Choosing plants that are adapted to and appropriate for the local environment is always a good decision, and the drought we are experiencing in much of Kansas is making me think about xeriscaping.
Xeriscaping should not be confused in any way with zero-scaping, or lack of landscaping.
Xeriscape gardens can be just as lush as any other garden with the right plant choices. There are two public xeriscape gardens here in Lawrence that exhibit this — one at the Lawrence Rotary Arboretum, 5100 W. 27th St., and the other at the Douglas County Master Gardeners Demonstration Gardens, 2110 Harper St. (Douglas County Fairgrounds).
Sometimes people walk by the xeriscape garden at the Fairgrounds and say things like, “What are peonies and irises doing in a xeriscape garden?” or “What are those beautiful flowers?”
Since peonies and irises (and daylilies, lilacs and others) have survived on their own on Kansas homesteads for decades, it seems a no-brainer to me that these plants qualify as drought tolerant. I am guessing that at the Lawrence Rotary Arboretum Xeriscape Garden, passersby are also asking more about the beautiful flowers than realizing the garden exists on little to no water.
Some of my favorite xeriscape selections are butterfly bush and caryopteris, both medium-sized shrubs that bloom throughout the summer in shades of purple, blue and white. Perennial flowers with pink and orange flowers such as gaillardia, coneflower, and butterfly milkweed provide an excellent contrast.
Sedums are also a great choice — from the traditional upright varieties (sometimes called live-forevers) to hundreds of varieties that creep and cover the soil surface.
Many common ornamental grasses are also drought-tolerant enough to qualify for xeriscape gardens. Some of the prettiest are varieties of Calamagrostis (Karl Foerster is an example), Panicum or switchgrass (Shenandoah is my favorite), and the native Little Bluestem.
The xeriscape garden at the fairgrounds includes a whitebud tree (cultivated variety of redbud), salvia and sea lavender amongst the previously mentioned sedums and other perennials.
My own garden — like many residential ones — was not planned with xeriscaping in mind, but it is headed that direction as I tire of emptying rain barrels and dragging water hoses. When an old rosebush began to fade from the stress of black spot disease and stressful summers, I replaced it with a drought-tolerant Pragense viburnum that also has few pest problems.
Xeriscaping, as it was developed in Colorado in the mid-1980s, also teaches gardeners to amend the soil prior to planting, water deeply and infrequently when establishing new plantings, use mulch, group plants with similar light and moisture requirements, and practice good maintenance practices with fertilizing, pruning, etc.
A more comprehensive list of drought-tolerant plant options is available at K-State Research and Extension–Douglas County, 2110 Harper St.; by calling 843-7058; or on our website at douglas.ksu.edu. The list is called “Water-wise Plants: Trees and Ornamentals for South Central Kansas” because it was developed in Sedgwick County, but all of the plants on the list are also appropriate for northeast Kansas and the Lawrence area.