“Dry” Does Not Mean “Dead”


A guest rant by Stacy Moore, who writes Microcosm

As a gardener in New Mexico, I hate telling people that
I xeriscape.  Despite the best efforts of garden writers, nurseries,
botanic gardens, and the like, to many people—even locals—xerixcape still
means one “sculptural” yucca, a yard full of artistically raked gravel, and a
summer full of unrelenting heat (what with the sun reflecting off all that
gravel and all).  Such xeriscapes, especially as immortalized in
glossy Sunset magazine photographs from twenty years ago, or as the
one example of American gardening in British gardening books, are always Very
Serious in an ultra-modern, minimalist chic, no-pebble-out-of-place sort of

They give everything about xeriscape—from the responsible
use of natural resources to sculptural plantings—a bad name. I suppose the
only worse thing is the “zeroscape” alternative that too many people opt for
instead, which forgoes the yucca and doesn't bother to rake the gravel
artistically. Xeriscapes don't need to be that way! They can be lush, colorful,
varied, richly textured plantings that take little extra water (once
established), require only sensible amounts of upkeep, offer cooling shade,
provide natural wildlife habitat, and look good all year round.

I think one problem is that people hear “desert” and automatically
think “barren.” But even in the desert, nature is not barren or minimal. Thrifty, efficient, and incredibly ingenious, yes.  But not minimalist!
If you stop your car on the barest stretch of road in New Mexico—and believe
me, there are some long, bare stretches of road in this state—and walk 10 feet
out into the desert, you will find yourself surrounded with life (some of which
will be happy to bite you, so be careful).  You will not be able to set
foot on the ground without stepping on a plant that has some astonishing
adaptation to this environment, and chances are, it will be blooming its little
head off. (It may also have thorns ready to stick you, so be careful.)
 Sure, the desert does have sculptural plants, and does have gravel, and does
have a long summerful of heat.  But it is also a thriving ecosystem
bursting with enthusiastic, exuberant life.

The desert is not Very Serious.
 And it has all kinds of pebbles out of place.

So when I say that I
xeriscape, I mean that I am trying to create an ecosystem suited to my urban
conditions that has the enthusiasm and exuberance of its surroundings. It will
have some sculptural plants and some gravel that you might be able to see once
you move the ground cover out of the way. It will also have shade
trees and blossoms and lizards and toads and hummingbirds. Because a
xeriscape, as well as providing for the other wildlife, should also provide
habitat for me.

Photos taken at the Rio Grande Botanic Gardens.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Xeriscape is a ‘dead’ word in Southern gardening. Why? Periods of drought AND rains.

    Trade groups here now use WaterWise.

    What works better than terminology to protect water resources? Pricing. (Who wants water bills into the hundreds each month?)

    AND articles/pics like yours showing how fabulous/gorgeous drought tolerant landscapes can be.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. We have a demonstration xeriscape garden here in lush upstate NY. We use both terms- water wise and xeriscape. It’s a beautiful,drop dead gorgeous garden. This year when most folks were watering and watering, our garden looked fabulous. We host a tea and tour every year in late summer for the first 50 folks. See pictures at http://www.cceulster.org and click on the master gardener link

  3. In very few deserts there is nothing alive.

    I believe from my observations that ignorance of nomenclature, soil conditions, a solid knowledge of wild plants resistant to particular conditions is rampant.

    Even in the news media and around people not considered layperson.

    Ignorance is there to stay. It is convenient to nurseries and professionals of landscape design and installation.

    How else would they make their money?..They are similar to personal trainers and life coaches..

    Excellent rant.

  4. We just need to abandon the Xeriscape™ label. It’s got to much baggage. The plant industry may want one label to slap on a plant to make it sell, but for most people, Xeriscape™ conjures moonscapes and cacti as you said. I don’t care for Waterwise, though, as I’ve seen this said for both Cacti and Veronicastrums at the same nursery. Maybe we should just ditch the trendy -scape label and just call it “xeric gardening.” Then people’s eyes might stop glazing over and they may start asking questions.

  5. Xeriscaping became such a “thing” because there are a lot of lazy people who don’t want to do anything to their yards/gardens and think they’re doing something by adopting a buzzword for their laziness.

    And yes, it’s an outdated word in our turbulent climates. Some places should probably consider surviviscaping.

  6. I live in basically a wet area. Very humid all summer long, but August is usually dry. Those Xerscape labeled plants would drown in our area from either the rain or humidity. People need to accept that in some parts of the country grass and other plants are designed by mother nature to go dormant (i.e.brown and/or ratty looking) and will bounce back come fall rains and cooler temperatures.

    For example, the spiderwort succumbed to the humidity first of August and was whacked down, is now coming back lush and blooming. The daylillies are sending up new green shoots. The Phlox wilts and droops by late afternoon and perks up by next morning.

  7. Well… one “xeriscapes” in the Southwest, plants prairie and oak woods in the Midwest, gardens lush semi-tropical foliage in the Southeast, maple forest in the Northeast… etc.!

    No one (in their right mind:) wants all places to look the same.

    One would also think that a single look at a “High Country Gardens” catalog (or similar pub) would be enough to educate those who think that xeriscape = desert = lifeless… beautiful pictures!

  8. Terms and concepts can not be watered down for the hell of it. In USA blind, deaf, are no longer
    politically correct words. Nothing is wrong with xeriscape.

    People should plant,
    make an effort to understand that
    what is pertinent is to have a garden
    agreeable to FLORA/Fauna.

  9. Nice to see the Western chunk of the country representing on garden rant. Those of who are happy to receive 14 inches of precip like to see themselves whether or not we are xeric.


  10. Ya!!!! Finally, a post about dry conditions that doesn’t tout the virtues of agaves, yuccas, and cacti. Mind you, they have their place, just not in my yard, and I have extremely dry conditions. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! (You couldn’t pay me to take an agave even for a million bucks.)

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