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Xeriscaping for Massachusetts

Many people hear the term xeriscaping and envision landscaping in the US desert southwest. The vision generally includes rocks and gravel, cacti and succulent plants, no turf, and no irrigation. These misconceptions of xeriscaping lead many to believe that xeriscapes are not for the northeast; however, xeriscapes are really water-wise landscapes that take into account planning, design and maintenance principles in order to help save water. The word xeriscape is from the Greek word “xeros” meaning dry, and “scape” meaning view or scene. The term xeriscape was coined and trademarked by the Denver Water Department in 1978 as a response to the need for landscaping to conserve water following a 1977 drought in the western US.

There are 7 main principles for creating a xeriscape, or water-wise landscape

Planning and design
Soil analysis and improvement
Appropriate plant selection
Practical turf areas
Efficient irrigation
Use of mulch
Appropriate maintenance

Planning and design:

The first step in any landscape should be assessing the site. Design and planning considerations should include: what the landscape will be used for (is a turf play area needed for children or animals?), the amount of time that will be realistic for maintenance, existing features of the landscape, water movement, climatic (and microclimatic) conditions, and the style of landscape desired. With a water-wise landscape special care should be taken to group plants according to water needs (high, medium, and low water use zones) to help increase irrigation efficiency.

Soil analysis and improvements:

Having well-developed soil is important to ensure good water infiltration and water holding capacity. Improving and maintaining soil structure is important in promoting water conservation as well as in supporting plant growth. Good soil structure means that there is a balance of air and water, and little compaction. The addition of organic matter is a way to improve soil structure and texture, improve the nutrient holding capacity, and increase the water holding ability of the soil. It is recommended to incorporate around a 1” thick layer of dry, well-aged compost in new landscapes.

A routine soil test will provide information about pH, exchangeable acidity, nutrients, cation exchange capacity, and base saturation. An additional optional test that should be considered is a soil organic matter test. Sampling instruction and information on interpreting soil test results can be found at in the Soil Testing Fact Sheets.

Appropriate plant selection:

Choosing the right plant for the right place will help in avoiding unnecessary stress on plants. Consider sun exposure and intensity, wind exposure, summer and winter temperatures, soil type, and drainage patterns on the property. Remember that even drought tolerant plants will need water during establishment.

"Right Plant, Right Place" - A Plant Selection Guide for Managed Landscapes

Practical turf areas:

Keep in mind when choosing turfgrass that drought tolerance is just one aspect of a successful lawn. The best possible species for the area based off light, heat/cold tolerance, wear, soil conditions, as well as water requirements should be considered. For more information on turf selection, irrigation efficiency for turf, and turf grass water conservation refer to the following UMass Turf Fact sheets:

Turf Irrigation and Water Conservation

Maximizing Irrigation Efficiency and Water Conservation

Management Tips to Improve Turfgrass Drought Survival

Efficient irrigation:

A well-designed irrigation system is a great way to improve irrigation efficiency. Drip irrigation should be considered for the irrigation of ornamental plants. It is also important to maintain irrigation systems, checking spray patterns and checking for any leaking hose connections and sprinkler parts. Try to avoid irrigating non-plant areas such as sidewalks and driveways which results in wasted water and runoff. If not utilizing an irrigation system it is important to consider the timing and application of water, watering in the morning is best for minimizing transpiration. Using a soaker hose instead of an overhead sprinkler can help ensure water reaches the root zone of plants instead of the canopy or non-plant areas.

Use of mulch:

There are many benefits of using organic mulches in the landscape. Benefits of mulching includes: reducing evaporation from the soil, reducing erosion, suppressing weed growth, and acting as an insulator for plant roots (lessening the impact of fluctuating temperatures). Mulch also encourages beneficial soil organism and adds organic matter as it breaks down.

Keep in mind proper mulching practices:

Mulch should be no more than 2-3” deep
Mulch should be kept away from the base of plants
Mulch should not be applied too thickly

Mulch that is applied too thickly and piled up around the base of a plant can lead to excess moisture around the stem or trunk leading to disease problems. Too thick of mulch can cause many other problems including reducing the water that reaches the soil (and plant roots),causing the soil to remain too wet leading to rot problems, and reducing the oxygen in the root zone of the plants.

Appropriate maintenance:

The goal of a xeriscape is low maintenance (not no-maintenance!). Too frequent or routine pruning along with frequent watering and fertilization encourages new growth, which will increase plant water requirements. Pruning should be considered for rejuvenating overgrown shrubs, thinning out old woody stems, and maintaining the plant’s shape. Over-irrigating and over-fertilization often result in excessive weed growth and can lead to nutrient runoff into local ecosystems. Consider less water, less fertilizer, less frequent irrigation, less routine pruning, and fewer pesticides.


Colorado State University Extension. Xeriscaping Basics.

Kujawski, J. Managing Soil Structure for Water Conservation in the Landscape. UMass Extension. (link is external)

Seymour, R. M. and G. L. Wade. Make Every Drop Count: Xeriscape- Seven Steps to a Water-Wise Landscape. University of Georgia Extension.

Mandy Bayer
Last Updated: 
March 2018