Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Xeriscaping -- Using less water while enhancing beauty

  • Marie Narlock
  • Gardeners are an interesting bunch. For all our talk about being au naturel and in touch with the earth, we sure do come up with some weird words. At the top of the list is xeriscape. What the heck does that mean?

    Turns out xeriscaping is just a fancy way of saying, "I'm a smart gardener." It's choosing plants and gardening in a way that conserves water, requires little maintenance and little or no fertilizer, and naturally keeps pests and diseases at bay. Although the term xeriscape may impress your friends and neighbors, it's really not such a new concept. It's probably stuff you're doing already.

    But that isn't to say there aren't always new things to learn or — the best part — new plants to try. That's what Clark de Mornay, a self-described plant nerd as well as garden designer and plant buyer for Flora Grubb Nursery in San Francisco, will be showcasing during his talk on Nov. 9 at San Rafael's Falkirk Cultural Center. Through a lecture and hands-on opportunities, participants can expect to learn how to build and maintain a xeriscape. Bring gloves and a hat, and wear clothes that can get dirty. (Pssst. Participants also can expect to take home a free plant.)

    To get you warmed up, here are the answers to some common questions about xeriscape.

    Q: Cut to the chase. What kind of plant are you going to give me?

    A: You can expect a succulent cutting, and there might be other surprises. Most importantly, you will be introduced to some killer plants that are suitable for Marin's various microclimates, including a tough but lush-looking bunch grass (Lomandra longifolia "Breeze"), a deer-proof semi-evergreen with fabulous foliage color (Euphorbia) and a succulent that will knock your socks off (Echeveria).

    Q: How did xeriscape get that funny name?

    A: Its literal Greek translation is "dry scene."

    Q: Am I going to have to put orange gravel and gnomes in my front yard?

    A: No. Xeriscapes are colorful and welcoming. There are xeriscape options regardless of the style garden you like.

    Q: Do I have to water my xeriscape?

    A: Maybe not. What does that mean? It means that once your plants are established, a classic xeriscape will not require supplemental water unless it's unseasonably dry in summer. And, OK, giving your established xeriscape a little drink once a month or so in summer will probably keep things looking a little fresher.

    Q: Are native landscapes xeriscapes?

    A: Yes and no. When you take a walk on Mt. Tam or through China Camp, what you're looking at is a xeriscape because the plants belong there. They don't need us. They were born there and will remain there despite rainy years or multiple dry summers. Ever seen sprinklers on Mt. Tam? Didn't think so. But let's say you live in the exposed heat of Novato and want to plant a native that likes the cool and foggy summer conditions of a redwood forest. Is it going to work? Probably not. You can baby it, water it and shroud it from the sun "... but do you really want to do that? I'm sorry to say that if you do, we may have to take away your xeriscape badge. Sorry.

    Q: I live on a hill. Can I have a xeriscape?

    A: Yes. Gardening on a hillside can be challenging, especially when watering and erosion control are an issue. But there are plants and watering strategies that can help. Plus, there are ways of working with slopes that can actually benefit irrigation practices. Hint: water always runs downhill, right? So where should the plants that like the most water go?

    Q: I have clay soil. Any hope for me?

    A: Absolutely. Believe it or not, clay soil is excellent at holding the nutrients that plants need. Unfortunately, it's also good at impeding drainage. But there are ways of getting around this problem. One is to choose plants that like clay soil (yes, there are some). The other is to amend with compost. Another is to berm right up over the problem soil. You can see this in action on Nov. 9 at Falkirk.

    Q: My neighbor says he never waters his succulents. Is he lying?

    A: Maybe not. Succulents are amazing little devils. When it comes to water, many can live on very tiny amounts. And no, not all succulents can hurt you. Only some of them have spines. Most are fleshy and fantastic. If you want a xeriscape that looks like a cross between a jewel box and coral reef, plant succulents.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 473-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.