Help a gardening novice xeriscape his yard
June 29, 2008 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to landscape my yard in a way that requires very little maintenance and water.

Here is my ideal scenario (I know very little about gardening, so tell me if my thinking is preposterous):

I plant a bunch of plants that look pretty nice and live for years & years. They happily subsist on sunlight and rainfall; I never have to water them. I prune them occasionally when they've grown too much, but in general my yard looks pretty good and I never have to think about it.

Right now, we have grass (maybe 25x25 feet in the front and bit more in back) which requires regular mowing and watering in the summer. I find these tasks tedious and I don't like the waste of water. I'd be interested in replacing the grass with something that requires less water; but if there aren't any good alternatives, then perhaps a sprinkler system, which distributes water automatically and efficiently, would be the way to go.

I'm interested in first-hand advice on specific plants to buy, and recommendations of books, magazines, etc. Also, if you have experience hiring a professional landscaper (especially in my area) I would like to hear about it.

I live in Austin.
posted by medpt to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The search term you need here is xeriscaping (i.e. landscaping that doesn't require irrigation).
posted by ssg at 11:54 AM on June 29, 2008

The use of landscaping gravel can provide a decorative appearance as well as being useful in helping your plants survive. The gravel is very effective in controlling the growth of unwanted weeds, especially if landscaping material is used underneath.

Landscaping gravel has many benefits. In addition to the beauty it creates, it helps prevent soil erosion and helps to retain water and moisture for your plants. It provides a natural, finished look to water features, walkway edges, and the outside walls of your home. It is also a nice feature to have around a pool. If you want to provide drainage away from a wall, lining the wall with gravel will help you accomplish this task.

Use gravel instead of mulch around all of your outdoor plants. It helps to retain moisture and prevents the growth of weeds. There are many different shapes, sizes, and colors which will add an attractive finish to your flower beds.

Rock or gravel landscaping ideas for a pond or water feature using landscaping gravel will provide an appealing appearance which is pleasing to the eye. Adding some of the decorative gravel inside the water feature will also give it a more natural look.

On the downside, it can get very hot in the summer sun.
posted by netbros at 12:03 PM on June 29, 2008

This can be done by yourself:

1) Lay out your plant footprint with some landscapers paint (spray paint basically).

2) For the areas that will contain plants or pathways dig out the grass in sheets or blocks.

3) For the areas that will contain general ground cover rent a Tiller and turn over the soil.

4) Where you'll just be planting ground cover go with sheet mulching. Sheet mulching, in general, takes unwaxed cardboard (available everywhere) and puts a good 6-8 inches of natural ground cover over it (1inch bark/etc).

To sheet mulch, wet down the ground pretty good with water, lay down a layer of cardboard, wet down the cardboard so it is soaking in the water but not breaking down (15 minutes maybe?). Lay down 6-8 inches of the bark on top of it. Sheet lunched ground holds water extremely well and makes it extremely difficult for weeds (and anything else) to break through, and it's extremely cheap and environmentally very sound.

5) Where you're not sheet mulching and have a path, you'll want to lay down one or two layers of high quality ground cloth or a double/triple thick layer of cardboard and then put decomposed granite/etc over it with pavers/etc. Use your imagination. Essentially at the end of the day what should be exposed are the specific ares where you'll be planting things, generally not more than 6 -8 inch circles/spaces in the overall ground cover.

6) Plan on touring a couple of nurseries in your area, if they are independent so much the better, and specifically Austin should have a couple habitat restoration groups local you can call and get a list of drought tolerant natives from. This is probably the most challenging part of the project really. If you go with drought tolerant geographically native plants you'll really save on the watering. When you plant, make sure you cover exposed ground under the new plans with mulch, it will help the ground hold moisture.

7) Watering at this point can be done with an above ground drip system, or of you've planned it out it's very easy to install a drip irrigation system before all of the above steps in ground with strategic head placement.

There is going to be some maintenance beyond watering I'm sorry to say, but it's not too bad. Really.

The important thing to do is keep an eye out for early weeds or grass that may make it through a gap in the sheet mulch, when you've found a problem area clear out the mulch, lay down a filler strip of card board and remulch over it.

We have this basic set up in our yard in the bay area, and while it's not designed specifically for Austin's temperatures and climates the same basic principals apply. Our drip system waters for 10-15 minutes twice a week for the entire property and even in a drought with water restrictions our garden is flourishing, it's also an amazingly little amount of water due to the types of drop heads we have and the focused watering approach.

A 20x15 plot of front yard took us about 2 weekends to do in this fashion (we had all materials ahead of time and another weekend to retrofit our existing hi flow ancient irrigation system in to the drip system (pressure regulator, new sprinkler heads, drip heads and nozzles, repairing old pipe).

The most important thing to do is to draw out what you want on paper and then write up a materials list, actually doing the work goes so much smoother if you have everything on hand.
posted by iamabot at 12:07 PM on June 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

The city of Austin used to have its very own xeriscape coordinator, but it looks like that program has been swallowed by the green building program. Here's a link to an old article they published on the basics of xeriscaping in Austin.

There's also an independent coalition of devoted to promoting xeriscaping: Smartscapes. They'll have lots of information on how to get started.

You should also call the city and see if they offer any rebates for redoing your landscaping in a water-efficient way, the way they do for replacing old AC units and water heaters and installing solar panels and the like.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:14 PM on June 29, 2008

I should follow up that if you pick the right plants you can get by without watering, but it will limit your selection somewhat. You can probably move to watering as needed (ie, heatwave) and the sheet mulching will help tremendously with that but the freedom from watering is pretty dependent on the quality of the soil and it's ability to hold water under the mulch (according to the wife who does native habitat restoration).
posted by iamabot at 12:15 PM on June 29, 2008

Moss lawn.
posted by limeonaire at 12:26 PM on June 29, 2008

The latest generations of synthetic turf aren't cheap, but they are about as maintenance-free as any outdoor horizontal surface can be, and they look and feel remarkably like grass (except for getting hotter in the sun than living grass ever will). Not like bad football stadium carpet. You should contact a local installer in your area, and go see a few of their latest installations, if you haven't thought about this already.

Plug in a couple of square feet of accent planter "beds" you can refill quickly and easily with potted annuals, and you can have a seasonally interesting landscape for about 4 or 5 hours of work annually, and whatever cost you have for the annuals at your local garden center.
posted by paulsc at 12:37 PM on June 29, 2008

Well I'm stumped. I never understand people who don't get into the 6+ weekly hours of backbreaking labor that is a beautiful garden. Anyway, it's always fun to spend other people's money, so here's some ideas:

You need as much hardscaping (patios, terraces, pergolas, etc.) as you can afford. Use outdoor sculptures in varying sizes for some of your vertical and, well sculptural elements that would normally be plants. These things will need just minimal maintenance because they aren't growing. For your actual greenery, use native plants only as they will require less care since they are already appropriate for the climate. Don't use containers-- that increases maintenance-- plant in the ground.

You don't say what your budget is, but I would definitely hire a landscape firm (not just a plant person) to design and lay this in if you can afford that. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or go on a local Garden Walk (you might find something here) and then ask people whose gardens you admire who they used.

Grass is a drag, but plant beds and containers require care, and it's constant care, not brute-force twice a month like grass. So don't give up your grass too quickly, you might find it the best option for you. However, that said, especially in the front yard, consider a ground cover. I have my entire front yard planted in euonymous. I have to give it a hair cut once a year, but otherwise it is 100% maintenance free.

One final no-maintenance tip, which works for every type of plant, garden, native or non-native species, large yard or small, grass or heavily landscaped. For pity's sake hire a weekly gardening service.
posted by nax at 12:46 PM on June 29, 2008

One key number for you may be 8b, which is the USDA's Plant Hardiness Zone number for the belt of the US with a climate similar to Austin: here's a map. Look for plants which can thrive in that zone here and you might come up with some winners.
posted by mdonley at 12:49 PM on June 29, 2008

I have a xericaped garden. It incorporates many of the locally native plants and is spectacular for the entire growing season - our house is the house with the most birds, butterflies and flowers. I water it only a very small amount, with an integrated drip system. Xeriscape can be a very low maintenance option, but you need to make the right plant selections, and you need to get the garden started correctly. Additionally, you don't want to do a bunch of yard work. Installing a new landscape goes well beyond yard work - it can be back-breaking labor. If you want a low maintenance yard, I suggest this:

- do it right the first time. Hire a xeriscape landscape designer, specify native plants. The cool thing is, the Austin area has amazing local flora and I envy you your potential Texas hill country garden... Desert plants can take a bit longer to establish, and are more sensitive to local soil conditions. A landscape company will help you to make sure that the two years it takes for everything to fill in aren't wasted. It will cost more in the beginning, but will be worth it later.

- have the landscape company establish the watering system when they install the garden.

- ask your designer to incorporate some living spaces into your new garden. A well designed garden will become your second living room and dining room. Think about installing a covered eating area with lights and a place for your BBQ.

- if you like to cook, ask your designer to incorporate herbs. They can be quite beautiful, and it is really nice to always know you have fresh rosemary, etc.

- rock landscapes can make your garden very hot. Landscapes with a high-plant count can actually cool your yard.

Side note - High Country Gardens has some info about xeriscape that could be interesting for you. Plants are significantly cheaper from HCG, but not for the faint of heart, as they are quite small and take some time to establish.
posted by chuke at 1:06 PM on June 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

In addition to the info about xeriscaping listed above, you should definitely take a trip down to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. They have tons of specimens and information on native plants, plus it's beautiful. I found it especially helpful when I lived in Austin b/c I could see the specimens up close (as opposed to just looking up plants on the internet).
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:05 PM on June 29, 2008

Consider also a rainbarrel for rainwater reclamation. That way, if you decide that a few non-xerophiles make you happy, you can feel good about giving them a drink.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:26 PM on June 29, 2008

I'd emphasize trees, particularly in a hot place like Austin. The gravel is kind of a cool idea, but oh the sun. Trees will help shade your house (and maybe your gravel). Pick the right trees -- that document about xeriscaping in Austin mentions some -- and you'll be golden.
posted by amtho at 3:01 PM on June 29, 2008

I would honestly lean more towards the sheet mulching I mentioned than gravel. Graveling can be a pain in the rear to take up if you change your mind, where as the sheet mulching and bark/biologic based ground cover will decompose naturally over many years if turned in to the soil (should your plans change), while adding nutrients to it. Biological ground cover will hold water better, not soak up the heat as much and make changing your plans down the road much easier as well as making it easier for future owner to change over to their wants/desires.
posted by iamabot at 4:30 PM on June 29, 2008

Sheet mulching is not recommended for perennial gardens, because it depletes nitrogen from the soil. Cardboard has a 350:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, which means microorganisms deplete nitrogen from the soil in order to break down the cardboard. This is much less of a problem in vegetable gardens which annually use green manures, but you won't be doing that in a xeriscaped garden. I also would argue against lots of non- permeable hardscape: hardscape creates heat sinks, kills healthy soil, does not allow for percolation of rainwater, and creates runoff which causes pollutants to be shunted into the natural water systems via storm drains, instead of allowing the microorganisms in soil to break down pollutants as water percolates down. The more permeability, the better. Gravel may be the most appropriate mulch for the plantings in your area- organic mulches are not suitable for many dry garden plants, because they are too nutritious, and plants that are accustomed to low nutrition and low fungal count will either grow too fast and die young, or succumb to diseases they don't encounter in their natural habitat (like root rot). Hire a professional, but make sure you can drive around and see their gardens and hopefully talk to their clients about water use (as a professional, I recommend you talk to several people and look at their portfolios. Be sure to ask about guarantees and help with maintenance the first year.) Keep in mind that tearing out your garden and planting baby plants now is going to use more water than your established garden. Do your planting in fall, before the soil is heavy with rain (never plant in waterlogged soil), but just in time for cooler weather.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:51 PM on June 29, 2008

One thing I advise people time and time again is DON'T OVERPLANT.
Too many times I see first time gardeners that want lush full gardens right now! When you're dealing with most perenials, it takes a few years for them to really go to town. You've got to have patience. If you don't have that, then you're stuck with buying annuals every year. And that sucks.
I'm a Master Gardener, so I have a pretty good set of resources to dig on if you want more info.
posted by ducktape at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2008

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