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Dig In: X factor for high desert gardens in xeriscaping

Dig In video series: X factor for high desert gardens is xeriscaping

Xeriscape plants can help you beautify your yard and cut back on watering. In this, the 12th episode of the Statesman's Dig In gardening video series, Advanced Master Gardener Debbie Courson Smith talks about some of those plants in the Ada County
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Xeriscape plants can help you beautify your yard and cut back on watering. In this, the 12th episode of the Statesman's Dig In gardening video series, Advanced Master Gardener Debbie Courson Smith talks about some of those plants in the Ada County

I’ve become so accustomed over the past decade to Boise’s high desert climate — and the brown, sage-brush covered Foothills — that whenever I visit western Oregon, I’m bowled over by the technicolor array of greenery in that biosphere. It’s like discovering a Crayon box filled with only emerald hues.

My fondness for the lush landscapes of wetter climes has definitely hindered my investigation into plants better suited for the Treasure Valley. But let’s face it, drought-tolerant plants just make sense here.

Portland gets about 40 inches of precipitation each year, most of it from rain. On average, Boise gets just shy of 12 inches of annual precip — and very little of that comes during the blazing summer months.

National Weather Service data show these monthly precip norms: .69 inches in June, .33 inches in July and .24 inches in August.

I’ll admit that when gardening expert Debbie Courson Smith suggested a Dig In video on xeriscaping, images of dreary plants surrounded by rock flash through my head. But my perception of xeriscaping — and the plants associated with it — was wrong.

Xeriscaping is a landscaping designed for arid climates that utilizes water-conserving techniques, including drought-tolerant plants and mulch.

How do I know this? I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at the plants in the xeriscape demonstration garden outside the front of the University of Idaho Extension building at 5800 N. Glenwood St.

If you’re interested in making your yard more water-wise, I suggest you check it out too or one of the other local native plant/xeric gardens listed in the box with this story.

“We have a wide variety of plants for you to check out seasonally — see what they look like in the winter, see what they look like in the spring,” Debbie said. “They change over the seasons, and that may be of interest to you.”

She warns that some people have the mistaken impression that xeriscaping means zero watering or maintenance. You will need to water, just not as much, and there will be weeds.

I found a bunch of plants outside the UI Extension office that I’d love to get, not just because they’re right for this climate or a good choice environmentally but because they are colorful (evening primrose, wine cups, black-eyed susans, lavender, coneflower) or have interesting texture, leaves (lamb’s ear). There’s a large, old Desert Willow tree that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it’s got wonderful fragrant pink blossoms.

The Ada County Master Gardeners put out tags that identify the plants, so you can take photos and notes. If you’ve got questions, pop inside and talk to one gardeners. Here are some notes from Debbie and other experts about a few of the plants I found most eye-catching:

▪  Sedum. Easy to find and can play the role of “living mulch,” retaining soil moisture. It produces blooms on low stalks, and the flowers attract pollinators. Available in a variety of colors and textures. Some species used in green roofs.

▪  Delosperma nubigenum, or hardy yellow ice plant. Perennial groundcover. Yellow daisy-like flowers in late spring.

▪  Curliecue sage, or sea foam. Bubbly-looking with little yellow button flowers in late summer.

In an article about water-wise landscaping this past spring, Nell Frazer Lindquist of the Idaho Botanical Garden encouraged readers to consider native plants because they typically need less water and may not need fertilizer.

She noted that Boise’s Draggin’ Wing Farm specializes in growing and selling drought-tolerant plants that are native or well adapted to Idaho.

Pro tip: Don’t feel like you have to re-do or plan out your whole yard. Experiment in a section of the yard that’s particularly dry, as along the driveway.

Though some people who xeriscape their yards do use rocks, you don’t have to use any. To help the soil retain water, put down a bark mulch instead. Or not. It’s really up to you.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller


  • University of Idaho Extension, 5800 N. Glenwood St., Garden City.
  • Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center’s Native Plant Garden, south side of building, 3188 Sunset Peak Road, Boise.
  • The Idaho Botanical Garden’s Water Conservation Landscape, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise.
  • The BLM FireWise Garden at the Idaho Botanical Garden, Boise.
  • Suez’s low-water demonstration garden at 8248 W. Victory Road, Boise.
  • Draggin’ Wing Farm’s demonstration gardens at 5300 N. Stinger Drive, Boise.

Classes, info on xeriscaping

▪  Every spring, the City of Boise collaborates with Suez Water (formerly United Water) to offer public free classes on water-efficient landscaping, composting and other topics. Look for notice of those classes in late January or February. They’re typically held at a city library, with 30 to 100 attendees each week.

▪  A water conservation/low-water plant display is in the works at Boise’s main library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Also, in August, there will be one at the Hillcrest Branch Library, 5246 W. Overland Road.

▪  Check out the Xeric Gardening Facebook page for information on xeric gardening and local events.