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Xeriscaping Basics For Midwestern Gardeners

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Many people associate the term xeriscaping with desert landscapes, but the principles of xeriscaping are just as useful in the Midwest as they are in the drier Southwest.

Using the principles of xeriscaping, Midwestern gardeners can design attractive landscapes that require little or no extra watering in the hot summer months, saving both water and money.

Xeriscapes are also more tolerant of drought than conventional landscapes, ensuring that your garden will remain lush and green longer during periods of water restrictions.

The basic techniques of xeriscaping are very simple to learn and put into practice. They include:

Black eyed susan is a popular native wildflower that tolerates drought well. Photo by cygnus921.

Black eyed susan is a popular native wildflower that tolerates drought well. Photo by cygnus921.

Drought Tolerant Plants

Choose drought tolerant plants whenever possible.

The first and most important step is to choose plants that are hardy and drought tolerant. In general, native plants are the best choices for a xeriscape landscape because they are best adapted to handle the weather conditions of their native region. In fact, most native plants will need no watering at all to thrive once they are established. (Usually within 1-2 years.) Non-native plants that are naturalized to your area are the second best choice.

Whenever possible, look for drought-hardy native or naturalized plants to replace thirsty exotics. For example, consider drought-tolerant zoysia or buffalograss instead of thirsty Kentucky bluegrass, or hardy Knockout roses instead of more delicate hybrid tea roses.

Plant tender exotics close to the house or other water source.

Depending on the type of garden you want, it is not always possible to avoid thirsty exotic species entirely. For example, many species of vegetables and fruits are most productive with regular watering, and cool season turf grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass require frequent watering to stay green during the Midwest’s hot summer.

Planting thirsty plants closer to the house ensures that you will keep a better eye on them and develop a better understanding of the watering schedule necessary to keep them healthy.

In general, it is also easier to install efficient watering systems such as drip irrigation closer to the house, and in case of water restrictions, it will be easier to transport graywater or stored rainwater to nearby plants.

More Xeriscaping Tips

Choosing drought tolerant plants and siting thirstier and more delicate plants close to water sources is an important first step towards a waterwise garden, but you can also employ a number of techniques to reduce watering requirements in other ways:

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Add organic matter to the soil.

Soil with a high percentage of organic matter reduces the need to water because organic matter acts kind of like a sponge, soaking up water quickly after rain and slowly releasing it to the surrounding soil as it begins to dry out. Compost is the best source of organic matter. Other sources include leaf mould, aged animal manures, spoiled hay or straw, and organic mulches such as wood chips.


Mulching conserves soil moisture and reduces the need to water by keeping the soil cool and moist. Organic mulches such as wood chips or straw are best because they also add organic matter to the soil. You can also plant “living mulches” – groundcovers or cover crops which shade the soil and reduce evaporation.

Water wisely.

When you must water, make the most of it by watering early in the morning before the sun is intense. This reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation. You can also reduce evaporation by watering close to the ground and avoiding watering on windy days as much as possible.

If you have a vegetable garden or another bed of thirsty plants, one of the best things you can do is install a drip irrigation system. These slowly add water directly to the soil, significantly reducing water lost to evaporation.

Finally, water on a schedule that ensures that most plants are watered deeply but infrequently, rather than shallowly and often. This encourages the plants to develop a deeper root system, improving their ability to resist drought.


Zach from Colorado on August 09, 2011:

I was unaware of the term "xeriscaping" before I read your article. You have clarified a lot in this very useful hub! I actually find myself living in this climate zone, so I'll have to give it a go next season.

Bob Diamond RPh from Charlotte, NC USA on July 18, 2010:

Unless you don't care about how high your water bill is Charlotte, North Carolina is a great place to practice xeriscaping; and, I do. Almost all of our front yard is planted with drought-tolerant perennials. The older I get the less grass I have to cut.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on July 18, 2010:

Thank you for your wnderful tips.

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