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November 04, 2003
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Anyone who's spent any time here in Southern Nevada in the past year has to know that we're in a drought. When I was in Providence Rhode Island a few weeks ago, I told people that we were having a drought in the Mojave Desert, and they either gave me a really confused looking stare, or they chuckled. Hah! What could be drier than a normal average of 4.25 inches per year? I told them - 2 inches of rain in a year. Some folks just looked at me and said - we get 2 inches in an hour. If you're originally from parts of the east, you know that's true.

But you're here now, and you're dealing with water restrictions. Of course, it's only right that we should be. Have you seen Lake Mead? Not an encouraging sight.

So we're in this drought, and now we've got all these inducements to change our water-wasting ways. If you're a homeowner, you probably know that the water district has a rebate program for people to get rid of turf and grow something more desert-appropriate in their yards.

The word that we commonly hear for this kind of desert landscape is ''Xeriscape''. I think it comes from combining the Greek word for 'dry' with 'landscape'. Unfortunately, too often it turns into zero-scape. As in - nothing alive, just rock. How uninviting can you get? Does looking out on a completely lifeless pile of stone say ''home'' to you?

When landscape people came up with the term Xeriscape, they sure didn't mean just rocks. This begs the question - what is Xeriscape?

I've heard it described as ''water smart'' landscaping. I guess that's as good a definition as any. Not ''no water'', just really careful, judicious use of irrigation. It does mean way more than simply not letting the sprinklers water the sidewalks.

If you've finally decided to bite the bullet and try to change your landscape, it can first mean changing your perspective, at least to some extent. Are you really satisfied only if your yard looks like a green carpet, or would you rather see colors, and different textures, and even some changes in elevation? That is what you can get with Xeriscape, if you're willing to try it.

Next, it has to do with selecting plants. If you're going to water smart, then you want to use desert, or desert-adapted, or at least drought-tolerant plants. So many people say - I don't want just cactus. That makes perfect sense to me. Who would? But even if you're going to use only native plants, you'd still have more choices than only cacti, like the beautiful desert willow tree, for instance, or one of the many different yuccas that grow naturally here. Then there are all the gorgeous purple-flowering indigoes (you'll probably find them listed as 'Dalea'). - And all cacti don't have terrible spines, remember; some are quite smooth. I will grant you, though - a true Mojave yard might seem kind of - spare - to our garden-adapted eyes.

There are other deserts, and horticulturists have been examining plants from those other dry areas that might do very well here. Cassias, which are also called 'senna', come from all over the globe. Great foliage and yellow flowers. It was the first thing I planted at my house when I moved. And think about all the dramatic ornamental grasses you can choose. Sure, they're not for a golf course, but so many of them are just awesome! When you want something that isn't so tall, there're the little shrubby things like lavender cotton - santolina - that gets covered in yellow flowers. Even shorter than those are the succulent ice plants; they're kind of a ground cover, and they produce flowers in a whole range of colors.

You don't need to hear an exhaustive list of plants from me; you can look them up in the western garden book. Or you can check out the native plant nursery at CCSN, and look at the other nurseries and the garden stores around town.

Before you go out to buy even your first desert plant however, create an idea of what you want that new desert garden to look like. And think about how you're going to irrigate it. Your sprinklers probably won't be the best method.

Think about putting plants with the same water needs together. Your yard can contain a green area, a shady area, an area with bright colored flowers, even a stark area. Whatever you choose to do, you can be water smart without having a blank area.

So what is Xeriscape? It's colorful, varied, welcoming, and thrifty with our limited water supply. Have a good time with it.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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