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Xeriscape PictureThe concept of Xeriscape is based on seven principles: planning & design, limiting turf areas, selecting and zoning plants appropriately, improving the soil, using mulches, irrigating efficiently, and doing appropriate maintenance. As you can see from these pictures, Xeriscape is NOT ugly, brown, rocks and cactus. A properly-designed Xeriscape is lush, colorful and easy to care for. Call Denver Water's Conservation Hotline (303 628-6343) for more information on Xeriscape, or visit Denver Water's Xeriscape demonstration garden at our Administration Building (1600 West 12th Avenue).

Demonstrative Xeriscape Gardens
Xeriscape Books
Xeriscape Videos

Xeriscape is a method of landscaping that promotes water conservation. Rather than a specific “look” or a limited group of plants, Xeriscape is a combination of seven basic landscaping principles. These principles are explained below in the order a landscape planner or property owner would consider to install the best landscape. Each principle must be considered during the planning and design phase, but the sequence of installation is also very important in assuring a successful Xeriscape.

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The seven principles of Xeriscape are:

Planning and Design
Soil Improvements
Efficient Irrigation
Zoning of Plants
Turf Alternatives
Appropriate Maintenance

  1. Planning and Design
    Trying to create a landscape without a plan is like trying to build a home without blueprints. A plan provides direction and guidance and will ensure that water-conserving techniques are coordinated and implemented in the landscape. The first step is to look at your existing landscape and create a “base plan.” This is a to-scale diagram showing the major elements of your landscape - your house, driveway, sidewalk, deck or patio, existing trees, etc.  To measure your landscape, you’ll need a 50 foot or longer tape measure, and a helpful relative/friend. You will need to measure from the property lines to your house, as well as all the exterior walls of your house. You will also need to measure other impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks, decks and driveways. If there are existing trees, shrubs, etc. that you wish to keep, you’ll need to measure to place them accurately in your plan. Once you’ve recorded all the measurements, you’ll have to transfer them to graph paper. Most designers prefer to work with plans drawn to a 1:10 or 1:8 scale. This means that every 10 (or 8) feet of actual measure equals 1 inch on your plan. So if your property is 50 feet wide by 100 feet long and you’re using a 1:10 scale, your plan would be 5 inches by 10 inches.  Once you’ve drawn your property lines on the graph paper, you need to fill in the details, including the house outline, sidewalks, driveways, etc. You also need to show direction on your plan by drawing an arrow indicating North. This will help your designer select plants appropriate for specific exposures. Some of the other things you should include on your base plan are: 


    • the location of spigots, downspouts and external electrical outlets.

    • fences, walls and other structures

    • existing lawn, garden, shrub masses and flower beds 

    • trees (both yours and your neighbors, if they shade part of your yard)

    • slopes

Xeriscape PictureOnce you’ve completed a base plan of your existing landscape, you need to think about how you want to use your new Xeriscape. Examples of uses can include a place to let the dog romp; an inviting approach to your front entrance; the selection of a tree to block an unsightly view; the placement of a vegetable garden and so on. The final step is to develop a “planting plan,” indicating what types of plants should go where in your yard.

  1. Soil Improvements
    Front Range soils tend to fall into one of two categories: sand and clay. Clay soil is dense, slow to absorb and release water. If water is applied to clay soil too quickly, it either pools on the surface or runs off. Over watering heavy clay soil can actually drown plants.
    On the other hand, sandy soil can’t hold water. Unless irrigated frequently, plants in sandy soils tend to dry out.  To enable your soil to better absorb water and allow for deeper roots, you may need to add a soil amendment before you plant. For most soils, adding 1 to 2 inches of organic matter such as compost or well-aged manure to your soil can be beneficial. Rototill the organic matter into the soil at least 6 inches deep.  (Note: if you are landscaping with native plants, soil amendments may not be necessary, as they prefer soil that is not too rich. For many of these plants, the only soil preparation necessary is to loosen the soil.)

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  2. Efficient Irrigation
    A Xeriscape can be irrigated efficiently by hand or with an automatic sprinkler system. If you’re installing a sprinkler system, it’s a good idea to plan this at the same time you design the landscape. Zone turf areas separately from other plantings and use the irrigation method that waters the plants in each area most efficiently. For grass, low-pressure, low-angle sprinklers irrigate best. Drip, spray or bubbler emitters are most efficient for watering trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcovers. If you water by hand, try to avoid oscillating sprinklers and other sprinklers that throw water high in the air or put out a fine mist. The most efficient sprinklers put out big drops and keep them close to the ground. Water deeply and infrequently to develop deep roots. The best time to water is between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. to reduce water loss due to evaporation. If you have an automatic sprinkling system, adjust your controller regularly to meet seasonal needs and weather conditions. Also, install a rain shut off device.

  3. Zoning of Plants
    Different areas in your yard get different amounts of light, wind and moisture. To minimize water waste, group together plants with similar light and water requirements, and place them in an area in your yard which matches these requirements. A good rule of thumb is to put high water-use plantings in low lying drainage areas, near downspouts, or in the shade of other plants. It’s also helpful to put higher water-use plants where it is easy to water. Dry, sunny areas or areas far from a hose are great places for the many low water-use plants that grow well in our climate. Planting a variety of plants with different heights, color and textures creates interest and beauty. By grouping your plants appropriately, you minimize water waste while ensuring that your plants will flourish in the right environment.

  4. Mulches
    Mulching is essential for gardening along the Front Range. Mulch helps keep plants roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation and reduces weed growth. Mulches also give beds a finished look and increase the visual appeal of your garden. Organic mulches, such as bark chips, pole peelings or wood grindings, should be applied at least 4 inches deep. Because they decompose over time, they’re an excellent choice for new beds. As plants mature and spread, they’ll cover the mulched areas. Inorganic mulches include rocks and gravel, and should be applied at least 2 inches deep. They rarely need replacement and are good in windy spots. However, they should not be placed next to the house on the sunny south or west sides, because they tend to retain and radiate heat. Mulch may be applied directly to the soil surface or placed over a landscape fabric. (Note: Do not use black plastic because it prevents air and water from reaching to the plant roots.)

  5. Turf Alternatives
    Traditionally, the landscape of choice along the Front Range has been a carpet of bluegrass turf. Bluegrass is lush and hardy, but in our semi-arid climate it requires a substantial amount of supplemental watering.  One way to reduce watering requirements is to reduce the amount of bluegrass turf in your landscape. Native or low water use plantings, patios, decks or mulches can beautify your landscape while saving water. Choosing a lower water using turf also serves the same purpose. Such choices can include buffalo grass, blue grama grass, turf type tall fescue and fine fescues.

  6. Appropriate Maintenance
    Preserve the beauty of your Xeriscape with regular maintenance. The first year or two, your new landscape will probably require a fair amount of weeding, but as plants mature they will crowd out the weeds, significantly reducing your maintenance time.  In addition to weeding, your Xeriscape will need proper irrigation, pruning, fertilizing and pest control. Maintenance time for a new garden is similar to a traditional landscape, but it decreases over time. In addition to weeding, proper irrigation, pruning, fertilizing and pest control will keep your landscape beautiful and water thrifty. When your garden is well taken care of, you can sit back and enjoy it.

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Xeriscape Picture

 Find Demonstration Gardens, Books and Videos


Arvada  - City of Arvada Public Works Center  (303) 420-0984
6161 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, east side of building.
1 acre, featuring 2 turf types and 50 labeled plant species.

Boulder - Boulder Creek Xeriscape Garden  (303) 441-3416
West of the Justice Center at 6th and Canyon streets.
1/4 acre, featuring 6 turf types and 75 species of plants, including herbs.  Interpretive signs with identified plants.

Castle Rock - Douglas Co. Executive Building  (303) 688-3096
101 3rd Street.
1500 square feet, featuring 1 turf area and about 75 labeled plant species.

Chatfield Arboretum - Xeriscape Demo. Garden  (303) 973-3705
1/2 mile west of Wadsworth Blvd. on Deer Creek Canyon Road.
2 1/2 acres, with over 150 labeled plant species.  Emphasis is on wildlife habitat, residential design and readily available plants.

Colorado Springs- Mesa Water Treatment Plant   (719) 636-5407
2855 Mesa Road.
1 3/4 acres, with over 150 species of plants, including 71 species of natives.  Interpretive signs and plant labels.

Denver - Denver Water Department (303) 628-6343
1600 West 12th Avenue.
1/4 acre, featuring 6 turf types and 90 species of plants. Interpretive signs and plant labels.  Different plant regions are zoned and equipped with water meters

Fort Collins  - Fort Collins City Hall  (303) 221-6681
300 LaPorte Avenue
1/3 acre, including 3 turf types and over 100 labeled plant species.  Different plant regions are zoned and equipped with water meters for comparative purposes.

Longmont - Longmont Public Library  (303) 651-8348
3rd and Kimbark, south side.
400 square feet, with 2 turf types and about 50 labeled plant species.

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Bennett, Richard E and Michael S. Hazinski
Water-Efficient Landscape Guidelines
American Water Works Association, 1993

Birchfield, Emerson R.
The Flowering of Denver
Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver, CO 1989

Borland, James N., Sylvia Brockner and Jeanne R. Janish
 Native Plants of Genesee
Boulder, CO. Genesee Foundation, 1987.

Brown-Folsom, Debra ...[et al.]
Dry Climate Gardening with Succulents
New York, NY.  Pantheon Books, 1995

Brune, Rick
 The Prairie Garden
 Reprinted by the Colorado Native Plant Society, 1991

Brenzel, Kathleen
Sunset Western Garden Book
Sunset Publishing, Menlo Park, CA., 1995

City of Boulder, Colorado
Boulder Xeriscapes, Gardening with Our Climate
1995, CD-Rom

Coates, Margaret
Perennials for the Western Garden
Pruett, 1976

Colorado Nursery Association
The Rocky Mountain Perennial Plant Guide

Denver, CO., 1995

 Colorado Nurserymen’s Association
Rocky Mountain Plant Guide
Denver, CO., 1993

CSU Cooperative Extension Office, Service In Action Bulletins:

 Feucht, James R., Xeriscaping:  Water Conservation Through Creative Landscaping, No. 7.228

Feucht, James R.,  Xeriscaping:  Trees And Shrubs For Low-water Landscapes, No. 7.229

Feucht, James R., Xeriscaping:  Ground Cover Plants For Low-water Landscapes, No. 7.230

Feucht, James R.,  Xeriscaping:  Garden Flowers For Low-water Landscapes, No. 7.231

Feucht, James R., Xeriscaping:  Turf  and Ornamental Grasses For Low-water Landscapes, No. 7.232

Feucht, James R., Wildflowers for Colorado Landscapes, No. 7.233

Flowering Herbaceous Perennials for the High Plains
Technical Bulletin LTB 89-5, 1989

Klett, J.E. and R. A. Cox, Ground Cover Plants, No. 7.401

Klett, J.E. and R. A. Cox, Rock Garden Plants, No. 7.400

Creasy, Rosalind
The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping
Sierra Club Books, ISBN 0-87156-249-2.

Ellefson, Connie, Tom Stephens and Doug Welsh
Xeriscape Gardening
Macmillan Publishing, 1992

Erickison, Jonathan
Saving Water in the Home & Garden
TAB Books, 1993.

Ferguson, Nicola
Right Plant, Right Place
Summit Books, 1984.

Feucht, James R. and Jack D. Butler
Landscape Management
New York, NY. Vantrand Reinhold Co., 1988.

Hakala, Sue
Drought Gardening
Pownal VT., Storey Communications, 1981.

Huddleson, S. and M. Hussey
Grow Native
Boulder, CO.,  Pruett Press, 1989.

Johnson, Eric & Millard, Scott
The Low Water Flower Gardener
Tuscon, AZ., Ironwood Press, 1993

Knopf, Jim
The Xeriscape Flower Gardener
Johnson Books, 1991

Landscaping For Water Conservation:  Xeriscape!
Jointly published by City of Aurora, Co., and Denver Water

Nelson, Ruth Ashton
The Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants
Skyland Publishers, Box 1258  Estes Park, CO 1979.

Nehrling, Arno
Easy Gardening With Drought-Resistant Plants
New York, Hearthside Press, 1968

O’Keefe, John M.
Water-Conserving Gardens and Landscapes
Pownal, Ver. Storey Communications, 1992

Ottesen, Carole
Ornamental Grasses - The Amber Wav
McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1989

Perry, Bob.
Landscape Plants for Western Regions: An Illustrated Guide to Plants for
Water Conservation
Claremont, CA:  Land Design Publishing, 1992

Phillips, Judith
Southwestern Landscaping with Native Plants
Santa Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Phillips, Judith
Natural by Design: Beauty and Balance in Southwest Gardens
Santa Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Phillips, Judith
Plants for Natural Gardens: Southwestern Native & Adaptive Trees, Shrubs, Wildflowers & Grasses
Sante Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995

Rumary, Mark
The Dry Garden
Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1995.

Springer, Lauren
The Undaunted Garden
Fulcrum Publishing, 1994

New Western Garden Book
Lane Publishing Company, 1983

Waterwise Gardening
Lane Publishing Company, 1989

Taylor, Jane
Plants For Dry Climates
New York,  Prentise Hall, 1993

Taylor's Guide to Water-Saving Gardening
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990

Thomas, Christopher
Water-Wise Gardening
New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994

Wheatly, Margaret
Successful Gardening with Limited Water
Woodbridge Press, 1978.

Xeriscape Plant Guide
Fulcrum Publishing, 1996
edited by Denver Water

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Beautiful Gardens With Less Water.
32 minutes.  Produced by:

            Sunset Films and Television
            Lane Publishing Company
            Menlo Park, CA  94025

Sunset Waterwise Gardening - Western Edition.
32 minutes.  Produced by:

            Sunset Video
            Lane Publishing Company
            Menlo Park, CA  94025

Xeriscape - Appropriate Landscaping To Conserve Water.
Approximately 30 minutes.  Produced by:

            San Luis Video
            P.O. Box 4604
            San Luis Obispo, CA  93403

Xeriscape - A Quiet Revolution.
28 minutes.  Produced jointly by:

            Denver Water                 Denver Museum of Natural History
            1600 W. 12th Avenue      2001 Colorado Boulevard
            Denver, CO  80254          Denver, CO  80205

Xeriscape - Landscaping to Save Water, Time and Money.
18 minutes.  Produced by:

            Virginia Jensen and Fred Liljegren
            Department of Natural Resources
            Division of Water Resources
            1636 West North Temple, Suite 310
            Salt Lake City, Utah  84116

Your Own Back Yard
Approximately 1 hour.  Produced jointly by: Denver Water & Linda Rea Productions


This information was provided by Denver Water 2003

Copyright Information

The word “Xeriscape,” was coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981 to help make water conserving landscaping an easily recognized concept. The word is a combination of “landscape” and the Greek word “xeros,” which means “dry.” Denver Water holds the copyright to the name “Xeriscape” and the Xeriscape logo. Neither may be used as part of a business name or product. However, we welcome the use of the word in books, articles and speeches promoting water conserving landscape. For permission to use the term, “Xeriscape”, please email or call Conservation Manager Liz Gardener, 303-628-6325. For more general information, please call the Denver Water Conservation Hotline, 303-628-6330.

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