A delicate balance

Xeriscape moves beyond the rock and blob

Nancy Strickland of Dry Creek Garden Company says many plants can be grown with little water.

Nancy Strickland of Dry Creek Garden Company says many plants can be grown with little water.

Photo By Nick Higman

Nancy Strickland of the Dry Creek Garden Company says not much balance is put into practice when it comes to gardening and lawn options in the Reno area. Either you have an enormous and meticulously-kept patch of grass surrounding your home, or you just have “rock and blob,” as she calls landscaping rocks spread around geometric blobs of juniper in a front yard. But, as always in nature, there is a balance between these two extremes.

Achieving that equilibrium between the lavish lawn and boring rock-and-blob requires following the basic principles of xeriscape, especially this one: Selecting appropriate plants for the site.

“Here we live in a desert, so it would be really easy to plant plants that would survive with little to no watering,” says Strickland. The plants she has on the back lot of the Dry Creek Garden Company are of the same variety seen every day in the mountains and valleys surrounding the Truckee Meadows. “With a little more care than nature gives, they really can look respectable,” she says.

Plant selection for resource-wise gardening requires an understanding of microclimates. Microclimates are the localized zones surrounding a home or structure that differ from the overall climate of the area. While the climate of the Reno area might be generally arid, the microclimate within a certain site might be cooler, warmer, wetter, drier or windier, all of which have an enormous impact on the types of plants that flourish in the particular environment. For easy planning, microclimates are broken down into four exposures: southern, northern, eastern and western.

The harshest conditions for soil resources and plants are in the southern exposure, where more sunlight causes faster evaporation in the soil and transpiration in the plants. Similar to the southern exposure but not as harsh is the western exposure, which tends to benefit from morning shade and low-angle sunlight in the afternoon. Like southern and western exposures, eastern and northern exposures go together. While the northern exposure receives the most shade and is the least harsh on plants and soil, these microclimates enjoy year-round shade and less extreme temperature swings, which are ideal for plants that grow better in cool and moist areas.

Because of the more severe conditions in the southern and western exposures, hardier plants tend to do better. Various forms of cacti and yucca, many of which are native to the state, can survive with no additional watering. Dry shrubs include rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, desert peach and the ubiquitous big sage. Juniper trees, while offensive if only offset by landscaping rocks, are also low-maintenance and water-wise in these harsher microclimates. Snowberry, golden currant and elderberry all require a little more protection and, like the imported Nanking cherries, survive much better in the microclimates of the northern and eastern exposures. Of course, if you have kids or a pet, having a small, well-kept patch of grass in the shade can make sense, as well, within the principles of xeriscape.