Xeriscape Landscape Design Ideas For Clay Soil

Xeriscape Landscape Design Ideas For Clay Soil

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By: Heather Rhoades

When creating a drought tolerant garden, one of the more difficult soil types to come up with xeriscaping ideas for is clay soil. While drought tolerant perennials may be fine with a lack of water, when clay soil gets wet, the plants may also have to deal with too much water, as clay soil has poor drainage. With a little knowledge, you can have a drought tolerant garden even in clay soil.

Xeriscape Landscaping for Clay Soil

Amend the soil– No matter what you intend to do with your clay heavy garden, you should always work towards amending the soils by adding organic matter. When coming up with xeriscape landscape design ideas, this is even more important as this will make it easier to manage your drought tolerant landscape as the years progress.

Plant clay and drought tolerant perennials– Planting drought tolerant perennials that are also happy growing in clay soil will guarantee a beautiful drought tolerant landscape. A few of these are:

  • American Feverfew
  • Blackberry Lily
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • Columbine
  • Daylily
  • Feather Reed Grass
  • Heavenly Bamboo
  • Honeysuckle
  • New England Aster
  • Oxeye Daisy
  • Perennial Flax
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Russian Sage
  • Stonecrop
  • Cranesbill

Use organic based mulch– Clay soil has a tendency to crack. When developing a drought tolerant landscape in clay soil, make sure to use an organic mulch. This will help to hide the cracks, will prevent moisture loss, and will break down over time, adding organic material to the soil below.

When coming up with xeriscaping ideas for your drought tolerant garden in clay soil, you just need to dig a little deeper. There are plenty of drought tolerant perennials that can survive even the harshest clay soil conditions.

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Read more about Xeriscape Gardens

9 Landscape Solutions for Problem Areas

Problem areas. Almost every landscape has at least one, whether it is a rocky spot, a slope, or a place so heavily shaded that design options with plants are limited. When drought strikes, even a normally enviable piece of land is transformed into a problem area. Or what if your land is plagued by the opposite of drought, and you're left with a muddy mess? Fortunately, you have several landscaping allies that present themselves as landscape solutions for dealing with these and other problem areas.

The Beginner’s Guide to Xeriscape in Denver

Here's how you can save water without sacrificing greenery.

Having a lush garden in Denver’s semi-arid climate is no good for the environment—or your wallet. But you don’t have to go full rock garden to conserve. Xeriscaping, a term coined locally in the ’80s, saves water without sacrificing greenery. Follow these easy steps from local experts to start your own water-wise garden.

1. Survey the Yard

Phil Steinhauer, who owns Designscapes Colorado Inc., a landscape company focused on sustainable practices, recommends thinking about how water will collect in your yard before you plant anything. Water travels downhill, so greenery needing more hydration will typically perform better in lower areas. Put hardier plants uphill and in southern- and western-facing beds, which get more sun.

2. Prep Your Soil

Denver soils are typically sandy or clay-filled—and not conducive to deep root growth, Steinhauer says. He recommends homeowners use a rototiller to work compost, like aged manure, into the ground. This increases the soil’s water-holding capacity and promotes root growth: “Deep roots get water below the surface,” he says, “so you don’t have to rely on sprinklers during a drought.”

3. Choose the Right Plants

Each flower, shrub, and tree has slightly different needs. If one plant needs more water than another, don’t place the two plants next to each other, says Dan Johnson, curator of native plants at Denver Botanic Gardens. “If you do it that way, you’re making it more resource- and time-intensive, and the plants aren’t going to be happy, either.” (See plant picks below.)

Can It Get Any Easier?

Resource Central, a Boulder conservation nonprofit, has a solution for homeowners who don’t want to hire a landscaper, yet aren’t ready to go totally DIY on a water-wise yard. Garden In A Box (starting at $110) is packed with hardy, low-water shoots—plus a foolproof plant-by-number map for your xeric flower bed. Tip: Order early! The box is only available through mid-June.

Pick Me!

Plant Select—a program run by Denver Botanic Gardens, Colorado State University, and members of the regional horticultural industry—spotlights flora from the Rocky Mountain region and plains states that are hardy enough to survive at a mile high. Try these six for varied colors, heights, and textures.

1. Granita Raspberry Ice Plant

Granita Raspberry Ice Plant. Photo credit: Panayoti Kelaidis, courtesy of Plant Select.

The vibrant, densely packed pink flowers, which grow 1 or 2 inches tall, bloom all season.

2. Corsican Violet

Corsican Violet. Photo credit: Dan Johnson, courtesy of Plant Select.

A 6- to 8-inch-tall perennial, the Corsican violet’s purple flowers show off all season long.

3. Spanish Gold Broom

Spanish Gold Broom. Photo credit: David Winger, courtesy of Plant Select.

Ensure this shrub, which can grow 3 to 4 feet tall, has good drainage, and you’ll be rewarded with pretty, yellow springtime blooms.

4. Korean Feather Reed Grass

Korean Feather Reed Grass. Photo credit: Pat Hayward, courtesy of Plant Select.

Feathery summer blooms turn golden in the fall on this perennial ornamental grass, which can reach 3 feet tall.

5. Desert Moss

Desert Moss. Photo credit: Pat Hayward, courtesy of Plant Select.

This evergreen grows 1 inch high and sprawls 10 to 14 inches, making it a great choice for year-round ground cover.

6. Bridges’ Penstemon

Bridges’ Penstemon. Photo credit: David Winger, courtesy of Plant Select.

The scarlet trumpet-shaped flowers on this deer-resistant stunner grow up to 3 feet tall and thrive in full sun. Beauty bonus: The flowers attract hummingbirds.

The approximate percentage of water the average homeowner can save per year by switching from a lawn to a xeriscaped yard, according to Denver Water.

Tough Turf

Photo credit: Kelly Grummons, courtesy of Plant Select.

We get it: Lawns can be nice, especially if you have kids or dogs. But unless you want to spend thousands each year to maintain your Kentucky bluegrass, you need an alternative designed to withstand Colorado’s climate. Plant Select recently introduced drought-resistant Dog Tuff grass, which holds up to running feet (kids’ and pups’) and full, hot sun. If possible, install turf at the bottom of a hill to take advantage of natural water drainage.

This article appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of 5280 Home.


What is a Xeriscape?

*** HOW TO PRONOUNCE “XERISCAPE” (zîr’ i˘-ska¯p‘) zer-i-scape ZIH-rih-skape Xeriscape is a trademarked term created by Denver Water. ***

A landscape is a xeriscape if it needs little extra water or other assistance to look its best. Fortunately, many plants thrive in San Antonio with these low-care conditions. This leaves a wide range of landscape styles at your fingertips. San Antonio low-water landscapes are cool, inviting and lush. They burst with color during every season of the year.

The San Antonio Botanical Garden has a “WaterSaver Lane” where you can observe many residential xeriscape. The styles modeled around tiny homes include: Wildscape, Manicured Xeriscape, Hill Country, Spanish Courtyard and Cottage Garden. One of these styles is bound to match your preferences and the architecture of your home.

How do I know if I have a xeriscape?

Having a Xeriscape is both what you have in your landscape and how you take care of it. Review the seven steps of xeriscape to determine which elements you already have in place. It is fairly simple to replace some turf grass, add mulch and learn to water efficiently.

Seven Xeriscape Steps


Think about what your landscape will look like during each season of the year. Will there be something attractive to look at even during the winter months? How will you use that backyard? Will a hardscape patio area enhance your lifestyle? Perhaps an herb garden would be attractive and useful. Planning a landscape for maximum enjoyment means thinking about these questions and creating a plan to meet your needs.

Soil Analysis & Improvement

Know your soil before you plant. Having four to six inches of good soil is best, but may not be practical for the entire yard in certain parts our city. For instance, for those with very thin soil, sticking with native Hill Country plants is probably best. In areas well-amended with compost or areas with naturally deeper soils, some semi-tropical plants will do well. In any case, as a rule adding more organic material is better.

Plant Selection

Pick a good shade tree or two. Enjoy some native plants or ones well-adapted to our area. An extensive list of options is available at


Think about why you want some grass and where it will suit you best. Ideally no more than half of your landscape should be grass. Choose a grass type that is drought-tolerant. There are many attractive varieties available for our area that can survive dry periods when necessary. Having six inches of soil is particularly important for keeping any kind of grass healthy.

Efficient Irrigation

A wellplanned Xeriscape will need little supplemental irrigation once it is established. If you decide to invest in an in-ground irrigation system, plan one that allows you to water in distinct plant zones. Shade areas need much less water than sunny ones. Grass and perennials should not be included in the same zones because their need is so different. Work closely with a licensed irrigator and ask many questions about how you can water only where and when needed.

Use of Mulches

Laying down several inches of mulch in garden beds is an important investment. Mulch keeps plant roots cool during hot weather. It holds critical moisture. And, it helps control weeds that can take over gardens.

Appropriate Maintenance

Check out Garden Resources to sample typical maintenance tasks for each season.

A Beginner's Guide to Xeriscaping

A xeriscape is a landscaped area specifically designed to withstand drought conditions and reduce water consumption. The term was developed by Denver Water in 1981 by joining xeros, the Greek word for dry, with landscape. (It should not be confused with zeroscaping, which uses lots of rocks and only a few plants to create a landscape that requires little water.) Xeriscapes use native and water-efficient plants and then groups these plants together based on their water needs so they can be watered efficiently.

Arid, Transition, and Oasis Zones

The practice of xeriscaping varies from region to region. However, basic principles are generally followed no matter where you live. The first thing you will need to decide is if you want to adjust your existing landscape to be more conservative with water or design and construct an entirely new landscape. Either way, you should analyze your yard and decide what areas will become arid zones, transition zones, and oasis zones. The three types of zones allow you to group plants together that have the same water requirements.

Arid zones should be farthest away from the house and high-traffic areas. An arid zone will either be left in its natural state or planted with native and drought-tolerant plants. Transition zones will combine the drier areas with the more lush zones of your yard. This zone will take advantage of low and moderate water use plantings that need infrequent supplemental watering. Oasis zones should be nearer to the house where they can take advantage of rainfall runoff from the roofline and gutter downspouts.

Xeriscape Grass Options

Most people think that converting a yard to xeriscape means that you have to get rid of all your grass. This is not true. When you xeriscape, you reduce the amount of grass in your yard to only what you need and use. For areas where you want or need grass, you have two choices. Warm season grasses such as buffalo grass and blue grama are very water-conservative, but not very hardy under foot traffic. These grasses do not need as much water and are perfect in areas that do not get a lot of use, such as a sunny front lawn. Cool season grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass, are much more tolerant to foot traffic, but require more water to stay green. Use cool season grasses in areas where your children or pets frequently play.

Reducing the overall amount of grass you have in your yard is also important. If you have heavily shaded areas, consider planting shade-tolerant groundcover such as vinca or sweet woodruff in that area instead of grass. Replacing grassy areas such as steep slopes or the area between the sidewalk and the street with drought-hardy groundcovers or low-water perennials will not only save water, but eliminate troublesome mowing areas.

Drip Irrigation Installation

For areas of your yard that will require watering, it's best to install a drip irrigation system. Drip irrigation delivers water slowly at or near the surface of the soil. It can reduce water consumption by as much as 60 percent when compared to sprinkler systems because it minimizes the quantity of water lost to runoff, wind, and evaporation. You can purchase installation kits for drip irrigation systems online or at most nurseries and garden centers.

Soil Care for Xeriscaping

If your soil is primarily clay or sand, you may need to amend it so it will absorb and retain moisture, which is essential for xeriscaping. Although clay soil retains moisture well, it is slow to absorb it. Clay soil also tends to be heavily compacted, which makes it difficult for plants to survive during a drought. Sandy soil is exactly the opposite. It drains well, but does not retain moisture, which gives the roots little time to absorb the water. Either type of soil can be amended by adding organic materials, such as compost or manure. Soils are amended by blending the material at least six inches deep either by hand or with a rototiller.

You might want to consider having your soil tested for organic and nutrient content before adding any organic materials. This will ensure that you know what organic materials to add and help you choose the right plants for your soil. Testing kits can usually be found at your local nursery or home improvement store. If you do not want to hassle with amending your soil, you could consult with a horticulture expert and choose plants that will tolerate the type of soil in your yard.

Plant Types

The type of plants that you choose for your xeriscaping project will depend upon where you live. Native plants are usually chosen because they are naturally capable of tolerating the climate, but those are not your only options. Plants from other areas of the world that are also drought-tolerant or live in similar climates can also be used. It is important to note that plants will only be drought-tolerant once they have become established. This means more watering than usual should be done the first year or two after planting to help establish deep roots. You should also take care not to crowd plants, which would require them to compete for water. Annuals should be planted at least twelve inches apart, and perennials should be planted about 18 to 24 inches apart.


Once you have everything planted, it's time to add mulch. Mulch is an essential part of a xeriscape because it minimizes evaporation, reduces weed growth, and helps control erosion.

Organic mulch is wood-based. It helps improve the soil texture by decomposing over time, but this means that it will eventually need to be replaced. Organic mulch should be about three to four inches deep and should always be placed directly on top of the soil. Inorganic mulch is stone-based. Because it usually retains heat, it should not be used in sunny areas. Inorganic mulch can be placed on the soil or over a weed barrier fabric about two to four inches deep. Never apply mulch over black plastic because the plastic does not allow for moisture and air to penetrate and will kill useful organisms in the soil.

Xeriscaping Maintenance

The last step is to maintain your yard. Luckily, maintaining a xeriscape is a lot easier than maintaining a regular yard. First, you spend much less time watering a xeriscape. In addition, xeriscapes usually have fewer problems with pests and disease and usually need less fertilizer. Using fewer pesticides and fertilizers is another benefit to both the environment and your pocketbook. This means that by transforming your yard into a xeriscape you get to save time, money, and the environment. Who could ask for more than that?

Drought Tolerant Plant Photos

Here are some plants and photos to help you decide what would work in your area.

Red Tip Yucca – (Hesperaloe parviflora) Nice colorful red tip blooms during spring. They do fade away during mid-summer months. Used them in and around the rock landscape. Moderate watering during the first 2 years after initial planting.

Chamisa or rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) Easy-care yellow RabbitBush or Chamisa. The blooms will come out in about September and will bloom until late fall. Prune this plant back in early spring for some great fall color.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) – Is a low water plant. That will survive in the southwest desert with a small amount of rainfall during the monsoon seasons. The leaves are small about the size of a nickel. They produce beautiful bright orange blooms in mid-spring. Perfect for that corner spot to keep animals and people off your property. For faster growth water more often. Do not add to the water drip system as too much water may cause it to develop root rot. More on the Ocotillo Plant.

The Ocotillo Plant

The Mesquite Tree

The Mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) or is it a large bush? In its natural habitat, it is a desert bush that needs little water and tolerates poor soils. Read more about this tree here. The Mesquite tree.

Texas Sages (Leucophyllum) The Heavenly Cloud sage below. The one on top is trimmed as a hedge. The one on the bottom is left alone to grow as a large shrub. Blooms usually occur during the rainy season in and around the Southwest. More on the Texas Sage Bushes.

Watch the video: How To Landscape a Steep Slope For Beauty and Low Maintenance