Xeriscape offers water-friendly option

The White Dagger tree only flowers once in its lifetime of 10 to 20 years. It is also known as the century plant. Tequila is made from a close relative in Mexico, according to one Web site. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Ryn Gargulinski: CNJ staff writer

Just because one lives in New Mexico does not mean a successful landscaping plan can only consist of rocks, logs and cow skulls.

One can always Xeriscape.

Xeri what?

Rooted in the Greek word “xeros” for dry, the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico defines Xeriscape as a method of landscaping that uses little supplemental water.

Although it’s been around since the 1970s, Xeriscaping has just recently sprouted interest from area gardeners, said Charles Guthals, owner of Guthals Nursery and Landscaping.
“People are just now getting into Xeriscape material with the high water bills and scarcity of water,” Guthals said.

Planting — and maintaining — a successful Xeriscape plan takes more than just plopping a few seeds in the ground and hoping for the best, according to the Council.

Nor does it mean the landscape will require neither maintenance nor irrigation.

“Even the rocks need maintenance,” said Traci Franklin of Hamilton Nursery and Landscape. “With rocks the dirt gets blown into it so badly and seeds land on top of that to grow weeds,” Franklin said.

Although landscaping plans — and planting — can be done any time, according to Franklin and Guthals, care should be taken to insure proper varieties for New Mexico.

“We are in a different zone that most people think we are,” Franklin said. “Our summers are so hot so they think they can plant the same things that thrive in Arizona. But we warm up so well in the spring then go down to negative seven,” she said, adding plants must be able to withstand southeastern New Mexico’s cold winters and occasional rainy seasons, like the one that occurred this year.

This does not, however, drastically reduce the options. “There’s lots of neat things out there,” Franklin said, “it’s just knowing where to get started.”

Getting started
The Xeriscaping plan, according to the Xeriscape Council, employs seven basic principals — planning and design; efficient irrigation; mulch; soil preparation; turf; water-efficient plant material; and maintenance.

The plan
Designing the landscape is key, according to experts.
“We incorporate this type of landscaping with a lawn,” Franklin said. “The reason we do that is grass helps the house stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.” She said if an entire yard were done in Xeriscaping, the extreme temperatures could become unbearable.
Instead, Franklin suggests planting the Xeriscaping foliage near the curb, away from the house. And one need not only choose from cactus or yucca, Franklin said, flowers are highly popular and some types quite feasible.
The Council breaks down the zones with a bit more detail.
“Oasis” zones should grace highly visible and much-used areas and should bloom with colorful, inviting flowers. They use the most water and require the most care.
Plant the desertscape, that requires little maintenance and water, in little-used areas, like the corner of the yard or surrounding the fence posts, said the Council.

Water still important
Once the design is established, it is time to pick the proper irrigation. Each zone should be equipped with some form of irrigation, the Council said, even the low-water zones.
The Council also recommends regular watering of the entire Xeriscape design for a few years until the plants’ root systems are firmly established.

Mulch ado about mulch
Mulch is almost a miracle worker, the Council said. It keeps soil moist and deters weeds.
Proper mulch types should be used in different zones. Thick mulch can actually hinder growth in high water areas, the Council said, by trapping the roots and not allowing for a free flow of oxygen.
Franklin suggests a shredded mulch, like Cypress. “It’s good for all areas and it doesn’t float away,” she said.

From the ground up
The Council suggests testing the soil for acid or alkalinity to determine best plant types. All soil, the Council said, should definitely be tilled prior to planting.

To fill in the grass areas, the Council recommends different types for different uses. They recommend fescue for high-traffic areas used mainly in the fall and buffalograss or bermuda grass for lower traffic areas in the warmer months.

Regular maintenance of the landscape includes culling weeds and removing debris, the Council said. They also suggest regularly checking the irrigation system for proper function and seasonal adjustments.

Tree and plant slection
Large shrubs or small trees
Blue Vitex — lavendar flower
Chitalpa — delicate pink blossom
Magnolias — not the old southern type, but magnolia Sollangeana, array of pink and white or hot pink blossoms.

Small shrubs
Russian sage — lavender bloom
Salvia Greggi — magenta or red bursts, a magnet for hummingbirds

Traditional Southwest
Cactus — many varieties, both indoor and outdoor
Yucca — New Mexico state flower

Pinon — New Mexico state tree

Source: Charles Guthals, owner of Guthals Nursery and Landscaping