The Gravel Myth Of Xeriscaping

By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden

Xeriscaping is the art of creating a landscape that lives in harmony with a surrounding dry environment rather than in spite of it. Many times when someone first discovers the idea of xeriscaping, they think that it should have vast amount of gravel incorporated into it. Xeriscaping is meant to help a homeowner work with existing native plants to create a water-wise landscape, not remove plants completely from the picture.

Gravel in the Landscape

Too much gravel in the landscape may not be wise. There are many reasons why large amounts of gravel are not an ideal addition to a xeriscaped yard. The first is that gravel tends to reflect rather than absorb the heat in these areas. The reflected heat will add stress to the plants that are planted in the graveled area.

The second reason is that gravel may harm your xeriscape by working its way into the soil. A gravel heavy soil can harm future plantings and make it difficult for you, the homeowner, to add plants to your landscape in the future. The only option you have to prevent the gravel from working into the ground is an undercovering of some kind such as plastic. This, however, will in turn keep water and nutrients from getting into the soil- also harming your landscape plantings.

Another reason not to use large amounts of gravel in a xeriscaped landscape is that what heat is not reflected from the surface of the gravel will be absorbed by it and then released long after the sun has gone down. This will have the effect of continually baking the roots of any plants that are planted within these gravel areas.

Alternatives to Gravel

In xeriscaping though, you do have alternatives to gravel. One of those alternatives is to just use traditional organic mulch such as wood mulch. Organic mulches will absorb the heat and safely pass it through to the underlying soil. This will have the overall effect of keeping the soil temperature at a constant, cooler level. Also, the organic mulch will eventually break down and add to the nutrients of the soil, while still allowing water and other nutrients to find their way into the soil.

Plant alternatives can be used too. Drought tolerant ground cover, such as Turkish veronica or creeping thyme will help keep moisture in the soil while suppressing weeds. They also add a nice green backdrop to surrounding plants.

So, you see, despite the idea that gravel is a part of the xeriscaping landscape, the uses of it can be more harmful than helpful. You are far better off using some other alternative of mulching in your xeriscaped landscape instead.

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Cons of Xeriscaping

(Teo’s viewpoint) Xeriscaping glorifies “water-frugal” plants and gardening materials over supporting native wildlife and can result in a garden that doesn’t feel like a haven where you can retreat from the world. And it can cost you more in money than you will recoup by years of less water use. Here are my problems with xeriscaping:

  • Doesn’t support native ecosystems: When you pick plants for a garden, you have to use some guiding criteria in the selection process since there are so many species and cultivars available in commerce. Many gardeners – myself included – like to plant native flora to help retain an ecosystem’s diversity and support native insects, birds and small mammals. Xeriscaping is a system of selecting plants that focusses on water conservation. While this obviously keeps water usage down, it doesn’t support native ecosystems in the same way a natural garden would. Not every native plant is drought resistant, yet every native plant plays a role in the ecosystem you live in.
  • Rougher soil and less insects: Xeriscaping means an entire landscape, not just drought-resistant plants. You need to cart out or cover up all that topsoil you’ve enriched with organic compost over the years and replace it with rough materials that retain and efficiently distribute what little water is available. This usually means bringing in hard, chunky materials like wood chips and gravel. And the plants themselves often are rougher and tougher, vegetation with sharp thorns and edges. While some insects may prefer this type of ecosystem, it won’t be the same ones that rely on softer plants, big flowers or lots of foliage. The starker landscape won’t please every gardener or homeowner either. I personally count the time I spend working in my garden as the happiest, most peaceful hours in the day and would deeply miss the lush, green foliage and over-the-top flowers in summer.
  • More time and money: While xeriscaping is billed as a good choice for a gardener who wants to save time and money, take a hard look at these claims. While it’s true that if you take out your lawn, you won’t have to mow or water it, that’s hardly the be-all and end-all. Taking out your lawn and changing your landscape isn’t cheap.
  • Improper design issues: One of the major reasons xeriscape gardens fail to please homeowners is improper design. Xeriscape gardens must be designed carefully, as design mistakes will haunt you for years. That means you probably will want to bring in a landscape specialist and that means even more money.

Xeriscape gardens showcase more than rocks and gravel

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When most people hear the word “xeriscape” they imagine dirt, rocks, cactuses and a lot of neutral colored, water-conservative foliage and plants.

The City of Greeley Water Conservation Garden, 2503 Reservoir Road, is proving that notion wrong by showing residents how to transform their landscaping into a water-conservative area while maintaining color and beauty.

GREELEY, CO – JULY 1:Shasta Daisies grow at the Greeley Xeriscape Demonstration Garden located at 2503 Reservoir Road in Greeley July 1, 2020. Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping with plants that are adapted to drier environments in order to limit water use. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

So what is xeriscape gardening?

According to Colorado Water Wise, xeriscape gardening is a combination of seven gardening principals that save water, time and resources.

  • Plan and design for water conservation from the start to make completing your projects in phases easier.
  • Create practical turf areas of manageable size, shape and grade.
  • Select low-water plants and group them together according to their water needs.
  • Use soil amendments like compost.
  • Use mulches like wood chips or cobble rock to reduce evaporation and keep soil cool.
  • Irrigate efficiently with properly designed systems and watering at the right time.
  • Maintain landscape properly by mowing, weeding, pruning and fertilizing.

“Xeriscape is not anti-lawn,” the website explained. “Xeriscape is ‘less lawn landscaping’ rather than ‘lawnless landscaping’.”

GREELEY, CO – JULY 1:The setting sun illuminates Black-eyed Susans growing at the Greeley Xeriscape Demonstration Garden located at 2503 Reservoir Road in Greeley July 1, 2020. Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping with plants that are adapted to drier environments in order to limit water use. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

The City of Greeley Water Conservation Garden, which began in 1997, is a lush mix of perennials, annuals, ornamental grasses, bulbs, trees and shrubs, Pamela Wright, Water Conservation specialist with the City of Greeley said. The garden illustrates how homeowners can have a great-looking landscape without turf.

The garden is one of nearly 90 Plant Select demonstration gardens located throughout the Rocky Mountains and High Plains Regions. Plant Select is a nonprofit collaboration with the Colorado State University, Denver Botanical Gardens and partner growers.

“The object of Plant Select is to come up with a palate of plants that do well growing in this climate,” Wright explained. “Dozens of plants are evaluated for durability, reliability and cold hardiness. These plants are interspersed throughout the garden.”

GREELEY, CO – JULY 1:A bulletin board with information about the garden and wildlife- and water-friendly landscaping stands at the Greeley Xeriscape Demonstration Garden located at 2503 Reservoir Road in Greeley July 1, 2020. Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping with plants that are adapted to drier environments in order to limit water use. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

The garden displays a variety of flowering annual and perennial ornamentals, rock gardens, irises, lavender, turf alternatives, trees and pathways lined with benches and other landscaping materials and artwork.

“We are developing new programs for the garden, as we will be adding a crevice garden, and rain garden,” Wright said. “The narrow green spaces between streets and sidewalks are common in most neighborhoods. While potentially problematic, these areas can be converted to attractive planting beds using water wise, climate-appropriate plants. We plan to develop demonstration plots for these soon.”

GREELEY, CO – JULY 1:Silverheels horehound grows at the Greeley Xeriscape Demonstration Garden located at 2503 Reservoir Road in Greeley July 1, 2020. Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping with plants that are adapted to drier environments in order to limit water use. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

As a water conservation specialist, Wright develops and administers water conservation programs to the community as well as gathers and analyzes data and information for the evaluation of customer water usage. Specialists also host educational events for schools, businesses and homeowner associations.

Myth 1: xeriscapes are the equivalent of “zeroscapes’

The original meaning of the word ‘xeriscape’ is a water efficient landscape. This can include landscapes that are spectacularly colorful and lush and that can easily include turf that the homeowner can enjoy.

Colorful perennials decorate the front entrance to this xeriscaped home.

5. Style

Don't assume that all xeriscapes look like a southwestern desert scene. Mediterranean species have long been used in European gardens, and these can lend a formal French style or a rural Tuscan feel while conserving water. Drought-resistant plants from Africa and Australia can be chameleons, lending character and color to virtually any theme or style. Conservation can be as easy as finding a drought-resistant alternative to a water-loving tree or shrub.

For anyone contemplating a xeriscape, researching local native species used for landscaping, plus the array of imported species from dry climates around the world, is key to your success. There is no better way to make your home environmentally green and create a model landscape for water conservation.

Watch the video: Xeriscaping becoming popular alternative to grass lawns

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