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Try xeriscaping your yard


August 2015

According to many landscape professionals, a typical homeowner can use 40 to 60 gallons a day on average to water lawns and gardens. About half of that is wasted. Those who know say the water loss is the result of evaporation, lousy watering systems and, yes, even overwatering.

Yet there are methods to resolve this challenge, especially important as climate changes, drought, dropping water tables and pollution become more extreme. One such conservation method is xeriscaping ("zeer-i-skey-ping"), a process that utilizes foliage that doesn’t require much water and involves developing rain gardens or capturing rain water in barrels. The word combines the Greek "xeros," which means dry, with the word landscaping.

Wisconsin can be proud of the Appleton-headquartered Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of native plants. The program was launched in 1979 based on the philosophy of noted Milwaukee conservationist Lorrie Otto. The group’s motto is "healing the earth, one yard at a time."

"With global warming and climate change, people have become aware that they have a responsibility to the environment," says Wild Ones Executive Director Donna VanBuecken. "One thing they can easily be responsible for is the environment that surrounds their home."

"By using native plants in their gardening and landscaping, they are taking a big step toward healing the earth. Native plants do not require the tender loving care that most non-native plants do," VanBuecken points out.

Because of their root systems, they are able to get the moisture and nutrition they need from deep within the earth, she explains.

For Jim Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio, xeriscaping is using the right plant for the right place. "Here in Wisconsin, that means using natives or improved cultivars of natives that are used to our soils, weather and seasons, which in turn means using less water," he emphasizes.

A self-described "passionate gardener," Drzewiecki focuses on creating a comprehensive landscape design, regardless of project size. His long-standing interest in native plants and the environment led him to incorporating it all into his design work.

The challenge of understanding the site and soil conditions is what determines "right plant, right place," according to Drzewiecki. The benefits include less water use, less overall maintenance and healthier, more successful plants. Native plants in turn help native pollinating insects and birds.

He assures his clients that xeriscaping is not expensive. "It really is a landscape design with some thought behind it, which is the standard on everything we do. It should be a long-standing process," he emphasizes.

Ginkgo Leaf Studios still doesn’t get a lot of specific requests for xeriscaping and incorporates non-natives because that’s what people want. But Drzewiecki continues to focus on low maintenance plants. "I think recent concerns about drought and a lack of water may have more people thinking about it," he points out optimistically.

Drzewiecki even uses the process for his own home. "I have to because I’m horrible about remembering to water my plants," he laughs.

David Guthery, LandCrafters’ sales manager/landscape designer, says the term "xeriscaping" is almost never thought of or used in metro Milwaukee. Yet he points out that although this area is a water-rich environment due to Lake Michigan, there are supply challenges in places where many homeowners use well water. "Because of overtapping of the aquifer, in a generation or two it will be a major problem," he predicts.

Subsequently, Guthery tries to look at what will the site support from the soil up "rather what can we ‘impose’ on the site for my will." He says there is no major cost if the process is done correctly.

"We in horticulture have to help people understand that this is in their best interest financially and success/effort-wise," he adds, emphasizing that if people understand it benefits them, they are willing to do it.

"However, sadly most do not look beyond themselves to their community or their world, but we, landscape designers and architects, can steer them to do the right thing and we all benefit," Guthery concludes.

This story ran in the August 2015 issue of: