Sonja Fogle strolls through the oak-shaded landscape of her suburban cul-de-sac home, easily naming its trees, shrubs and grasses: wild azalea, sedum, tree-form wisteria, day lilies, blue fescue, maiden grass, yucca, hosta--all growing without chemical help.
"The only plants I like," she said, "are the ones that thrive on benign neglect."
In her small way in Bethesda, Md., Fogle practices a simple but relatively new landscaping technique that saves water and protects the environment: Xeriscaping.
The concept's copyrighted name is derived from the Greek word "xeros," which means dry, and is defined as "water conservation through creative landscaping."
The word was coined by the Denver Water Board during a 1981 drought. Florida became the first state to enact a statewide Xeriscape law. Texas was the second. The concept has since spread throughout all 50 states and to Canada, Israel and Australia.
"Wherever the drought is in the United States is where the program really starts," said Doug Welsh, an horticulturist at Texas A&M University and past president of the National Xeriscape Council, which holds the copyright. "Drought brings the educational moment to the public."
But Xeriscape advocates fret about the common perception that the practice works only in arid places.
"There are still those who don't understand that Xeriscape isn't about desert areas, having to have cactus and succulents," said Elizabeth Brabec, a Washington landscape architect.
Brabec is the author of two booklets written for Anne Arundel County, Md., a gateway to the Chesapeake Bay, an enormous, ecologically fragile estuary in an area known for lush green landscapes.
One booklet is for homeowners, the other for developers, builders, planners and landscape professionals. Both refer to "water-conserving landscapes," not to Xeriscape. It's not a generally accepted word, Brabec and others say.
But Xeriscape's seven principles are gaining acceptance: Start with a good design, improve the soil, choose low-water-use plants, limit lawn areas, water efficiently, spread mulch and practice good maintenance.
"Even in water-rich areas," Brabec said, "you have to be very concerned about how much additional water you put onto the landscape."
Public utilities have led the way. Linda K. Currier of the county public works department sees the educational effort--"bayscaping," they call it in Anne Arundel--as a means of avoiding construction of a new water-treatment plant.
"Typically, people say, 'You need more? Build it,' " she said. "Well, there's another approach. It's called reducing consumption. And this reduces runoff to the bay."
Florida has been a leader in water-saving landscapes. Pollution is a serious problem in the southern coastal state, a winter mecca for sun-starved Northerners who expect green grass and flowering trees.
Most visitors don't give a thought to Florida's shallow water table. "You can liken our habitat to drinking the water from the bathtub you live in," said Bruce Adams, water-shortage coordinator for the South Florida Water Management District. "Water quantity and quality are inseparable."
Florida, Texas and Georgia have statewide Water Wise councils, nonprofit corporations that spend both public and private money to promote conservation.
San Antonio restricts lawn-watering year-round. "We plant tropical banana plants right next to an air-conditioner condenser that's putting off a little drip water," said landscape architect Terry Lewis. "Xeriscape landscaping is being the most efficient you can wherever you are."
Xeriscaping is actively promoted in Austin, Tex., because of inadequate water-treatment facilities. "They have all the water in the world, but they can't treat it fast enough as it's being used," said Doug Welsh.
In Atlanta, Xeriscaping is widely practiced because the water supply can't keep pace with the city's rapidly expanding population.
Nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is promoting Xeriscape landscaping. A how-to pamphlet is being distributed and the agency's WAVE (Water Alliances for Voluntary Efficiency) program encourages hotel and motel operators to sign water-conservation agreements.
"It's much more than water conservation," said Joan Warren of the agency's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. "When you're talking about this kind of landscaping, you're talking about less runoff from non-specific pollution sources, less maintenance, less fertilizer and pesticides, less lawn-mowing. There's a huge amount of yard waste that goes into landfills."
Much of that waste is cuttings from broad swaths of beautiful but water-guzzling lawns. Xeriscaping includes much less turf.