Xeriscaping is the process of landscaping or gardening that drastically reduces or altogether eliminates the need for the watering of plants. Pronounced “zeroscaping”, and stemming from the Greek work “xeros” meaning dry, the word literally means “dry landscape”. The term and practice can be traced back to Denver in the 1970’s and 80’s, which was undergoing a difficult drought period and was thus on the hunt for creative solutions. Xeriscaping is oftentimes primarily used to conserve water, typically in dry areas, but it can be utilized in wetter areas like Smith River as well to make smart use of water resources. This can especially come in handy in drier than average years.
The process typically involves utilizing native species, as well as non-living ornamental features like rocks, to replace a typical grass lawn. By replacing grass lawns you reduce the need for fertilizers, consistent water input (either via rain or irrigation), and mowing. Xeriscaping can not only save you money on water and fertilizer in the long run, but it can save you time and stress over keeping your lawn artificially green and short. You do not even have to totally eliminate Kentucky bluegrass, the grass typically used for lawns. A mere reduction in area of lawn grass is a great step forward from a water conservation perspective, and additionally can provide habitat for pollinators and other animals. Additionally, xeriscaping adds diversity to your plant species and improves overall aesthetics. The usage of pathways through your lawn, as well as mulch or rock to fill between plants, can really help round out your yard.
One of the key principles of xeriscaping is to group up plants that need similar amounts of water, so that if you do need to water you do not overwater plants while still ensuring that they get the water they require. The most important decision involved with xeriscaping is in deciding what to grow. For Smith River, you are going to want plants that can tolerate the wet, cool winters and then make it through the dry, warmer summers without requiring much additional water.
Now for a look at a list of just a few of the plants that can successfully be utilized in xeriscaping here in Smith River. Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) shrubs love the regular rain we get during typical winters and additionally can tolerate drought during dry summers, making them good candidates for local water conservation efforts. The huckleberries are edible to humans and songbirds alike, and deer, elk and grouse can also browse on the foliage.
Another solid choice is Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), as it is very drought tolerant but can tolerate the downpours that we get here fairly often. The shrub is adapted to grow in poor soil types and tolerate browsing by ungulates like deer and its flowers attract bees.
Wood or coastal strawberry is another fine addition to the list (Fragaria spp.) Energetic growers, strawberries spread by far-reaching runners carrying new offsets that can be left in place or easily transplanted to other spots in the garden. Left alone, it will form a lush, textured surface to the ground. Because of this underlying webwork of runners, Fragaria is useful as a soil-binding groundcover in coastal gardens as well as inland, especially the coastal F. chiloensis, which is evergreen.
Manzanita (Arctospahylos spp.) shrubs are a good xeriscaping option because as they stay green all-year because their roots stretch to find damp areas. Their large stems can be used for firewood, and their white flowers attract butterflies.
Finally, there is the Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). It is a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 13 feet tall. It grows near the coast and is very a flexible plant that can tolerate water and exposure.
These are just a few options that fit well with the Smith River climate and precipitation patterns and offer various benefits to humans and wildlife alike. For more options, you could search online, inquire in a store that sells native plants, or check in with the natural resources department. It is important to be careful and check what variety of plant you are getting as one of the goals of xeriscaping is to benefit pollinators and other native wildlife species, and many stores specifically sell varieties of native plants designed not to attract pollinators or other wildlife.
Article written by Brian Wagenaar, Watershed Stewards Program Member with the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Natural Resources Department Water Department, with assistance from Kagat McQuillen and Cynthia Ford with the Habitat and Wildlife Department.