Print Back to top

Xeriscape Principles

The Xeriscape concept is based on seven principles, which are outlined below.

Planning and Design

A plan provides direction and guidance and will ensure that water-saving techniques are implemented in the landscape.

The first step is to look at your existing landscape and create a "base plan." This diagram, drawn to scale, should show the major elements of your landscape, including house, driveway, sidewalk, deck or patio, existing trees and other elements.

Measure from the property lines to your house, and measure all the exterior walls of your house. Measure other impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks, decks and driveways. If there are existing trees, shrubs, etc., that you want to keep, measure them for your plan.

Transfer your measurements 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.

Once you've drawn your property lines on the graph paper, fill in the details, including the house outline, sidewalks, driveways, etc. Show direction on your plan by drawing an arrow pointing north.

This will help you to select plants appropriate for specific exposures. Some other things you should include on your base plan include:

  • 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

Once you've completed a base plan of your existing landscape, think about how you want to use your new Xeriscape. Do you want it to be a place for dogs to run? An inviting approach to your front entrance?

Once finished, develop a "planting plan," outlining what types of plants should go where in your yard.

Soil Improvements

Front Range soils tend to fall into one of two categories: sand and clay. Clay soil is dense and takes a long time to absorb and release water. On the other hand, sandy soil doesn’t hold much water. Unless irrigated frequently, plants in sandy soils tend to dry out.

Non-native plants may require soil amendments; native plants often do not. Amending your soil with organic material, such as compost or manure, can help retain and release water. For most soils, adding 1 to 2 inches of organic material 6 inches deep can improve your soil.

Note: If you are landscaping with native plants, soil amendments may not be necessary. For many of these plants, you need only to loosen the soil.

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, avoid oscillating sprinklers and other sprinklers that throw water high in the air or release a fine mist. The most efficient sprinklers release big drops close to the ground.

Water deeply and infrequently to develop deep roots. Never water between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to reduce water lost to evaporation. If you have an automatic sprinkling system, adjust your controller monthly to accommodate changing weather conditions. Also, install a rain sensor to shut off the device when it rains.

Plant Zones

Different areas in your yard receive 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 that matches these requirements. Put high-water-use plants in low-lying drainage areas, near downspouts, or in the shade of other plants.

Dry, sunny areas or areas far from a hose are great places for 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.


Mulch keeps plant roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation and reduces weed growth.

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 to be replaced and work well 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 can 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 plant roots.)

Turf Alternatives

Traditional Kentucky bluegrass is lush and hardy, but it requires a substantial amount of water in our semi-arid climate.

One way to use less water is to reduce the amount of bluegrass turf in your landscape. Native or low-water-use plants, patios, decks or mulches can beautify your landscape while saving water. Also try planting turf such as buffalo grass, blue grama grass, turf-type tall fescue and fine fescues to reduce water use in your landscape.


Maintenance for a new Xeriscape garden is similar to a traditional landscape, but it will decrease over time. The new garden may require watering (see "efficient irrigation" on this page), weeding, cutting back most perennials and native grasses each year, and pruning shrubs and trees as needed.