How to Design & Maintain Low-To-No-Water Landscaping

Author: Lara Piu - ImagesAZ - November 2014

Coined in the 1980's, the term xeriscaping was created by Denver Water while developing its water conservation plan.  The utility company's design established the founding principles of xeriscaping: low-water-use plants, appropriate turf areas, efficient irrigation, soil improvements and appropriate maintenance and use of mulches.

While soil improvements generally do not apply to desert-adapted plants, these tenets continue to drive local present-day xeriscapes.  Xeriscaping is similar to desert landscaping because of its emphasis on water conservation, but it shines a new light on things like turf and mulches.

"In traditional desert landscaping, the mulch used is usually decomposed granite, but [xeriscaping uses] organic mulch, as this helps retain moisture far better than a layer of decomposed granite," says Angelica Elliott, who works as a landscape and gardening education coordinator at Desert Botanical Garden.  "However, when using organic mulch around trees or shrubs, make sure you keep the mulch away from the base or trunk of the tree."

Green no longer gold

Landscape designer Marc Vargas of Desert Foothills Landscape says water conversation is often top of mind with clients, and some homeowner associations are converting grass to xeriscapes.

"Now with the prices of water coming up, people are trying to save water and money," he explains.

An increase in information on the Internet and in the classroom also contributes to xeriscaping's popularity.

"People are educating themselves on desert plants and it is through education that they are learning the beauty of these desert plants as well as the ease of maintenance when adding to the landscape." says Angelica.

Regionally, there is another consideration:  snowbirds. Kris Myers, manager for Desert Foothills Gardens Nursery, reports that a good portion of the nursery's xeriscaping requests come from homeowners who leave for the summer and therefore prefer to avoid ongoing water usage and maintenance.


Research, research, research before you head to the nursery.  Make it a point to define which plants are best suited for each area of your home.

"When selecting your plant, determine if it will fit in the space where you are intending to plant it and also, if it has the correct amount of sunlight in the space, as not all plants require full sun," Angelica says.

Start with native and desert plants and then add color, Kris advises, adding that there are many ways to make your xeriscape colorful.  Try cacti with vibrant spines such as a golden or red barrel cactus, or cacti that bear fruit such as the purple prickly pear.  Rick Robart, owner of A Couple of Green Thumbs, also suggests working in low-to-no-water additions such as garden art or native wildflowers like desert marigold.


One of the most vital aspects of xeriscaping is watering.  Knowing how to group, schedule and soak your landscaping is the key to getting a green thumbs up.


Watering starts in the design phase, according to Rick.  This phase is when you can group together plants with similar needs so that each plant receives only the necessary amount of water, therefore maximizing conservation.


Once everything is organized by water needs, design a schedule to ensure that watering is appropriate to the season.

"Change your irrigation timer to reflect the time of year so you can conserve water and make sure your plants are not under-watered or overwatered," Angelica says.

Kris confirms scheduling is one of the biggest problem creators, adding, "It's important to set the watering schedule by plant and season because most people tend to overwater."


Kris directs her clients to water slow and deep rather than frequent and shallow.  The former "encourages deeper root growth so the plant is more stable and less likely to blow over in a windstorm, and uses less water in the long run," she says.  She adds that most cacti should not be on any watering system at all, especially native saguaros and barrels.

"Some of the Mexican and South American cacti can take a little bit of water, but otherwise let nature take its course," she says.


When it comes to keeping up wiht your xeriscaping, it's vital to prune appropriately.  Avoid topping, lion tailing (over-thinning) or any excessive pruning of trees or shrubs.

"Take a class on proper pruning methods or visit, as they give great information on pruning," says Angelica.

Additionally, use grub control pesticides on agaves and yuccas.

"You don't know that you have them until it's too late and they fall over," Kris explains.  Desert Botanical Garden educators recommend planting smaller agaves, which are typically less susceptible to the agave snout weevil.

For some, helping hands are a necessity, according to Marc, who says that seasonal residents require professional landscape maintenance.  For others, it's a matter of time and know-how.

"If you don't have the experience, you could get hurt, especially with xeriscaping," he says.  "Plus, you really need to know your plants.  If you don't do some research, you could get into some trouble."

Below is a quick reference list of ways to add color to xeriscaping:

Native plants: red spine barrel cacti, green yuccas, purple prickly pear cacti, blue agaves, Arizona yellow bells, chuparaosa

Desert plants: golden barrel cacti, succulents, shrubs, green and blue palm, Texas sage, birds of paradise

Wildflowers: desert marigolds, blackfoot daisies, penstemon, cassias, salvias

Stone: chrysocolla, petrified wood, azurite, jasper, granite

Yard art: fountains, sculptures, metal art

Pottery: glazed, stone, canterra, rustic metal

Sources: Desert Foothills Gardens and A Couple of Green Thumbs