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Xeriscape your new home

by David M. Brown on Mar 7, 2018

Reducing the use of water — our most precious desert resource — doesn’t mean your new-home’s front and back "yards" have to be a dull and rock-rich. Done correctly, your new home can be a desert-adapted oasis without you feeling environmentally irresponsible and grimacing every time the water bill arrives. 

To provide some guidance, we spoke with Beth Rohlfs, president of VOX Landscaping & Construction, which is based in Cave Creek. Rohlfs became a Licenses Landscaper in 2009 and earned a Master Gardener certification from The University of Arizona in 2010. In 2015, she obtained a Desert Botanical Garden "Desert Ecology & Plant Biology" certification and a year later, a Desert Botanical Garden "Desert Life Form" (i.e., desert-adapted plant) certification. She will be appearing at The Maricopa County Home & Landscape Show at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale March 2 through 4. 

Q: What is xeriscaping?

Rohlfs: From the Greek root "xeros" (meaning dry) xeriscaping is landscaping specifically choreographed for our dry desert climates, combining water-conserving techniques with the careful selection and arrangement of drought-tolerant plants. 

We talk about four components, or pillars, of xeriscaping.

  1. The first is the proper selection of the right plants for our desert sun and soil. 
  2. The second is correct irrigation, ensuring that each kind of flora you have selected is properly watered for depth and frequency, adjusted seasonally. 
  3. The third is using mulch — such as decomposed granite — to cover the bed around the trees, shrubs and groundcovers, keeping the moisture in and the hot summer sun out.
  4. The fourth is low maintenance, which for the most part here is correct pruning methods which your arborist or nursery associate can share with you. 
Mind you, xeriscaping doesn't mean ugly. There are hundreds of plants that bloom year-round for a lush xeriscaped yard.

Q: How has our perspective about landscaping changed here in the Valley over the last couple of decades? 

Rohlfs: The talk about global warming has changed our attitudes and our styles and tastes. Landscaping in in the 1980s and ’90s was opulent, with lots of texturing and many exotics that weren’t desert-adapted and [were] high-maintenance.

Xeriscaping is environmentally sensitive with a trend toward cleaner, organic, natural desert and Earth-friendly xeriscapes. Three of the benefits of xeriscaping, in fact, are:

  1. You don't need a lawnmower, so you eliminate the use of fossil fuels.
  2. You don't need pesticides.
  3. Native flora supports the life needs of desert wildlife. 
Q: What questions should you ask your new-home's landscaper or landscaping company? 

Rohlfs: What trees, plants and vines are going to work on what exposure and with the entire mix? Can they take our heat, especially during our hot summer months? 

Are we planting trees that are too large for the area? Should we be selecting smaller patio-size varieties? Some people make the mistake of planting a very large tree — such as mesquite — on a smaller lot, which come with many of our new homes.

And always ask your Homeowners Association (HOA) [if your new-home community has one] what its rules are. These vary community to community, so make sure you know these before getting a letter in the mail that you are not in compliance with the regulations you agreed to when you moved in.

Q: Any other tips?

Rohlfs: Make the distinction between desert-native and desert-adapted plants and, on the other hand, exotics. 

Many of our xeriscape plants are native to this area or to northern Mexico, while others are imported from arid areas such as Australia. They like our highly acidic salty soils. 

If you choose to use exotics — that is, plants either not native to our area or not highly adapted to it — you'll have to amend the soil, fertilize and water more frequently. These include queen palms which thrive is the Caribbean where they are native. Fruit tree, too require specific irrigation and fertilizing schedules. 

In addition, landscapers will often use polyurethane tubing for main irrigation runs. But this plastic pipe cracks and then leaks because of water and heat . Ask the company to use schedule 40 PVC as the main line and then use the poly tubing for the secondary and tertiary line to your trees, plants and vines. 

Q: Where can a new-home owner get more information on xeriscaping? 

Rohlfs: Three great resources, all free:
  1. "Landscape Plans for the Arizona Desert," which details the flora best suited for xeriscaping
  2. "Xeriscape," which shows you how to plan an irrigation system
  3. "Landscape Watering by the Numbers," which discusses frequency and depth. 
These are all downloadable PDFs at the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association website, Some nurseries have these in printed versions, too. 

Another resource: The Master Gardener Program at The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Maricopa County Coopertive Extension. Contact indo: or 602-827-8209

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