New style of gardening reduces environmental footprint

University Park, Pa. -- As Pennsylvania's dry season arrives, many gardeners fear that their lush landscape will wither under scorching heat. However, a gardening expert in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences says smart landscaping practices can both save water and ensure the garden's survival.

With dry weather conditions increasing across the country, Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners are promoting the use of xeriscaping, an innovative, low-water gardening system, throughout their communities to help deal with dry weather and promote water conservation.

"Master Gardeners are trying to encourage public awareness of alternative landscaping practices that have positive effects on the environment," said Robert Kessler, extension educator in horticulture in Franklin County. "They also are working on water recycling through use of rain barrels, which will hold water until it is needed in dry weather."

Trained by extension educators and faculty, master gardeners are community volunteers that cooperate with service agencies and community groups on gardening projects, while promoting environmentally friendly techniques.

Providing a sun-loving landscape ideal for dry climates, xeriscaping is a low-maintenance gardening technique that incorporates a wide variety of plants to create a lush landscape. "Xeriscaping creates a beautiful landscape with native plants that have low water requirements," Kessler said. "Most of these plants do not require irrigation in dry weather, making ideal additions for low-water areas."

Planning a water-conserving landscape begins with an evaluation of the site in terms of exposure to the elements, the shape of the space and the type of plants needed. Plants should be arranged into groups according to their water needs. This makes watering gentle on the environment and time-efficient, adding to its popularity among users.

"As more people have learned about xeriscaping and tried the plants, I think it has become more popular," said Kessler. "There also is a desire to implement alternative landscape practices because of the dry spells we have had in the last several years."

While xeriscaping provides substantial environmental benefits, this system may not please everyone. "Xeriscaping requires some initial work to get properly started," said Kessler. "Gardeners will have to learn about plants they have not used before, including how to care for them."

When choosing low-water plants for the landscape, Penn State Master Gardeners recommend planting a wide variety that includes:

-- Perennials, such as blanket flower, coreopsis, goldenrod hybrids, green lavender cotton, hardy pad cactus, hens and chicks, lamb's ear, lavender cotton, lilyturf, mondo grass, moss phlox, purple mullein, sea pink, snow in summer, stonecrop and yarrow;

-- Annuals, such as Immortelle, livingstone daisy, moss rose, spider flower, strawflower and treasure flower; and

-- Shrubs and trees, such as Amur cork tree, Amur maple, autumn elaeagnus, broom, cotoneaster, goldenrain tree, hardy orange, juniper and Siberian carpet.

Although low-water plants are both beautiful and plentiful, some people prefer more traditional landscaping to the look of xeriscaping, explained Kessler. "And if you live in a development with a homeowner association, they may not permit this technique."

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Last Updated March 19, 2009