Xeriscaping: The solution to Utah’s drought may be right in your own backyard

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Drought-resistant plants line BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Bryan Hopkins’ parking strip. Xeriscaping, a drought-resistant landscaping approach, is popular in New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, where water-saving practices have proven successful. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Hopkins)

In case you haven’t noticed the bounty of billboards pleading with Utahns to save more water, or the increasing patches of yellow grass and never-ending sunshine, Utah — and much of the west — is indeed in a drought. 

It has been nearly six months since Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency due to drought conditions. While Utah is doing better than it was this time last year in regards to drought intensity, the problem still persists.

So, what exactly can be done about it? According to BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Bryan Hopkins, the solution may be right in your own backyard.

The benefits of xeriscaping

“One of the first things I suggest to people looking to conserve water is xeriscape landscaping,” Hopkins said.

Xeriscape landscaping, or xeriscaping, is “a type of landscaping designed specifically for areas that are susceptible to drought, or for properties where water conservation is practiced,” according to The Spruce, an expert home advice company. States with dry climates like New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona have welcomed the water-saving practice for years and have seen much success.

“Some people think of xeriscaping and think there’s no irrigation whatsoever, but technically the practice includes reduced irrigation which I think is an overall more sustainable approach,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins, who currently teaches BYU’s soil science, urban soil and water management, and grasses in urban and native environment classes, is known amongst his colleagues as the “turf expert.” His passion for all things landscaping, especially water-wise practices, has led him to implement many of the things he teaches, on his own property.

“Have I seen people successfully use xeriscaping? The answer is absolutely, including myself,” Hopkins said.

Water conservation

In the last few years, Hopkins has worked to transform his home’s yard, taking on a more water-safe approach to landscaping. 

“I have reduced my irrigation immensely, applying only about 10% of the water that I used to use when I first bought my house and I still have a very beautiful landscape,” Hopkins said. “It is possible to have plants in the landscape and yet use considerably less water.”

According to the National Geographic Society’s Resource Library, xeriscaping can reduce water usage by up to 75%. In fact, National Geographic also stated that a Novato, California, water department estimated that houses utilizing xeriscape landscaping saved “120 gallons of water a day.”

Dr. Hopkins explained despite the fact he’s “definitely a grass guy,” he has less grass than anybody in his neighborhood because he realized “it does use more water than anything else, so I wanted to reduce it down to just enough for what I need.”

One of Hopkin’s biggest landscape transformations included the remodel of the parking strip that lines his front yard. According to Hopkins, grassy parking strips are one of Utah’s biggest problems when it comes to wasting water. 

“You can’t water that small amount of grass without having extreme amounts of wasted water hitting the pavement … those areas simply aren’t functional,” Hopkins said.

Instead of ripping out all plants from the strip however, Hopkins put down a more water-efficient drip irrigation system, as well as desert plants that don’t need a lot of water to thrive. 

“I’ve got a bark mulch that helps reduce evaporation, drought-tolerant ground covers and small shrubs instead of all grass. Xeriscaping can be beautiful and it can also be functional,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins explained that one of his favorite desert plants called dianthus, or ice plant, always catches the eyes of people walking by. 

Minimizing lawns

While Hopkins takes pride in his newly xeriscaped parking strip, he does value the small amount of grass his property does have, around his walkways and trampoline. Hopkins does not believe in completely eliminating grass, rather reducing the amount of it in yards to only what is truly needed.

Xeriscaping utilizes drought-resistant plants such as ice plant, coneflower, lantana, Russian sage and lavender, to reduce water usage. (Courtesy of birdsandblooms.com)

Like Dr. Hopkins, BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Greg Jolley does not support taking grass away. 

“I’m not one of those advocates that say we get rid of lawns completely,” Jolley said. “I think a good xeriscape or sustainability principle is minimizing the use of lawns but not necessarily eliminating them.”

Jolley, who has been teaching at BYU since 2003, is a professional landscape architect. In his classes, Jolley stresses designing landscapes that are both aesthetically pleasing and sustainable.

“Here in the Wasatch front, we want to create a landscape that will use the least amount of water but will also serve the homeowner or the users of that property in a way that will be beneficial to them and the environment,” Jolley said.

Hopkins implements low maintenance plants in his yard to help reduce water usage. Xeriscaping, a drought-resistant landscaping approach, is popular in New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, where water-saving practices have proven successful. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Hopkins)

Proper irrigation

According to Jolley, one of the most crucial practices to keep in mind when reducing water usage is proper irrigation systems. In his landscape irrigation class, students learn how to water plants in the most economic way, from a water usage standpoint.

“The biggest mistake I see is irrigation systems that are poorly planned and designed that don’t distribute that water in an economical way, and a lot of that can be fixed with simple design — creating simple shapes, or shapes that can be watered more easily,” Jolley said. “Poor water use usually starts out with poor design.”

In order to combat improperly designed irrigation systems and yards, Jolley recommends homeowners reach out to their local horticultural extension agents to receive a free audit of their irrigation system. Horticultural agents help measure irrigation efficiency and exactly how much water is being used or wasted on your property.

Another water-wise practice Jolley suggests is seeking out a good landscape design plan. 

“Having a plan in hand that applies those water-saving principles can be a good investment because that allows you as a homeowner to implement that design on your own, rather than calling a landscape contractor and paying $30-40,000 to change out that landscape,” Jolley said. “You can do it slowly and phase it in on your own time and budget.”

Alternate approaches

While xeriscaping can help reduce water usage and increase efficiency, BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Phil Allen has a much different perspective on it than his fellow colleagues. 

“Xeriscaping, in my opinion, is a very backwards approach,” Allen said. “It leads to landscapes that are very hot, readily invaded by weeds, and ugly.”

Allen believes localscapes is a much better solution to Utah’s drought problem. According to Localscapes, the landscaping approach is “a series of landscaping patterns and practices that takes into account Utah’s unique climate.” The practice focuses on using plants that are native to the state of Utah that naturally adjust to the arid climate.

Though in support of xeriscaping, Jolley agreed with Allen that homeowners do still need to keep up with their yards or else it can turn into an aesthetic problem.

“People hear the term xeriscape and think “no maintenance, I don’t have to do anything with it” but it definitely still requires maintenance, or else it will turn into a weed patch,” Jolley said. 

In addition to continued maintenance, xeriscaping is no small fee.

BYU senior Levi Harper, a construction management major, values the water-saving benefits of xeriscaping but has learned it can cost quite a pretty penny. Harper recently designed a xeriscape landscaping plan for a Salt Lake City company looking to make the switch to drought-resistant plants.

“It’s cool to see companies getting involved. I definitely think it’s going to become more popular in the future as brands work towards more eco-friendly and sustainable practices,” Harper said. “But it has very high upfront costs that may not be attainable for the average homeowner.”

Despite the challenges that come with water-wise landscaping, Jolley remains hopeful for the future of Utah, and more specifically BYU campus.

“I think for most, it’s buying off the aesthetic of xeriscape and changing our minds about what we’ve traditionally had versus what we could have,” Jolley said. “Sustainability is right there in the forefront of our minds, but of course we can always do better when it comes to saving water.”

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