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Xeriscape Experiments Blossom as Gardeners Try Dry Way of Growing

November 05, 1987|GORDON SMITH

CARLSBAD — Margaret Brownley has a xeriscape in her backyard.

No, it's not a landing platform for UFOs, nor is it some exotic animal. It's not even a type of cape.

A xeriscape is even more unusual--it's a lush garden that uses very little water.

Brownley hired a landscape architect to design and plant a strip of land in her backyard three years ago, rejecting such things as grass and roses in favor of drought-resistant plants and trees such as eucalyptus, paloverde, bougainvillea and pittosporum.

Eucalyptus mulch was mixed into the soil to help it retain moisture. Brownley had a computerized drip-irrigation system installed to water her plants automatically and economically.

About Half Grown in 3 Years

Only three years later, her drought-resistant garden is about half grown, "and looks like a regular old garden," Brownley said. "It doesn't have a sparse, desert look."

But don't tell that to the plants. When they're fully established in two years or so, "they won't need water at all," Brownley said.

That's xeriscape--an approach to landscaping that aims to save water through a comprehensive set of management practices. Conceived in drought-plagued Denver less than a decade ago, xeriscape has turned into something of a national movement among landscape architects, water district officials and nurserymen--particularly in Western states, where water tends to be both scarce and expensive.

There is a National Xeriscape Council with headquarters in Austin, Texas. And seminars on xeriscape are being held all across the United States; one is scheduled for San Diego in February.

The Costa Real Water District and the Nordquist Development Co. recently completed a xeriscape on a model home in Carlsbad, and the Helix Water District has opened a demonstration xeriscape for the public to inspect at its R.M. Levy treatment plant at Lake Jennings. In addition, several homeowners throughout the county have had their yards "xeriscaped" to save water and maintenance costs.

6 Steps Are Encouraged

The word xeriscape was coined from the Greek word xeros, which means dry. Though it incorporates the time-honored practice of planting drought-tolerant plants, xeriscape goes further by recommending six other steps for conserving water: limiting grassy areas, improving soil, using mulch, installing state-of-the-art irrigation systems, employing good overall design, and maintenance.

"None of the seven steps is a cure-all by itself," noted Brad Monroe, program director for ornamental horticulture at Cuyamaca College and one of those helping to plan the February seminar. "But what xeriscape does is unify a lot of different things into a total approach" for water conservation.

"Our philosophy is that we need to be better managers of water in San Diego," he said.

Monroe and other proponents hasten to add that a xeriscape isn't necessarily a sparse, austere landscape--far from it.

"For some people, the phrase 'dry landscaping' conjures up an image of cactus and rock," Monroe said. "We view it more as 'creative landscaping' . . . doing things that won't drastically alter the beauty of the (city's) current landscape but will certainly help save water."

Can't Tell the Difference

If a xeriscape is done properly, Monroe continued, "most people don't even notice the difference between it and a conventional landscape. Yet with a xeriscape, you should be able to use about half as much water."

Saving water was one of Brownley's prime goals.

"I'm very conscious that we live in a semiarid state, and I didn't want to put in a lot of landscaping that would need a lot of water and maintenance," the longtime Carlsbad resident said. "People need to take (water use) more seriously, because it's a growing problem."

Though even drought-resistant plants need to be watered regularly for several years before they become well-established, Brownley said that her garden is already well on its way to maturity, when it will be virtually independent of water. "By the time any squeeze comes, I'll be in pretty good shape," she said.

Brownley also pointed out that she didn't have to plant a bunch of colorless cactuses to have a garden that conserves water. Her acacias and pittosporums have yellow blossoms, her malaleuca and tea trees have white ones, and her eucalyptus and silverberry bushes provide gray-green accents.

In addition, the bougainvillea blooms a brilliant red. The garden "gets more and more showy as it gets older," Brownley said.

Shirley Massie, water-conservation coordinator for the Helix Water District, agrees.

Final Product Doesn't Have to Be Bland

"People have a concept that (drought-resistant) landscaping is colorless and bland. But it doesn't have to be," she said.

At the urging of Massie and others, the Helix Water District recently put in the xeriscape at the R.M. Levy treatment plant. "It's a demonstration garden where people can come and look around," Massie said. "We hope to convince homeowners and commercial business to put in some of these plants."

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