm supply places and the submersible pump from plumbing supply. Plus you need a cut out switch for when the tank gets low to prevent the pump from running dry. A standard sump pump may not be able to handle(burns out) the back pressure of a hose being turned on and off. And don’t forget some type of leaf straining/by-pass filter system to keep the junk out of the pump.


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