May 29, 2009

What is Xeriscape? by Boulder Landscape Architect Thomas Rutherford. Photos: Rusty Ralston for elephantjournal.com.

A (Very) Brief History of Xeriscape

by Thomas Rutherford, of Mosaic Garden Design in Boulder, Colorado.

Photos by Rusty Ralston
…of Thomas Rutherford and family installing a Xeriscape landscape at Hotelephant, a “green” renovated Victorian belonging to (the bank and) elephantjournal.com founding editor Waylon Lewis

For the sake of clarity, a few small things must come first.  Xeriscape is a term coined by the Denver Water Board in 1981.  It is pronounced with no zero.  The word itself is a hybrid combining the Greek word “xeros” and the English “landscape” and it means dry landscape (sort of…).

Unfortunately, the clarity ends there.  In its simplest terms it means a planting created using plants which require less water than average.  This interpretation has led to the inclusion of certain plants on Xeriscape plant lists which many feel do not warrant inclusion.  Among many lists of “drought tolerant” plants are potentilla and purple Echinacea.  All of this has kicked off a lively debate about how much drought needs to be tolerated and led to more than a little talking with cupped hands behind various backs.  What we’ve ended up with is a consumer eager to do the right thing and save water, expecting the garden on the cover of the last Sunset magazine to be installed at their home.


The advocates of Xeriscape say that it’s come a long way.  While I count myself among them, it’s been thirty years and most people’s minds fill with the image of a lone yucca with a tumbleweed rolling by at the mention of the term.  At least two issues seem to impede its progress.  One is that those of us promoting it see no other recourse than to promise the lushness attained through daily deluges of water used on much moister gardens.  The other is that we wear quilt-lined plaid flannel shirts.  Although I’m sure plenty has been made of it recently, perhaps it needs reiterating; style and environmental awareness are not mutually exclusive.  The lushness is not possible and the lack of style not necessary.

At first we had conventional landscapes; then as a sort of counter-culture Xeriscape designers emerged.  Now that some of those designers use potentilla, Echinacea and so on, a sort of counter-counter-culture may be emerging where there is real attention to detail.  Small businesses, Mosaic Garden Design among them, are appearing where all aspects ensure that attention to detail is not lost.  The business is kept small to ensure good communication and to minimize delegation of undesirable duties.  Plants are considered for their actual drought-tolerance as well as their native habitat.  Efficient irrigation is installed so that water savings are significant.  Many plants are grown from seed to ensure their suitability and style is not thrown by the wayside for the sake of sustainability.

The recent garden project at Hotelephant features plants like Little-leaf Mountain Mahogany, Cardinal Penstemon, Oil Shale Columbine and even a rare plant from the Caucasus Range called Centaurea Bagadensis, a truly stunning plant with silver foliage and huge feathery pink thistle-like blooms.  One wonderful local source for plants like these is Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder on 26th Street.  The garden also features “tumbled” buff flagstone and mossrock boulders from Tribble Stone located on 36 half-way between Boulder and Lyons.

~ Thomas Rutherford of Mosaic Garden Design.

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For more: Mosaic Garden Design (blog, etc).

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