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Create a Water-Wise Landscape

Somehow, xeriscaping has become synonymous in our minds with sand, prickly pear cactus and austere environments. But all it means is using gardening practices to conserve water. If you like that "desert" look, xeriscaping has you covered, but if you prefer an English cottage garden look or yearn for a tropical feel, xeriscaping is still for you. You can have a water-wise landscape and get the look you want.

Start with Great Soil

If you have clay, sandy or rocky soil, chances are greater that your soil drainage is poor. Either the water drains too quickly (sand) and bypasses the plants' roots, or it does not drain quickly enough and then runs off the surface (clay). So first determine the kind of soil you have. From there you can decide how best to amend it. When your soil is balanced and healthy, your plants have a much greater chance of success.

Choose the Right Plants

Do you like the cottage garden look? Simply substitute your area's natives for those whose water and care requirements are too great. For example, instead of a boxwood hedge and finicky tea roses, select dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and your choice of tough-as-nails antique roses. How about that tropical look? No problem. Many palm trees are quite drought tolerant, and to finish the look, choose flowering perennials like lantana and Mexican bush sage in strong colors of purple and orange or bright pink.

Mulch Appropriately

Either a well-shredded hardwood mulch or several inches of decomposed granite (granite that has "decomposed" into much smaller pieces) or gravel will hold in soil moisture and set off your plants to perfection. Some plants, like agaves and yuccas, actually prefer gravel or granite mulch, while other flowering perennials appreciate a layer of organic mulch derived from plant materials. You can combine both in your landscape by mulching most of the bed while creating a dry-creek river-rock bed around the plants that like drier conditions.

Irrigate Carefully

If you have an automatic irrigation system, make sure it operates efficiently. Otherwise, opt for drip irrigation that delivers the water where it needs to go (the plants' roots, not their leaves) while minimizing evaporation. Drip irrigation is also very flexible in that you can add drip lines where you need more irrigation, and remove the drip irrigation emitters in areas where additional water is not necessary. In some cases you can create a garden that thrives on rainwater, eliminating the need for supplemental irrigation (unless your area is going through a severe drought).

With a little planning, you can achieve the kind of garden look or feel that you've always wanted, without the high water bill that often goes along with it. And with increasing restrictions on water use, water-wise gardening is smart gardening!