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What is xeriscaping? How you can turn your lawn into a sustainable oasis
In movies, books and other media, the image of the American dream often included a lush green lawn. But, those lawns often need a good deal of water and upkeep — and climate change-induced heat waves and more frequent and longer droughts across the country has some homeowners looking to save money and minimize their environmental impact.
Several Western states that depend on the critically low Colorado River are working to cut back on water usage. In California, where lawns use an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the total water use of an individual household, a decades-long drought has pushed local governments to limit outdoor watering. In the face of these limitations, many homeowners have adopted an alternative landscaping method called xeriscaping.
What is xeriscaping?
The Denver Water Department said that, in 1981, they coined the term, which means "dry-scaping" in Greek, to describe an alternative to grass yards. At its root, xeriscaping is a landscaping method that aims to use as little water as possible while still maintaining aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly landscaping.
There are several ways to achieve this goal, Denver Water and others say. Some homeowners in desert regions copy the sparse environment, creating landscapes with artfully placed rocks and pebbles around native cacti and other regional plants. In other parts of the country with more rainfall, homeowners are creating meadows with no-mow grasses and local flowers popular with pollinating insects.
Austin Krcmarik, water conservation specialist at Denver Water, explained that landscapes vary depending on the homeowner's needs, the surrounding environment and the water supply. He also said a good xeriscaped garden will have diverse native plants for local pollinators, like bees and hummingbirds.
Jillian Steinberger-Foster and her husband run a business in California called Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping where they design and create landscapes mostly using mulch rather than grass.
"We don't have clients coming to us who really want lawns," she said. "We have folks coming to us to get rid of their lawns."
While their business has been around for decades, Steinberger-Foster said she's seen an uptick in interest over the past few years, in part because of educational programs from utility departments and environmental organizations that have led people toward sustainable landscaping. And while they're still a small part of the landscaping industry, they feel that xeriscaping is no longer on the fringe the way it once was.
Meg Inglis, president of the Texas Native Plant Society, told the PBS NewsHour that when people think of xeriscaping, they often think of dry, rocky yards. But she said planting native landscapes can be "lush and beautiful."
The Texas Native Plant Society, one of many similarly named societies across the country, promotes the conservation and use of native plants and provides educational resources and workshops for homeowners and growers in the state.
Kim Conrow, former president of the organization, added that landscaping with native, diverse plants pushes you to learn about them, which can "expand your horizons and your understanding about life."
"Being in nature is so healthy for us," Conrow said. "When you can look out your window and see life, it helps you be a stronger and healthier person."
What's wrong with regular grass lawns?
Grass lawns work well in places like Great Britain, where rainwater has historically been abundant, but in certain parts of America, especially in the West, rivers and lakes are being strained to sustain current demand, said Neal Lurie, president and CEO of Resource Central in Colorado.
Studies have shown that grass lawns can be very water intensive, on average requiring around 30 percent of a household's water consumption.
"We have to go from the English field landscaping concept to being more comfortable with a little bit more diversity," Inglis said.
Inglis explained that many popular grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass, have shallow roots, which means a lot of water is required to keep the top layer of soil sufficiently moist.
Other grasses, like buffalo grass, have deeper root systems that can reach more underground water sources and need less frequent watering. They also serve to prevent soil runoff. Despite the name, Kentucky bluegrass came from Europe while buffalo grass is native to America's semi-arid prairie.
But even in areas of the country that don't have major water issues, maintaining grass lawns can damage the environment.
Many homeowners use nitrogen fertilizers to keep their grass green and lush. While nitrogen is a naturally occurring element in soil, an excess of nitrogen can end up in bodies of water causing algae blooms, according to Steinberger-Foster.
Steinberger-Foster also pointed out that gas-powered mowers produce massive amounts of air pollution. According to the EPA, equipment like lawn mowers and leaf blowers emit 242 million tons of pollutants a year, contributing 29 percent of all global carbon monoxide and 4 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions annually.
One of the biggest issues Inglis mentioned was the depletion of the natural ecosystem, since grass lawns don't necessarily fit into the diet of local wildlife and takes up areas where flowers could exist to draw in pollinating insects.
Where did grass lawns even come from?
While there are grasses native to the American continent, the species recognized as common lawn grass, such as Kentucky bluegrass, arrived alongside European colonists in the 1600s, according to Virginia Scott Jenkins' "The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession." Indigenous Americans in the New England area didn't keep grazing livestock, which meant that newly introduced European livestock quickly ate much of the unprepared native grasses in New England. As early as the 1630s, new settlers had to bring their own grasses for grazing.
"When introduced to the colonies, European livestock decimated the existing grasses, and many animals starved to death during the first winters," Jenkins wrote in her book. "The grasses and field plants destroyed by the settlers' grazing animals were gradually replaced with various types of European grasses and clover."
By the 20th century, Lurie said much of the modern conception of a suburban house with a grass front yard came from homesellers looking to create a quaint image for potential buyers.
"Grass lawns are basically a marketing gimmick … after World War II where homebuilders were trying to sell the American dream," Lurie said.
He said grass lawns became an expected part of a house and that while many homeowners still prefer grass lawns, others don't realize they can shift to a more water-efficient and environmentally friendly landscape.
What kind of plants do you use in a xeriscaped yard?
In general, it's recommended to use as many regional, indigenous plants as possible.
Steinberger-Foster said regional plants have evolved to be water efficient for the conditions in their local ecosystem, making them an obvious choice for a xeriscaping project.
Non-native plants from regions with a similar environment and similar water needs can also work well. But Inglis said indigenous plants have developed a balance with native wildlife, better ensuring that both the flora and fauna thrive around each other.
Inglis and Conrow also warned that non-native plants are always at risk of becoming an invasive species if they do too well in a certain climate, which can harm that delicate balance. Purple Loosestrife, for example, was introduced to America in the 1800s as an ornamental garden plant, but has evolved into an invasive species in wetlands. One individual plant is able to produce and distribute 2.7 million seeds per year. Invasive species can eventually outgrow local plants and ultimately contribute to their extinction.
"If an area becomes overrun with an invasive plant, there's no biodiversity," Conrow said.
Xeriscaping doesn't have to mean a complete elimination of grass lawns. Conrow said it makes sense to have some grassy areas for playing sports or other activities. She recommends people explore more regional grasses that are better acclimated to the environment while using a part of a yard for planting other plants.
Ultimately, Steinberger-Foster believes the goal is to balance individual needs with that of the surrounding ecosystem. The presence of birds and insects, which gather to eat or nest in native plants and trees, adds an extra visual element to the yard on top of benefiting the environment.
"When you get the pollinators in the garden, they just add a whole other layer of interest," she said. "The garden becomes more beautiful; it's a visual treat."
Why haven't more people adopted this method?
While xeriscaped gardens can be lower maintenance than a grass lawn, Steinberger-Foster emphasized that there is still work required to make the yard look beautiful and keep it in good shape.
"There's almost never a no-maintenance garden," she said.
Most yards already have grass which has to be removed, which Lurie said can cost money and time. Instead of mowing, much of the maintenance of a xeriscaped garden involves bending down and clipping the plants. Conrow said this is good exercise for some but isn't for everyone.
There's also an issue with finding the plants. Inglis said it can be difficult to find native plants from local nurseries or big box stores because there isn't as wide of a demand for them. Because of their relative rarity, they can also be more expensive than more common plants — even those that are not indigenous to the area.
Inglis said these problems can be solved by increasing the supply of native plants by showing growers the benefits of offering local species.
"We have to figure out how to get the growers to grow these plants," Inglis said.
Inglis believes one of the biggest challenges, however, is being accepted by neighbors.
Steinberger-Foster said that neighbors who don't understand xeriscaping may not appreciate the lack of a more common lawn using water-intensive grass.
"People have to shift their aesthetic sense," Steinberger-Foster said. "I think people might mourn the lawn look."
Some opposition comes from homeowners association bylaws preventing households from planting anything other than lawn grass in their front yards, according to Krcmarik.
Homeowners associations, or HOAs, enforce rules for properties in housing communities and are prevalent in every state. This enforcement can include requiring homeowners to have conventional, water-intensive lawns.
There has been some action to change this. In 2013 and 2021, Colorado passed laws that prevent HOAs from prohibiting homeowners from xeriscaping and installing solar panels. Texas passed a similar law also in 2013. But even when the authorities have taken action to protect xeriscaping, Krcmarik worries the policies are not well known.
Conrow and Inglis believe more people, both in the field of landscaping and regular homeowners, are beginning to understand and get interested in alternative landscaping options that include unique native plants.
Steinberger-Foster said there are a lot of neighbors and HOAs that might object to the new landscaping, but early adopters can help others "learn to see a different kind of beauty."
For Lurie, he believes that this adoption of xeriscaping is part of a slow, but steady, process to creating more sustainable landscaping.
"That's how we're going to be able to solve the water scarcity crisis," Lurie said. "One house at a time, one neighbor at a time, one city at a time."