Xeriscaping: A garden for the bottom line

In this era of conservation and sustainability, it seems indulgent and rather irresponsible to douse lawns and gardens unnecessarily.

That notion is spreading as one word keeps coming up on landscaping blogs and at garden club discussions over trends of the new millennium: drought.

And as Kamloops residents begin receiving new water meter bills this year, a reactive hyper vigilance over consumption may finally be the catalyst for a new wave in low water landscaping.

"The water meter is a good teacher in the sense that once you decide that you're paying for every drip of water that runs down your driveway you start to become a little more aware," said Rae Wilson, Kamloops Garden Club president.

Awareness may fiscal rather than environmental, but it's still expected to further popularize the landscaping method of xeriscaping.

Pronounced "zair-i-scape," the term combines the Greek word "xeros," meaning dry, and "scape" for view to mean "water conservation through creative landscaping."

The style of low water gardening is a relatively new concept in the mainstream but one that's been on the City of Kamloops radar for 20 years.

"It's one of my favourite topics. I love xeriscaping," said Karla Hoffman, City of Kamloops integrated pest management co-ordinator.

Hoffman's been in charge of educating the public on the low water gardening through workshops and brochures for years.

But so far, the effort hasn't made a dent in the city's water consumption, which is well above the national average.

"That's partially why the water meters are moving ahead," said Hoffman. "Even though there has been the education about it folks here tend to water their lawns a lot."

The average Canadian uses 326 litres of water per day but according to City stats, the average Kamloops resident uses about 850 litres of water per day, peaking during the summer to a whopping 1,750 litres of water per person per day.

Eighty per cent of the water consumed in the summer is used outdoors to water grass as well as hose driveways and wash vehicles, according to the City.

And it's not like the region is drowning in precipitation to make up for it. Kamloops receives about 21.8 cm of rainfall per year while Kelowna receives 29.8 cm and Vancouver receives 155.5 cm.

Xeriscaping originated with the Denver Colorado Water Department in 1981.

The City of Kamloops was not far behind with a demonstration garden at McArthur Island Park established in the mid 1990s and another at a water booster station on Westsyde's Harrington Road planted in 2011.

Perhaps it's taken a while to take off because it evokes notions of brown, brittle flora, thistles, tumbleweed and of course cacti.

A true xeriscape garden is no colourless affair however, as proven by City gardens that bloom with brilliant greens, yellows and reds in lush terrain. In fact xeriscaping can be applied to any form of garden, said Hoffman.

"It can be very, very attractive. You can apply it to a Japanese Zen garden, you can apply it to a traditional appearing garden, you can have your southwest style.

"You don't have to go with just the yuccas and rocks and whatnot. It can actually be fairly lush looking just by choosing the right plants and putting them in the right spot."

Xeriscaping incorporates seven principles, among them turf planning, appropriate plant selection and efficient irrigation.

But both Wilson and Hoffman say their favourite tip for effectiveness and simplicity is the use of mulch.

"Most water loss is through evaporation unless there's some sort of mulch there to keep it place," said Hoffman.

"And it also helps to keep weeds under control, so mulch is just a good way to go," said Wilson.

Perfectly good and free mulch is right under our noses, but we consistently throw it away, said Wilson.

"A mistake people make is they cut the grass and take it up to the landfill," he said. "It's free mulch and people haul it all the way up to the hill and they go buy mulch. And acts as fertilizer because that's all grass is, is nitrogen.

"A lot of it's practical. Grandma did that but we just forgot about it."

The amount of work needed to xeriscape a traditional garden runs the gamut from a few simple changes to entirely new landscape.

That said however, immediate and major improvements are possible by minimizing traditional lawns.

But try telling an average Canadian and watch the look of horror spread over his face.

The North American love affair with the lawn goes back to the early 19 thcentury.

A famous myth has Thomas Jefferson planting the first American lawn at Monticello in 1806. Although untrue, the story reflects the real reason behind the early popularity of lawns - stature.

Since it took so much effort to tend, grass turf was typically reserved for the upper class. When the everyman saw an opportunity to emulate the gentry without all the labour, he jumped on board.

Thus lawns really took off in 1830 with the invention of the lawnmower.

Today, lawns are the most irrigated crop in the U.S. covering more than 40 million acres, as determined by NASA through satellite images.

Many conscientious gardeners have replaced broad swaths of lawn with smaller patches and covered the remaining grounds with native, drought tolerant plants including indigenous grass, shrubbery and trees.

The change turns the lawn into an accent on the landscape rather than the dominant element.

For those not ready to undertake a complete make over, however, becoming more knowledgeable and aware of existing landscape is a good start.

Two simple steps that could make a substantial difference are altering irrigation to match plants' actual water requirements and making adjustments to minimize overspray onto hard surfaces.

Wilson suggests longer sprinkler stints a one to two times a week rather than every other day when the City permits it. That way longer roots form, which allows grass to access deeper wells of moisture from the ground.

Hoffman will provide more in depth methods to reduce water consumption during a City of Kamloops xeriscaping workshop at McArthur Island's xeriscape demonstration garden on May 15.

The course is $15 and participants can register online at www.city.kamloops.bc.ca.

Hoffman said she's been encouraged by the workshop's increasing attendance over the years.

"It's always the one that's the best attended," she said. "Sometimes we have wait lists and put extra ones one."

No one wants an unattractive terrain, said Hoffman, but there are ways to maintain a luxuriant look without luxurious indulgence.

"If we can do both - have a nice landscape and conserve water - than that's the way to go."


The City of Kamloops provides extensive advice on planning your own xeriscape garden on its website. Here are few steps to get your started.

Take an inventory

* Sketch a simple bird's-eye view of your property.

* Take inventory, walk around your yard and note what works well and what could change.

* Measure and locate all elements that must remain (property lines, fences, driveways, walkways, retaining walls, utilities).

* Identify conditions that will affect planting and water usage (sun, wind, shade, slopes, drainage, soil variations).

* Note views you wish to maintain or eliminate and where an irrigation system could be connected.

Make a with list

* Determine what each member of the household would like from the available outdoor space (recreation space, a place for relaxation and entertaining, a showpiece, storage).

* Prioritize the wish list and decide when you would like to complete the project, and how much it will cost.

* Expand your horizons. Go for a drive and make notes on other yards. Visit the xeriscape demonstration garden at McArthur Island, as well as garden centres and nurseries.

* Consult magazines, the library and home and garden shows for ideas

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