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Conservation and curb appeal: Striking a balance with water-wise gardening

Xeriscaping and using native plants has benefits — including increasing the biodiversity of one’s garden — that go beyond “the collective effort to make Utah more drought-resilient.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Red Butte Gardens, offers visitors a tiered view of drought-friendly gardening practices as seen during a recent visit to the gardens on Monday, July 26, 2021. As severe drought grips the west, a visual representation of “hydrozoning” offers people a way to arrange different plant varieties according to their water needs. From varieties that don’t need watering all the way to the most selfish of plants.

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When the world gets overwhelming, Fritz Kollmann sits in his front garden in Cottonwood Heights, watching the grass shift and rustle in the wind. Instead of a tidy rectangle of green, manicured lawn, Kollmann has a low-water meadow garden, full of tall grasses and a diverse mix of native and nonnative plants.

“It centers me, watching those plants flow around in the slightest breeze,” he said. “It lets me know that there’s hugeness all around me and I’m part of it.”

Kollmann’s water-wise practices aren’t just about mindfulness, however.

Since so much of residential water use goes to landscaping, “things will need to change if we’re going to continue to have this city in the desert,” Kollmann said.

Utah is currently experiencing the most extreme drought in its recorded history, which led Gov. Spencer Cox to declare a state of emergency in March. On July 19, water levels in the Great Salt Lake reached unprecedented lows. Lake Powell hit a similar record a few days later.

For Kollmann, who is the garden curator at the Springs Preserve, it took a serious perspective shift to appreciate that just because a landscape isn’t green, doesn’t mean it’s dead.

He was raised in the Midwest, where gardens stay “lush and green all summer,” he said, so he didn’t always appreciate the beauty of desert grasses and the resilience of low-water plants.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Red Butte Gardens, offers visitors a tiered view of drought-friendly gardening practices as seen during a recent visit to the gardens on Monday, July 26, 2021. As severe drought grips the west, a visual representation of “hydrozoning” offers people a way to arrange different plant varieties according to their water needs.

Water-wise gardening — an approach to landscape design focused on low-water plants native to a particular region — has allowed him to engage more fully with the natural world. After making the switch this year from an automatic sprinkler system to hand watering, he said, he’s become more attentive to subtle changes in his landscape.

He notices the way desert shrubs “green up” ever so slightly after cooler weather and the way leaves lose their bronze tint after rain.

Kollmann looks at garden water conservation as “an opportunity instead of a burden.” However, he recognizes that it can be difficult for those who don’t share his professional experience and horticultural knowledge to take advantage of this opportunity.

Xeriscape, not “zeroscape”

The term “xeriscape” was coined in 1981 by Denver Water during an intense but brief Colorado drought. It combines the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry, with the last syllable of “landscape” to describe a style of garden design that prioritizes efficient water use.

“Xeriscape” is frequently (and sometimes intentionally) misspelled as “zeroscape,” fueling the common misconception that xeriscapes are unattractive rock gardens that require zero water and zero care.

Mark Morris of VODA Landscape Design in Salt Lake City rejects the assumption that xeriscape is “just desert, cow skull and wagon wheel.” The best xeriscapes, in his opinion, are virtually indistinguishable from traditional gardens to the untrained eye.

“We want spaces that feel comfortable,” said Morris. “Green spaces are really essential to living in an urban environment.”

The drawbacks of “zeroscaped” rock gardens aren’t merely aesthetic. Rock gardens increase the temperature of your yard, raise cooling costs in the home and put stress on nearby plants, explained Kelly Kopp,a professor at Utah State University who researches landscape water conservation.

And replacing greenery with gravel in a knee-jerk attempt to conserve water can actually have a negative impact on the environment. Less shade leads to higher household temperatures, which in turn, leads to more energy used on cooling, and, as a result, higher water use.

Kopp believes that “ornamental” landscaping is anything but ornamental, especially in cities. Green space plays an important role in the health of urban environments.

“The urban tree canopy is incredibly important for air purification and cooling,” she said, “and every plant in our landscape sequesters carbon.”

Start with “zoning”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Red Butte Gardens, offers visitors a tiered view of drought-friendly gardening practices as seen during a recent visit to the gardens on Monday, July 26, 2021. As severe drought grips the west, a visual representation of “hydrozoning” offers people a way to arrange different plant varieties according to their water needs. From varieties that don’t need watering all the way to the most selfish of plants.

The core tenet of xeriscaping is simple, according to Jim Knopf’s Water Wise Landscaping: group your plants according to their water needs, then group the groups.

This practice is known as “hydrozoning.” Low-water plants go in one area of the yard, high water plants go in a different area and moderate “transition zones” separate the areas.

“Your irrigation is more streamlined when you don’t have one [low-water] plant that’s drowning amid [higher water need] plants,” explained Guy Banner, lead horticulturist at Red Butte Garden’s Water Conservation Garden in Salt Lake City. Putting plants with different water needs in close proximity wastes resources and ensures that none of them get the right amount of moisture.

“If there are plants you want to use that are high water, you can use them,” said Morris. “If it’s very important to you to have roses, you can do that.” The trick, however, is to arrange the plants strategically so that no water is wasted.

Learn what’s local

Native Utah plants are beautiful — and are often better adapted to the area’s dry climate, harsh winters and alkaline soil.

One of Banner’s favorite native plant species is pine leaf penstemon, a beautiful ground cover that comes in several colors. “It brings in hummingbirds like crazy,” he said, “and it’s evergreen.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought friendly pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) grows at Red Butter Gardens in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 26, 2021. With the west experiencing severe drought conditions the gardens offer a good visual representation of “hydrozoning” options by arranging plants according to their water needs.

According to xeriscaping guidance from Salt Lake City officials, incorporating native species can increase the biodiversity of your garden, conserve water, improve soil health and lessen the need for fertilizer and pesticides.

This list of native Utah plants and this native plant finder can help you select plant species that are well-adapted for your garden.

However, gardens don’t need to consist exclusively of native plants to be water wise. Many drought tolerant nonnative species can thrive in Utah.

The moon carrot, an herb native to Eurasia, is one example. “The foliage is really interesting,” said Banner, “and it’s a great pollinator plant.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought resistant moon carrot (Seseli gummiferum) is swarmed by buys pollinators at Red Butter Gardens in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 26, 2021. With the west experiencing severe drought conditions the gardens offer a good visual representation of “hydrozoning” options by arranging plants according to their water needs.

He also recommends gingkoes, bluestem joint fir, and Texas red yucca, which boasts bright, edible blooms. When ripe, the blooms taste slightly sweet — “a good hydrating snack,” said Banner.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought friendly Texas red yucca (Hesperaloe) grows at Red Butter Gardens in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 26, 2021. With the west experiencing severe drought conditions the gardens offer a good visual representation of “hydrozoning” options by arranging plants according to their water needs.

But there are limits to the plants that can be successfully imported, explained Liz Haigh of Xeriscape Design in Salt Lake City. “You can’t grow a rhododendron or an azalea or a pieris,” she said. “You can’t grow blueberries... It’s like plant torture.”

Stop overwatering

While redesigning your yard and planting low-water alternatives are great ways to save water, Kopp’s top priority is simple: encourage people to irrigate the plants they already have appropriately.

“The typical Utahn irrigates their landscape about twice as much as it needs to be,” said Kopp. “If we can get them to cut [their water use] back to the actual plant water requirement, we’re already saving half of what they were using.”

When watering, Kopp suggests, prioritize plants based on their hydration needs. “Trees are priority number one, then your shrubs, then your perennials, then your annuals, and lastly, your grass,” she said. “Grass is tough and it will come back reliably.”

While a coarse, yellow lawn may be unattractive, grass is particularly resilient and can enter periods of dormancy when temperatures are high and water is scarce.

Easy steps, like checking irrigation systems frequently and looking out for signs of overwatering — brown leaves, squishy stems, oversaturated soil — can also go a long way towards making your home more water efficient.

Kopp’s involvement in the Water Check program, a free, by-appointment service in which trained evaluators analyze the efficiency of your irrigation and landscape, has familiarized her with Salt Lake City area residents’ common irrigation faux pas.

She has seen multitudes of sprinkler “geysers,” sprinklers dutifully watering the sidewalk, and sprinklers with sunken or misaligned heads. Faulty systems like these aren’t only wasting water — they can also discolor the walls of houses and damage sidewalks and streets, costing big money in the long run.

Kopp doesn’t place blame on homeowners for their malfunctioning irrigation. “These things happen,” she said, “which is why routine maintenance and observation of the system is important.”

Pick one thing and get started

The prospect of tearing up the yard is a daunting one, requiring a significant investment of time, energy and funds. That’s why landscape designers typically advocate taking it slow and starting with small, manageable changes.

“Everybody takes it one step at a time,” said Morris. “For most people, a complete overhaul of their yard is not going to happen.”

“Do it correctly, over time,” Haigh recommended. He cautioned that trying to do too much, too quickly often leads to a result “that’s going to be unsatisfying.”

For beginning xeriscapers, Morris suggests tackling the parking strip — the area between the sidewalk and curb — first. “For a lot of people, that’s just lawn that they never sit on. …It’s using a lot of water, [it’s] really hard to irrigate, [it’s] hard to keep looking good.”

And if you do choose to “flip” your parking strip by replacing the lawn with a water-efficient design, you could be eligible for a cash rebate through Utah Water Savers’ Flip Your Strip program.

Small steps, big impact

In Utah, switching to a water-wise landscape design is usually an environmental choice, not an economic choice. “We still have some of the cheapest water in the West,” explained Haigh, so it takes a long time for water bill savings to catch up with the overhead required to xeriscape a yard.

However, Haigh believes that this will not always be the case. “Our water will either get more expensive, or…run out,” she said. “It’s a precious resource that will get increasingly scarce in times of changing climate.”

Water-wise landscaping is one of “many ways that people can get involved in the collective effort to make Utah more drought-resilient,” said Joanna Endter-Wada, a professor of resource policy at Utah State University.

“The cumulative effect of many choices, made by many homeowners, have a big impact,” she said. It’s important, she explained, that individual gardeners start to see themselves as part of a community.

Looking for more information? Designing your own xeriscape from scratch can be complicated. If you don’t want to hire a professional, Localscapes, a digital hub with Utah-specific landscaping resources, can help. They offer free online classes and sample designs for water efficient yards and park strips.

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