Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping (zer-i-skaping) is landscaping with water conservation as a major objective. The need for landscaping to conserve water gained attention in the western states after the drought of 1977 and the recognition that nearly 50 percent of the water used by the average household is for turfgrass and landscape plantings.  Unfortunately, many homeowners have cut back on turfgrass areas by substituting gravel and plastic as an answer to water conservation.  This practice is not only self-defeating as far as water conservation is concerned, it also produces damaging effects to trees and shrubs.

This initiatives teaches residents the benefits of xeriscaping and explains how they can successfully xeriscape.

Why this is important 

A majority of Muncie lawns consist of too much turfgrass or sod.  These lawns lack native plants failing to establish deep root systems and natural habitat. This is important for three main reasons. Without deep root systems water is not able to slowly percolate through the soil to recharge groundwater.  Instead this water quickly turns to surface runoff, collecting pollution along the way, before draining directly into the White River. Additionally sod requires significantly more water to stay healthy and green compared to native species, requiring more maintenance and money.  Finally, sod does not provide a healthy habitat for beneficial insects such as bees, who provide pollination. Without pollinators, the food chain will loose its balance and significantly decrease food producing capacities.

What this will involve

Figure 1 – An example of landscaping with water conservation.  Photo: greenindiana.com
Figure 1 – An example of landscaping with water conservation. Photo: greenindiana.com

Xeriscaping can be accomplished in 7 steps: planning, considering slope of property, reduce irrigated turf, soil preparation, irrigation, mulching, and carefully selecting plants.

Planning 

Whether you want to redesign an old landscape or start fresh with a new one, a plan is a must. The plan does not have to be elaborate but should consider the exposures on the site. As a rule, south and west exposures result in the greatest water losses, especially areas near buildings or paved surfaces. You can save water in these locations simply by changing to plants adapted to reduced water use. However, don’t be too quick to rip out the sod and substitute plastic and gravel. Extensive use of rock on south and west exposures can raise temperatures near the house and result in wasteful water runoff.

Slope of Property 

Slope or grade is another consideration.  Steep slopes, especially those on south and west exposures, waste water through runoff and rapid water evaporation. A drought-resistant ground cover can slow water loss and shade the soil. Strategically placed trees also can shade a severe exposure, creating cooler soil with less evaporation. Terracing slopes helps save water by slowing runoff and permitting more water to soak in

Reduce Turf 

Avoid narrow strips of turf, hard to maintain corners, and isolated islands of grass that need special attention. Not only is maintenance more costly, but watering becomes difficult, often wasteful. If your yard is already landscaped, evaluate where you could eliminate unneeded turfgrass areas.

Turf can be reduced to areas near the house or that get high use. In outlying areas, use more drought-resistant grasses or even meadow mixes containing wildflowers, particularly if your property is large.

Soil Preparation 

Proper soil preparation is the key to successful water conservation. If the soil is very sandy, water and valuable nutrients will be lost due to leaching below the root zone. If your soil is heavy clay, you will lose water through runoff.

A good soil, one that supports healthy plant life and conserves moisture, has a balance of rather coarse soil clusters (aggregates), sand and pore spaces. The ideal soil has as much as 50 percent by volume pore space, with the soil itself consisting of a good balance of sand, silt and clay.

A major problem with heavy soils is that clay tends to dominate the soil complex. Clay is composed of microscopic crystals arranged in flat plates. When a soil has a high number of these crystals, they act much like a glue, cementing the particles of sand and silt together and resulting in a compact, almost airless soil.

Such soils usually repel surface water, resulting in runoff. What water does get into these soils is held so tightly by the clay itself that plants cannot use it. Plants in a clay soil, even though it is moist, often wilt from lack of moisture. Plant roots also need air to thrive. In clay soils, air spaces are small and may be filled with water, so plant roots often suffer from oxygen starvation.

In very sandy soils, the opposite is true. Sandy soils have very large pore spaces. Because the particles are large, there is little surface area to hold the water, so sandy soils tend to lose water rapidly.

A good soil is not made in just one year. Add organic matter annually to garden areas. In areas to be sodded or seeded, add organic amendments as a one-time procedure. Take advantage of this one time before seeding or sodding by doing a thorough, complete job. This encourages deep roots that tap the water stored in the soil and reduces the need for wasteful, frequent water applications.

Irrigation 

Proper irrigation practices can lead to a 30 to 80 percent water savings around the home grounds. If a sprinkler system is already installed, check it for overall coverage. If areas are not properly covered or water is falling on driveways and patios, adjust the system. This may mean replacing heads, adding more heads, or changing heads to do a more efficient job.

With the system on, observe places that are receiving water where it is not needed. Overlaps onto paved areas or into shrub borders may result in considerable water waste. Overwatering trees and shrubs may lead to other problems.

Irrigate turf areas differently than shrub borders and flower beds. North and east exposures need less frequent watering than south and west exposures. Apply water to slopes more slowly than to flat surfaces. Examine these closely and correct inefficiencies in irrigation system design.

If you do not have a sprinkler system and are just beginning to install a landscape, you can avoid the pitfalls of poorly designed and installed systems. Have a professional irrigation company do the job correctly. Make sure the system is designed to fit the landscape and the water needs of the plants and that it is zoned to reduce unnecessary applications of water. Coordinate the landscape design itself, selection of plants and the irrigation system to result in a sensible water-saving scheme.

Consider a drip system for outlying shrub borders and raised planters, around trees and shrubs, and in narrow strips where conventional above-ground systems would result in water waste.

If you use hoses instead of an underground system, you can observe water patterns. Instead of watering the entire lawn each time, spot water based on visible signs of need, such as turf that begins to turn a gray-green color.

Avoid frequent, shallow sprinklings that lead to shallow root development. Compact soils result in quick puddling and water runoff. They need aeration with machines that pull soil plugs.

Trees and shrubs separate from the lawn are best watered with deep root watering devices.

Mulching 

Properly selected and applied mulches in flower and shrub beds reduce water use by decreasing soil temperatures and the amount of soil exposed to wind. Mulches also discourage weeds and can improve soil conditions.

There are two basic types of mulches: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include straw, partially decomposed compost, wood chips, bark, and even ground corncobs or newspapers. Inorganic mulches include plastic film, gravel and woven fabrics. Sometimes a combination of both organic and inorganic is used.

If soil improvement is a priority, use organic mulches. Wood chips and compost are most appropriate. As these materials break down, they become an organic amendment to the soil. Earthworms and other soil organisms help incorporate the organic component into the soil. Organic mulch is preferred because organic mulch improves aeration and water-holding capacity.

Inorganic mulches, such as plastic film, effectively exclude weeds for a time, but they also tend to exclude the water and air essential to plant roots. Woven fabrics and fiber mats are preferred over polyethylene films. Fabrics and mats exclude weeds yet allow water and air exchange. Used in combination with decorative rock or bark chunks, they often outlast the less expensive but short-lived polyethylene films.

Plant Selection 
Figure 2 – The Hatcher Garden in Indianapolis, IN.  Photo: inpaws.org
Figure 2 – The Hatcher Garden in Indianapolis, IN.  Photo: inpaws.org

Plant selection is the most important step in xeriscaping. Plants should be selected that are native, as they are most adapted to the climate and they help maintain a healthy ecosystem. Keeping in mind how much sun your selected site will receive and how much water the site holds will help identify appropriate plants.  Information on appropriate native plants can be found through the additional websites of interests at the bottom of this initiative, or by contacting one of the two contacts listed below. Plants can be acquired from Spence Restoration Nursery. Spence Restoration Nursery only sells to wholesale accounts but periodically sells around Muncie, dates and times can be found on the Spence Restoration and Nursery FaceBook page.

Contact information for assistance sources

Muncie Sanitary District
300 N High St
Muncie, IN 47305
Phone:             (765) 213-6450
Fax:                 (765) 747-7744
Contact:           Ms. Jason Donati, Stormwater Educator
Email:              jdonati@msdeng.com
Website:          http://www.munciesanitary.org/

Spencer Restoration Nursery
2220 E Fusion Rd
Muncie, IN 47302
Phone:             (765) 286-7154
Contact:           Mr. Kevin Tungesvick
Email:               Kevin@spencenursery.com
Website:           http://www.spencenursery.com/Index/home.php

Summary of relevant case studies
Case Study: Muncie City Hall, Muncie, IN

Figure 3 – Xeriscaping planted around Muncie City Hall. Source: munciesanitarydistrict.org
Figure 3 – Xeriscaping planted around Muncie City Hall. Source: munciesanitarydistrict.org

The Muncie Storm Water Department under the Muncie Sanitary District contracted the installation of native plants around City Hall that drastically reduced the need for irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides.  The plan includes over 75 different species of native plugs and hardy perennials, along with flowering shrubs, trees, and heat-reducing columnar maples.

The mix of species including Iron Weed, Cup Plant, Black-Eyed Susan, and Coneflower were incorporated to attract both birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects, while Lavender, Sages, Liatris, Hardy Geraniums, and Day Lilies allow for a continual bloom from April through October.  The use of grasses, Purple Love Grass, Dropseed, Indian grass, and Little Bluestem soften the landscape while providing additional food for song birds and structure for the landscape during the winter months.  The focus of the landscape design was to decrease storm water runoff, lower maintenance costs, and increase the beauty around City Hall.

Due to the horticultural maintenance of this landscape it has also become an educational tool for residents and visitors to visit and learn about native plants and their use in their own backyards and businesses.

Source: flatlandsresources.com 

Additional websites of interest

Vite Greenhouse: Native Plants
Detailed information on native plants in Indiana and plant characteristics.

Indiana Native Plant & Wildflower Society
Detailed information on the benefits of native plants in Indiana and how to landscape with natives.

EPA: Water Sense
A partnership program of the environmental Protection Agency which provides tips for designing water smart landscapes.

Colorado State University: Xeriscaping
Information about how xeriscaping started and additional information on xeriscaping. Keep in mind that the website provides some techniques specific to Colorado, which has a different climate than Indiana.

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