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Beyond Cactus: Lush Water-wise Design
by Stephanie de Vos

Myrica cerifera, or wax myrtle, is a large shrub or small tree that will attract wildlife, use little water and form a screening hedge. Photo by Stephen Bishop.

Grouping plants based on water use is one of the most functional ways to arrange plants within a landscape. When plants with similar water needs are placed together, irrigation can be applied strategically thereby decreasing unnecessary water use. By keeping this in mind during plant selection and layout, homeowners can cut down on water bills and be environmentally responsible.

Terms such as xeriscaping and hydrozoning have been coined to describe landscape design intended to either reduce overall water use, or target irrigation more efficiently. Aesthetics and function, especially in this case, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Attractive plants with a variety of water needs are readily available, and combined with a bit of planning and design flair, you can easily construct a beautiful space.

As with any project, a little bit of pre-planning and research will save a lot of time and headaches in the long run. One of the most important things to consider is the plant selection itself. Many times plant purchases are impulse buys, which ultimately leads to frustration when the plant either dies or does not thrive. Putting the right plant in the right place based on cultural requirements is exceptionally important, and should take first priority in a design. Most yards consist of a mix of sun and shade, and this can also be incorporated into water-wise landscaping. It is also worth considering what zones exist in your sprinkler system if that will be the primary method of watering the landscape.

Dividing a yard into two or three zones is an easy way to conceptualize plant placement. The first can be an area that will require regular irrigation even after plants are established. Turfgrass, by its nature, tends to have higher water needs, and can often be grouped with these higher need plants. Place plants with higher water needs in areas that water naturally drains to, under downspouts and in shadier areas. In some climates, it can also be wise to place these types of plants closer to the house if possible, since it can create a cooling microclimate that is desirable for living areas. Some good choices for a Southern landscape that might fall into this category include Louisiana irises, cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and seasonal annuals.

Iris sp., come in a variety of species that offer variety in color, flower form and hardiness.
Some species do well in high-moisture areas.
Photo by Nancy Heise.

Glossy abelia, Abelia x grandiflora, is a favorite shrub for Southern gardens that will form a
dense, cascading hedge with white flowers.
Photo by H. Kenpei.

Cinnamon ferns, Osmunda cinnamomea, are a good choice for moist,
shady areas in the landscape.
Photo by Stephanie de Vos.

The second can be a zone that will require occasional irrigation during periodic dry spells. Many flowering shrubs and other perennials will do well in this zone once they have been established. Some choices for this zone could be glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and clethra (Clethra alnifolia).

The third zone is for plants that will thrive with only rainfall once established. This will include well-established trees, as well as any plants that are inherently very drought tolerant. The misguided perception of xeriscaping – desert plants such as cacti and succulents – will fall into this category, but should not be considered the only choice. Bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Walter’s viburnum (Viburnum obovatum) and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) all have excellent drought tolerance with a great diversity in appearance. Alternatively, an entire landscape could be planted with plants from this category, especially if there are no areas of it that naturally retain water.

As with any landscape project, planting based on water needs can be approached as a challenge rather than a chore. By using zones to group plants together, there is no need to give up your favorite thirsty plants or have a landscape entirely made of cacti and rocks. Appropriate plant selection and layout based on water needs will help you achieve beautiful results, reduce maintenance time and costs, all while making a positive impact on the environmental footprint of your landscape.

Stephanie de Vos is a University of Florida graduate with a B.S. and M.S. in horticulture and an emphasis in landscape design and education for public spaces. She currently works at the USDA Agricultural Research Station Pecan Pathology Lab in Byron, Georgia.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia sp., is a good plant for attracting wildlife, has beautiful flowers,
and will do well with supplemental irrigation only during drought conditions.
Photo by C. Tucker.

Echinacea purpurea, also known as purple coneflower, is a bright purple wildflower
that thrives in low moisture conditions.
Photo by H. Zell.

Viburnum obovatum, or Walter’s viburnum, is an attractive shrub with white flowers
that doesn’t require much, if any, supplemental irrigation.
Photo by Wouter Hagens.

Callistemon citrinus is the hardiest, drought-tolerant species of bottlebrush.
Photo by Frank Vincentz.

Posted January 2012


Stephanie de Vos is a 2009 University of Florida Horticulture M.S. graduate with an emphasis in landscape design and education for public spaces. She currently works at the USDA Agricultural Research Station Pecan Pathology Lab in Byron, Georgia.



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