Xeriscape does not have to mean just rocks and cacti, but strategically places plants closer to where you will see and enjoy them.
Xeriscape does not have to mean just rocks and cacti, but strategically places plants closer to where you will see and enjoy them.

Many mid mod lovers live in arid climates, but even if you don’t, balancing concerns for a beautiful yard befitting your mid mod home that is also mindful of water use can sound like a tall order. A landscape method called xeriscape emphasizes low-water, native plants and other low-water choices. For more, we asked Jim Coffman, president of Coffman Studio in Tempe, Arizona and assistant faculty of landscape architecture at Arizona State University.

What is it?

Jim explains what xeriscape is and what it is not. “It’s conserving water through putting the right plants in the most appropriate places most often native or drought tolerant plants,” Jim explains. “The way we interpret it is putting more greener and lusher plants where people congregate and becoming more desert and drought tolerant the further you get away from people places.” “It is NOT ZERO-SCAPE,” Jim says, “which many people use to explain their reason for having a totally rock yard, with no shade, no comfort and no beauty!”

The bold colors and funky shapes fits well within the MCM vernacular.
The bold colors and funky shapes fit well within the MCM vernacular.

The xeriscape philosophy can also suit the design and philosophy of Midcentury Modern architecture. “I think the boldness of many native and drought tolerant plants works very well with the simplicity of midcentury architecture” Jim says, pointing to Arizona-friendly plants “such as agaves, barrel cacti, ocotillos, and even Arizona’s own Saguaro Cactus.”

Getting Started

“I don’t think the design process for a xeriscape yard is different from other design processes,” Jim says. You want to factor in your priorities for the space, how you plan to use it, special considerations and the physical realities of the space: “We look at yard orientation, sun angles and shade, location of doors and gates to know how people access the site and windows so we know which rooms have which views. We look at drainage, existing utilities (overhead and underground), and existing vegetation.”

Local resources should be able to help you identify native and adaptive plants in your region. “The County Extension Offices in most states will provide a lot of information on plants, their use, availability and maintenance,” Jim says.

In desert climates such as Arizona's, native succulents and grasses require little water.
In desert climates such as Arizona’s, native succulents and grasses require little water.

Jim offers some other sage, starter advice for beginning xeriscapers:

“Do not plant trees too close to buildings,” and “do not be tempted by a plant simply because it looks beautiful right now!  Everything is seasonal.”

“Many native plants here look pretty bad in the summer, hence more drought tolerant, adaptive plants close to the house and more natives further away.”

Remember, in keeping with xeriscape principles, a “lawn is to use, so it should be directly connected to patios and/or sidewalks so people can get to it easily and use it!”

“We tell everyone to be very conscious of sun angles and shade.” Jim explains the challenge and solution of sun and shade he often encounters in the Tempe area. “Creating a microclimate here, especially on the north side of a house will mitigate the very real problem we have here of absolutely no sun in the winter (and colder temperatures) and blazing, hot scorching sun in the summer…not many plants can handle that change, so a properly placed tree can create more permanent shade and a microclimate for shade loving plants!”

Trees can help shade plants to create a microclimate within your yard.
Trees can help shade plants to create a microclimate within your yard.

With these basics in mind, you can start dreaming, asking questions and making plans for a yard that can weather the summer without resorting to only rocks on the one hand or excessive watering on the other.

 

For more on Jim Coffman and Coffman Studios, visit coffmanstudio.com.