Xeriscape not zeroscape: Water-conscious landscaping can be lavish, beautiful

A photo of the yard of an Albuquerque house after it was converted to a xeriscape. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Services Board)

Overall, New Mexico homeowners are getting the all-important message from the arid southwest: Water is precious and should not be wasted.

But local experts say an important piece of history is still often lost when it comes to landscaping: Water conservation doesn’t necessarily mean a yard made up of a plant surrounded by gravel.

“We need to get away from that,” said Carlos Bustos, water conservation program manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utilities Authority. “Xeriscapes are delicious, they are beautiful, they are plentiful, they are resistant, they are durable. … We hope that in 10 years, we will no longer have to deal with the idea of ​​“zero landscapes”.

The yard pictured above before it was converted to a xeriscape. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Services Board)

Solange Serquis, of Serquis + Associates Landscape Architecture, based in Santa Fe, agreed.

“I firmly believe that we all deserve aesthetics and beauty,” she said. “When you combine aesthetics and beauty to achieve something else, such as passive cooling or low consumption plants or an invitation to be outside, a better use of … energy inside, that’s the main thing. . “

Selection of plants

According to Jill Brown, landscape architect and owner of My Landscape Coach, plant selection tends to be a point in the landscaping process where homeowners are very involved.

“If I go back and look at the hottest posts, the hottest things, the discussions, the questions we got, it’s still about plants,” said Brown, who also provides content. for the 505 Outside Water Services Authority Landscape website. “So people are really interested in plants and learning more about plants and this aspect of a landscape. “

For many local landscape professionals, tree planting is at the top of the list.

“This will provide shade, which will lower your energy bills if you place it… on the south side of the house… or on the west side of the house,” Brown said.

Bustos said that if a tree is well planned and positioned correctly, these energy savings can be significant.

“There are studies that say that if you place a tree strategically where you need it, you can save up to 25% of the energy in typical household use,” he said, adding that shading trees helps reduce water loss by other plants. close.

“By creating this microclimate, you can reduce water requirements between 6 and 20%,” he said. “It’s always cooler in the shade.

Serquis says planting trees adds long-term value.

“I always say that planting a tree is an act of… citizenship,” she said. “Because you’re planting this tree today and maybe 50 years from now, it’s… a legacy for the neighborhood. “

With trees as well as smaller plants, Serquis said she was looking for ways to passively cool living spaces – both indoors and out – and was breeding low-consumption varieties. ‘water.

When it comes to choosing specific plant varieties, Brown takes a straightforward approach.

“Basically, the native plants you buy from a local nursery will work in your soil,” she said. “It’s like a generalization that we like to say to homeowners: don’t stress your floor too much. If you buy plants from a local nursery, you will be fine.

Of course, there is a caveat: these plants and trees should always be watered properly.


Brown said the data and his own experience suggest that in the world of landscaping-conscious homeowners, about half use some type of irrigation system and about half water by hand.

Landscaping of the Albuquerque home of WaterWise Landscapes founder Hunter Ten Broeck. (Courtesy of Hunter Ten Broeck)

These manual drinkers, according to Brown and Bustos, should think about installing an irrigation system.

“Hand-watering is a waste because they pulverize the leaves and… we have to get to the roots,” Brown said.

Those who already have an irrigation system may wonder if it is effective or sufficiently refined.

Those who use spray sprinklers, for example, may consider replacing sprayers with highly efficient models that are more available to homeowners today than in the past, often on the shelves of local irrigation supply companies. Brown said.

Homeowners can check whether the plants in their garden are watered to the correct depth, whether their irrigation system adapts to the seasons – less water in spring and fall than in summer – or to weather conditions.

Plants in Albuquerque, home of WaterWise Landscapes founder, Hunter Ten Broeck. (Courtesy of Hunter Ten Broeck)

The water needs of plants also vary depending on the type of soil they are planted on – which, even in the metro Albuquerque area, can vary widely, from sand on the West Side to clay in the valley.

Brown concedes that the considerations can overwhelm homeowners.

“People really want you to say, ‘Hey, water your landscape 20 minutes twice a week in the summer, 20 minutes once a week in the spring and fall,’ Brown said.


Serquis said that when she first left Argentina in New Mexico, the trend was for homeowners to completely ditch their lawns in favor of gravel. But lawns don’t have such a bad reputation with conservation-conscious landscapers these days.

“I think there is something between” the lawn and the gravel, “Serquis said. “(It) depends on how you look at the grass, or what kind of grass – it’s not that bad. And a xeriscape without plants, just as a reflective surface, could be even worse ”because of the heat generated.

Brown said there are types of grass that require less water – and while homeowners want the grass to “be in the park,” there are better ways to water it than with a system. spray that throws water high into the air and risks evaporation. Bustos agreed.

“If you have a lawn and you enjoy it, and it’s functional and you take care of it, then update it,” he said. “You know, update this irrigation system. There is technology that can just make things a lot more efficient. “


Brown said mulch is an important part of landscaping in the Southwest.

“One of the things people complain about the most is weeds in New Mexico, and that’s largely because wherever there’s bare soil you’re going to have weeds,” he said. she declared. “… The simplest, cheapest and easiest solution to install is 3-4 inches of shredded wood chip mulch all over the yard.”

Mulch helps the soil retain moisture and insulate plant roots, and it breaks down over time to enrich the soil. Brown said a layer of mulch often means replacing stretches of gravel.

“All the gravel does is generate more heat and more weeds,” she said. “Even if you have the weed control cloth, the weed control cloth just makes it easier to pull out weeds.”

Start small

Bustos recognized that the process of adapting a landscape can be daunting. He said he encourages residents to start with “the lowest investment”, which changes behavior. People can start to track the seasonal irrigation needs of their landscape, rather than giving the same amount of water year round.

Those willing to invest the resources can take small steps such as installing smart irrigation controllers, replacing efficient sprinklers and nozzles – steps, according to Bustos, can save up to 30%. of water consumption in some cases.

“If you really want to invest, you want to turn your garden into a desert-friendly landscape, then we’ve got a xeriscape discount that people can tap into,” he said.

Brown said that although his clients are in different phases with their landscapes, they tend to share one thing in common.

“Overall, in general, the people of Albuquerque want to save water,” she said. “It’s obvious now.”

Before and after images of work done on a house in Tesuque in 2015. The work was to create a more inviting and accessible entrance. (Courtesy of Serquis + Associates)
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