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X-rated yards save the environment

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(CNN) -- Careful landscape planning and use of water-efficient plants can turn out to be a beautiful thing.

The practice, sometimes called xeriscaping, focuses on attractive yards that require less maintenance, produce less chemical runoff and result in lower water bills.

Of the 26 billion gallons of water used daily across the country, nearly 30 percent is used outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Xeriscape was created and copyrighted in the 1980s by Denver, Colorado, water officials, who were looking for solutions to dwindling water supplies in the middle of a drought. The term comes from combing the Greek words "xeros," or dry, and "scape" for land or scene.

But it's not just rocks, sand and cacti. That is "zero-scaping," which "leaves your property hot, dry and ugly," says horticulturist David Salman of High Country Gardens in New Mexico.

With a little research and planning, water-efficient yards can be stunning displays of color and lush vegetation.

Home turf

Knowing what to plant in your particular area is important. Just because water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass is popular in many areas of the country doesn't mean it's right for your lawn.

"In Santa Fe it would require four feet of supplemental water per year," says Salman, "while blue grama (a low-care short prairie grass) might only take six inches of supplemental water."

The city of Las Vegas, Nevada, has paid homeowners to rip out their water-guzzling, non-native lawns and replace them with less thirsty turf. Parts of Colorado and New Mexico offer rebates for installing more efficient irrigation systems. And government agencies from Hawaii to New Hampshire to Florida are working to encourage water-efficient landscaping.

Even with its high humidity, Florida uses the most domestic water of any state, mainly for irrigation, according to University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Concern about runoff from irrigation and storm water -- which can carry fertilizer, pesticides and petroleum products into the state's lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries and underground water supplies -- led to the creation of "Florida Friendly" landscaping in the early 1990s by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

In Sarasota, government grants are available for developers who meet the requirements of Florida Friendly landscaping. Some developers are using the less-maintenance, lower-water-use landscaping as a marketing tool, which has led to entire neighborhoods with Florida Friendly landscaping, according to the district's Sylvia Durell.

Xeriscape in seven steps

There are seven basic principles in water-efficient landscaping.

Planning is the first and most important step. Know your yard: how big it is, where the sun falls during the day, the drainage patterns and where you might want screening from neighbors.

Second, get down to the nitty gritty: What is in your dirt? Many state or local extension services will test your soil and tell you what it needs for particular plants, shrubs or trees. Most dirt composition is high in either clay or sand. Working organic amendments such as compost into your soil will help it drain faster and retain a more even level of moisture.

Third, use turf areas as an accent to your landscaping, not the main event. You can still have the green, but using other types of ground covers and plants could create a much more interesting look and use less water. If you need turf grass for children or dogs to romp on or to carpet your outdoor living areas, ask your local suppliers for the best water-saving grass for your area.

Fourth, choose the right plants. Garden centers, nurseries, local native plant societies, county extension service offices, books and the Internet can all be great resources for researching the best, most water-efficient plants. During your search, remember that perennials are the backbone of water-efficient landscaping. They usually have deep root systems that make them less vulnerable to dry conditions.

If you fall in love with some water-sucking plants, limit them to a small area where they will have the biggest impact or you can enjoy them most. Hand water these plants; it takes a little more maintenance, but less water.

Slow-growth shrubs are definitely low-maintenance plants, requiring less pruning and creating less yard waste. And don't forget trees in your plan to reduce heat around your home in summer.

Fifth, cover all bare dirt. Two to three inches of mulch spread around plants, trees and shrubs will slow water evaporation from the soil, help cool root systems and inhibit weeds. Organic mulches such as wood chips, pine straw or bark have the added benefit of slowly breaking down which adds nutrients to the soil.

The sixth step involves managed watering to establish new plants.

Experts recommend that you use bubblers or drip irrigation systems that deliver the water very close to the young plants. Avoid old-fashioned oscillating sprinklers or the sprinklers that send water soaring into the air. Too much of this irrigation water is lost to evaporation, the water coverage is hard to control and wasted runoff can occur.

Lastly, group plants together by water usage to ensure they get the correct amount of water. This type of zone irrigation means less water is wasted on plants that don't really need it.

In Florida, a variety of warm weather-friendly plants (left) uses less water than conventionally landscaped yards (right).

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