Author Topic: Xeriscaping?  (Read 6471 times)

Lavender

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Xeriscaping?
« on: June 13, 2012, 05:15:52 PM »
Considering xeriscaping the front and/or backyard so as to save on water bills, which can get pretty high in the summer here in Houston. We installed a sprinkler system 5 years ago, which would become basically redundant if we xeriscape. Has anyone done this, and have any insight to share? We have two little kids, so we want the front and back yards to be as kid-friendly and scrape-free as possible, while minimizing water usage. What are our options?

dancedancekj

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #1 on: June 13, 2012, 07:14:54 PM »
I'm in Nebraska and growing zone 5b, so take what I say with a grain of salt of course. I have a couple of questions
1) What are you starting with? Existing lawn? Fill dirt? Landscaping rock?
2) What do you eventually want the area to look like? Are you looking for just a few plants here and there along the foundation, or do you want the yard to be fully planted with flowering plants and shrubs?
3) How much money are you willing to spend? It's relatively easy to just waltz on down to the local big-box store, load up on perennials suited for the environment along with hundreds of cubic yards of mulch, but that's not very Mustachian. It's another scenario if the budget is very limited.

I am imagining for Houston that I would design a mix of grasses, agaves, and shrubby flowering herbs and forbs. Mexican feather grass, switchgrass, pink Muhly grass, lavender, Mexican bush sage, oregano, lamb's ears, black eyed susans, purple coneflower, sedums, and other badass plants that look good as well as perform in the extremities of Texas. Mix in strong structural plants (like agaves and sedum) with feathery, billowing voluminous plants (grasses, sage) and you've got yourself a winning design.

Xeriscape doesn't mean it has to look awful. Native doesn't have to look awful. A lot of times people may use the fact that it is xeriscaping or native to throw design out the window, and it ends up looking messier and less cohesive than it could. With a little bit of design and planning, it's fairly easy to create something that looks decent. I'd read up on Thomas Rainer's blog on his "Beyond the Border" series regarding designing with perennials http://landscapeofmeaning.blogspot.com/2011/07/beyond-border-part-3-how-to-select.html

mustachio

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #2 on: June 13, 2012, 08:14:56 PM »
Some great advice above.  Check on whether or not the plants are invasive in your area (Mexican feather grass is sending alert signals!).

I'd recommend taking a visit to or calling up local arboretums, public gardens, or local water districts.  Sometimes they have demonstration gardens for homeowners to look at that are low water-use.

Or better yet, contact your local Master Gardeners: http://hcmga.tamu.edu/Public/

Lavender

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #3 on: June 13, 2012, 09:42:49 PM »
Wow, there's some great advice and tips there, thanks kj and mustachio!


1) What are you starting with? Existing lawn? Fill dirt? Landscaping rock?

We would be starting from lawn.

2) What do you eventually want the area to look like? Are you looking for just a few plants here and there along the foundation, or do you want the yard to be fully planted with flowering plants and shrubs?

I'm open in terms of the final look, but am more concerned with having a space where the kids can play without worrying about accidents/skinned knees, so a rock garden is probably not going to work :) Also, I would like to retain the open space, so I guess a few plants along the perimeter would be ideal, paired with some type of drought-resistant grass (I know absolutely nothing about this stuff but am going to check out all those plants/grasses you've listed).

3) How much money are you willing to spend? It's relatively easy to just waltz on down to the local big-box store, load up on perennials suited for the environment along with hundreds of cubic yards of mulch, but that's not very Mustachian. It's another scenario if the budget is very limited.

This is an easy one. I HATE spending money, it causes me pain :) So the less I need to spend, the better! I don't have a figure yet, because I have no idea what these things cost. I imagine somewhere within $1000? Half that? Even less, would be even better!

dancedancekj

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #4 on: June 13, 2012, 10:40:21 PM »
Ah, lawn. That's where I'm starting at too. I'm in the processing of replacing it with perennials, grasses, and some drought tolerant annuals mixed in. It's a slow progress (since I also don't want to spend a ton of money on it) but it's going fairly well so far. I smothered the lawn with cardboard/newsprint with wood mulch layered on top of that, then planted the perennials there. This is known as lasagna style gardening (http://savorynotebook.blogspot.com/2008/04/lasagna-gardening.html) goes a lot quicker than manually ripping up all the grass, and the thick layer of cardboard/paper prevents weeds or existing turf from growing (I only have to weed a couple spots here and there).

If you're having a playspace for kids, I might recommend buffalo grass for turf (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/turf/publications/buffalo.html). I only have a small patch (started from seed) but it grows pretty easily from seed, and there are plenty of examples of it being used as a lawn replacement. Definitely drought tolerant, and only needs to be mowed possibly once or twice a year. There are other plants people have used as turf replacements such as yarrow and clover, but I'm not familiar with them.
You could also just try a thick layer of wood chips covering the area - my elementary school playground used it, and it seemed to work really well, even with kids leaping off the playground equipment and falling facefirst from bridges. The woodchips might need to be replenished every now and then, but I think wood chip/mulch would be quite possibly the cheapest material you could get for inert groundcovers. I know my parents' can obtain free loads of mulch from their recycling center (I was super jealous when I found that out) so I've carted back a couple carloads instead of paying $3 for a bag. See if you can find wood chips/mulch on Craigslist, especially in the spring when people are shredding downed trees and branches from the winter.

dancedancekj

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #5 on: June 13, 2012, 10:55:51 PM »
Now, in terms of plants, I grow a lot of mine from seed. Some grow fairly easily, while others are a bit trickier to do, but generally speaking it is the most economical way to obtain large masses of plants ($2.00 for a packet of 500 seeds, while a young plant costs $5, and a mature plant costs $15-20 if not more). I utilized the wintersowing method as a foolproof way of starting seeds (http://www.wintersown.org/ as well as check out the gardenweb wintersowing forums at http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/wtrsow/). This method utilizes leftover soda pop bottles, milk jugs, takeout containers and other recyclables to create mini-greenhouses for seeds. Works like a charm, and lends to basically hands-off seed sprouting into young plants.

I like starting plants from seed, but it does take them a while to mature since we have a shorter growing season. In Texas, you might be able to get bigger results the first year from seed than myself, since many plants take a while to mature before they start blooming or gaining mass. Grasses are a nice one to start off with - I planted a club soda bottle with switchgrass just a week ago, and they're already obtaining their second set of leaves. Understanding the individual needs of plants is important - I usually will read up on a species before I decide to get it. Nothing in my garden that's super fussy, requires constant water, or doesn't perform well. I love plants,  I love gardening, and I love horticulture, but I don't like to baby plants for very long.

Now, in terms of obtaining adult plants, I know that there are a lot of gardeners who divide their plants. There's sometimes only so much real estate in their garden beds, so you might be able to obtain free plants from them. Check the free section of craigslist, or the farm/garden section for people either giving away plants, or selling them cheaply. Sometimes botanical gardens, garden clubs, church sales, farmer's markets, and other organizations will hold plant sales for 50-30% of the price of what you would pay at a bonafide nursery. (Note that I do encourage the support of local nurseries, especially for some of their cooler and exotic plant species. I'm just not going to buy 20 pots of Feather Reed Grass from them at $10 each when I found 15 of them at sale at the local Hy-Vee for $1.50 each)

Lowe's usually has a sale rack for houseplants, and in the summer they have a sale rack for garden plants as well. I found some $19 Magic Carpet spirea plants for $1 each this past weekend. Granted most of these plants will be in less than optimal condition - don't fret! Usually just a bit of a trim, giving it a proper home in the ground somewhere, a week or two of watering and some time will help it to spring right back. I think most of the other big box stores will have a sales rack somewhere, and I usually scour it to see if there are any plants that would fit my needs there. Don't be afraid to spend money on good plants either. Sedums, for example, are really hardy and easily propagated (you just stick a stem into the ground, and it will root on it's own. Bam, two plants with minimal effort). I bought four plants, which have now multiplied into close to 100 small sedums this year.

It might take a while for your landscape to get it to where you want to. I understand that things are getting really hot down there, and it might be all you can do just to keep cool and out of the sun! You might be able to get more accomplished this fall and spring when the weather cools down a bit. Take your time and enjoy the journey!

Lavender

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #6 on: June 14, 2012, 05:53:49 AM »
Thank you SO much for all the wonderful suggestions. Yes, it is broiling here, so I will probably wait until fall to get started. I guess I should have thought this through back in February but eh, hopefully this is the last season we pay to sink money into the ground in the form of water bills! Thanks again for the great go-to guide!

tooqk4u22

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #7 on: June 14, 2012, 08:31:33 AM »
Not sure how much it rains there but you could put water collection barrels at each of your gutters to provide some moderate free watering throughout the year.

sol

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #8 on: June 14, 2012, 09:17:56 AM »
I'm all for xeriscaping as a means of conserving water, but don't fool yourself into thinking it will save you money.

Take a close look at your next water bill.  If it's anything like mine, 75-90% of your bill is taxes and fees that are totally unrelated to how much water you use.  Typically you pay for water delivery, stormwater, sewer, a "temporary" capital improvements fee that rotates every few years, and then a variety of local taxes and surcharges. 

Last year I went on vacation for a whole month and my house used zero water while I was gone.  My water bill dropped from $34 to $31.  Astronomical savings!

If you are watering a large lawn on a regular basis, then perhaps you are using large amounts of water.  Or maybe your utility company has a different rate structure than mine (I know some of them charge much more for water used above a certain threshold amount per household).  But it's worth examining your bill more closely before trying to spend all the money you're going to save by buying native plants.

edit:  even after all that, I still recommend getting rid of your grass.  Lawn grass is the single largest consumer of water in most cities, especially in hot climates where you have to irrigate it.  Disgustingly wasteful.
« Last Edit: June 14, 2012, 09:20:48 AM by sol »

Lavender

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Re: Xeriscaping?
« Reply #9 on: June 14, 2012, 09:55:03 AM »
Sol, I hear you. Our water bill is ALWAYS at least $25, independent of whether we use any water or not, and yes, the taxes and fees (so you're charging to deliver me water, and then all over again to take it away??!!) make up most of that. We bought a house with a very small backyard so as to minimize water usage (and reduce maintenance), and we water conservatively (once a week during our peak summer usage, never during the few rains we have, and not at all in late fall, winter, and early spring). Even so, our water bills are an average of $100+ per month from May through September, and only about $30 per month on average during the rest of the year. That is at least $300 per year more than I want to spend!

And I agree that lawns are a disgusting waste of water resources, and I would want to xeriscape for that reason alone. 5 years ago, when we bought our house, I didn't know of (or think of) such an alternative, so better late than never!