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Xeriscape for urban water security: a preliminary study from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


Xeriscape is a contemporary landscape maintenance term coined from the Greek xeros, meaning dry, and scape, from the Anglo-Saxon term schap, meaning view. The practice of xeriscape encompasses many landscape styles and materials to produce everything from lush gardens to desert-like landscapes. The purpose of xeriscape is to achieve low garden maintenance measured by less watering, less fertilizer and pesticides, less weeding and less mowing. The defining feature of xeriscape is how water is used with the goal of water efficiency through practices such as mulching, appropriate plant selection and landscape design. As urban regions in Canada look to enhance future water security what opportunities might there be in landscape conversions from mono-culture grass lawns to xeriscape? Using case study research in a Canadian prairie-region city, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, this research explores household motivation for xeriscape gardening. Through identification of household motivation for xeriscape, urban policy makers will be better able to design programs and incentives aimed at enhancing water security. The results of this research show that households with xeriscape landscaping were motivated mainly by factors related to landscape aesthetic and physical activity rather than water conservation.

Keywords: xeriscape, urban water, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


Xeriscape est une approche contemporaine d'entretien paysager: <<xeros>> qui tire son origine du Grec signifie <<sec>> alors que <<scape>> d'origine Anglo-saxon, fait reference a <<la vue>>. La pratique du xeriscape fait usage de divers style d'entretien paysager et de divers materiaux afin de produire une variete de paysages en passant des jardins feconds aux jardins desertiques. L'objectif du xeriscape est de produire un paysage de niveau d'entretien minimal que ce soit par la frequence et le volume d'arrosage, l'epandage de pesticide et de fertilisant, le desherbage ainsi que la tonde du gazon. Pour y parvenir, l'accent est mis sur l'eau et son utilisation efficace a travers des pratiques tel que l'usage du paillis, le choix approprie de plantes et de design du jardin. Dans une ere oU les regions urbaines canadiennes en sont a evaluer et prevoir la conservation et l'acces a l'eau, il est de mise de se questionner quant a la possibilite de convertir les monoculture de gazon au xeriscape. En fonction des donnees recueillis lors de recherches effectuees a Saskatoon en Saskatchewan, la presente etude analyse les motivations des foyers sous jacentes au soutient de l'utilisation du jardinage de type xeriscape. En identifiant les raisons motivant l'utilisation du xeriscape, les legislateurs municipaux seront mieux outilles pour concevoir des programmes visant la conservation de l'eau. Le resultat de cette etude demontre que les foyers qui utilisent xeriscape ont ete motives essentiellement par des facteurs esthetiques et l'activite physique plutot que par la conservation de l'eau.

Mots cles: Xeriscape, l'eau urbaine, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


Many Canadian cities are experiencing uncertainty with respect to water security. Here, water security is defined as reliable access, on a watershed basis, to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water to ensure human and ecosystem health (Norman et al. 2010). Uncertainty in water security is driven by climate change and uncertainty, urban population growth and development, aging water service infrastructure, as well as in-stream environmental flow demands for aquatic species. Urban water supply and demand is also closely tied to seasonal climate variability. For example, summer outdoor water usage can account for over 50 percent of domestic water consumption at a time of year when surface water supplies (rivers and lakes) are typically at their lowest level. In response to this condition, most urban municipalities in Canada have initiated water conservation initiatives ranging from public education, financial incentives, and regulatory controls. Additionally, some municipalities have promoted the practice of low maintenance and low water demand landscaping principles--a practice commonly referred to as xeriscape. Examples of xeriscaping are shown in Photos 1 and 2.

Photo 1: Xeriscaping


Xeriscape is a contemporary landscape maintenance term coined from the Greek xeros, meaning dry, and scape, from the Anglo-Saxon term schap, meaning view. The xeriscape movement gained popularity in the Western US during the droughts of the late 1970's (Williams, 1997). In North America, the implementation of xeriscape as a landscaping approach is generally credited to the Denver Water Department in 1978 (Caldwell, 2007). The practice of xeriscape has potential to yield many landscape styles from lush gardens to desert-like landscapes. The purpose of xeriscape is to redirect garden maintenance away for conventional activities of heavy watering, fertilizer and pesticide application, weeding and mowing in favour of soil improvements through mulching and climate appropriate plant selection. The defining feature of xeriscape is how water is used with the goal of reduced water usage through best practices. Practices include mulching to improve water retention of soil, plant selection to maximize local natural climate conditions, landscape design to maximize natural drainage conditions, rainwater capture and irrigation efficiencies.


The goal of this research was to undertake a pilot survey to gauge homeowner motivation for xeriscape conversion in a Canadian prairie city subject to periodic water supply uncertainty. By understanding homeowner motivation for xeriscape, policymakers will be better able to draft policies and guidelines aimed at building urban water security. Saskatoon provided a logical location for the pilot study given its size and location in the prairie region, exposure to periodic drought cycles, and the fact that the city already promotes xeriscape through information posted on its city website. Additionally, Saskatoon has volume based charges for household water usage. The presence of household water meters could be a contributing factor to landscape choice in Saskatoon.

Saskatoon is a mid-sized Canadian city experiencing steady outward growth along its urban fringe. This growth pattern is not atypical of other North American cities; and, household landscaping choice across all residential neighbourhoods is predominantly mono-culture, grass lawn cover. And yet, within certain older, established neighbourhoods a number of residential properties employ xeriscape in front yard areas. This research sought to determine the factor, or factors, motivating xeriscape landscaping in several Saskatoon neighbourhoods. For example, was the motivating factor the result of household concern over outdoor water use, perhaps linked to volumetric water metering charges? Or were there other external factors such as incentives from a city-wide water conservation program? Perhaps neighbourhood 'peer' pressure to convert from mono-culture lawns was a motivating factor, or was there an entirely different set of reasons. Through identification of motivating factors for xeriscape landscaping it may be possible to better implement policies and guidelines at the city and provincial level to help build urban water security. For example, if the main motivating factor for household xeriscape conversion is monetary then the city could promote xeriscape by emphasizing water cost savings to the public all in the interest of building urban water security. If on the other hand, landscape conversion to xeriscape is motivated by aesthetics or more efficient and purposeful yard maintenance, then these virtues should be conveyed to the public. Similar to water conservation programs in many cities, financial incentives to encourage mono-culture lawn conversion to xeriscape could be better formulated to address the identified motivating factors.

Research Method

The research method for this study employed twenty semi-structured interviews of households as well as document and website reviews. The interviews were conducted in the Nutana and Varsity View neighbourhoods of Saskatoon in late summer 2009 (see Figure 1). Potential survey households were identified by type of front yard landscaping, specifically front yards with non-lawn landscaping employing mixed vegetation, including shrub, flower, and native grasses as well as alternative ground cover such as aggregate and mulch. Once identified, individual households were approached and asked if they would participate in a 45 minute 'front-porch' interview survey. In almost all cases, homeowners were quick to engage in friendly discussion about all aspects of landscaping, particularly as related to details of works undertaken to establish xeriscape on site. An interview guide consisting of 35 questions organized into 6 categories enabled a degree of structure to the interview process, although the semi-structured format allowed respondents to elaborate in certain areas as necessary. Many of the interviews went beyond 45 minutes as respondents described their property's landscaping history and future landscaping plans. All respondents were required to be the registered owner of the property in order to participate in the survey. In addition, a review of available on-line documents was undertaken of the City of Saskatoon's policies regarding promotion of water conservation, recycling, and other residential environmental programs.


Results and Discussion

We report the research results and discussion in four sub-sections. These sections include, timing of xeriscape modification, main factors motivating xeriscape, source of motivation for xeriscape conversion, and perceived benefit(s) of xeriscape.

The survey responses yield many factors motivating xeriscape landscaping choices including aesthetics, gardening enjoyment, reduced maintenance, and water conservation. Additionally, a broad range of factors were reported as responsible for sources of motivation for xeriscape landscaping and for perceived benefits of xeriscape landscaping. This research also revealed a relationship between xeriscape landscaping and other environmental practices.

Timing of landscape modification to xeriscape

The majority of the respondents (85%) previously modified the landscaping of their property to xeriscape after the purchase of their home. Only 15% of all respondents stated that they had purchased their property with the existing xeriscape. For the respondents that changed the landscaping after purchasing their home, most (ninety-four percent) reported that the previous land cover on the property was monoculture lawn.

Over half of these conversions from mono-culture lawn to xeriscape occurred within two years of purchasing their home. The literature illustrates that mono-culture, grass lawn landscaping in Western culture is a symbol of neighbourhood cohesion and belonging in middle class North American neighbourhoods, a cultural norm nested in Victorian belief systems (Robbins and Sharp 2003a; 2003b). According to some authors, well kept lawns support neighbourhood cohesion, emulate civic orderliness and uphold property values (Robbins and Birkenholtz 2003). In response, or perhaps as causation, the grass lawn industry has long promoted the orderly mono-culture lawn to the North American middle class as a moral and civic obligation. The 'green at-any-cost' front lawn has long been promoted by the urban lawn care industry as an emblem of capital creation, family interaction, work ethic and healthy living (Robbins et al. 2001). Conversely, a poorly maintained front lawn is commonly interpreted as a symbol of social deviance, laziness and personal failure.

The replacement of grass lawn with low maintenance xeriscape challenges the belief that moral and civic duty is predicated on health green lawns. The collapse of society, in fact, will not be the result of mono-culture lawn conversion to xeriscape. At the same time, xeriscape is tidy, orderly, and thus emulates many of the same social characteristics of the mono-culture lawn. However, xeriscape conversion does eliminate the high maintenance, chemical and energy inputs and excessive water more common to mono-culture grass lawns. In this sense, xeriscape is sensitive to the environmental footprint and mindful of linking human health and productivity to the mono-culture lawn.

Factors motivating xeriscape

Motivating factors for xeriscape were varied and many respondents offered multiple reasons (see Table 1). Both aesthetics (21%) and enjoyment of gardening (21%) proved to be the two most common motivating factor for choosing xeriscape. Water conservation as a motivating factor ranked third highest at 16%. Thirteen percent of all responses suggested low yard maintenance as the main motivating factor for xeriscape. Other reasons included replacement of previous grass lawn cover because of poor lawn health (11%), disinterest in lawn mowing (8%), and general opposition to commercial lawn chemicals (5%).

The principal factor motivating landscape conversion from mono-culture lawn in this study was aesthetics (21%) and enjoyment of gardening (21%). Both of these reasons do not associate with water conservation or reduced use of water during peak summer outdoor demand. This result was counter to what was expected given the water conservation rationale for xeriscape in other regions of North America (Gleick et al. 2003). In addition, awareness of Prairie drought conditions and volumetric water meter pricing in Saskatoon were seen to be factors that would motivate xeriscape practices. This result indicates that the environment generally and water conservation specifically require consideration and understanding as factors motivating xeriscape in Saskatoon, SK. Based on this study, xeriscape practices are not wholly tied to concern for the environment, even within a dry Prairie region and in a city with metered, volume-based, water pricing. This result further exemplifies the Western moral obligation to well maintained private yard space.

When discussing aesthetics, many respondents mentioned xeriscape landscaping to be more aesthetically pleasing than monoculture lawn. Xeriscape landscaping has environmental connections with reductions in water and chemical use, so it was expected that water conservation would be the main motivating factor, although aesthetics and enjoyment of gardening proved to be the highest response (each at 21%). It was expected that residents in this study would place environmental actions ahead of aesthetics as rationale for xeriscape. Clearly this was not the case.

As mentioned previously, landscaped front yards have been associated with neighbourhood cohesion and status (Robbins et al. 2001). Neighbours with poorly maintained front yards can sometimes be outcast by neighbours, viewed negatively by society, and subject to municipal bylaw enforcement. The Western suburban landscape, reinforced by the commercial lawn care industry and municipal regulation, has placed heavy emphasis on the need for residential tidiness and conformity. Perhaps for this reason homeowners are most influenced in their decision to convert a recently purchased, but unkept front lawn, to xeriscape.

The enjoyment of gardening, plants, and flowers was another main motivating factor (21%) for choosing xeriscape landscaping. Xeriscape has a more functional component than the mono-culture lawn in that it promotes active gardening. Planted vegetable gardens provide an additional benefit of enhanced local food security. Seventy percent of xeriscape households did have some form of herb or vegetable garden. In this way, the front yard functioned as a sustainable food producing landscape. For others, nurturing flowers and plants was viewed as a more rewarding form of yard work than cutting lawn. This response is more closely tied to productive yard work ethic, again a reflection of Western moral obligation, than environmental practice.

The third most commonly reported motivation for choosing xeriscape was water conservation (16%). Respondents stated that monoculture lawns waste and pollute water and that xeriscape offers a reasonable substitute to promote water conservation and water quality. Although water conservation may not have been reported as the main motivating factor for choosing xeriscape landscaping it is still significant given other reported factors including low maintenance (16%), poor lawn health (11%), dislike lawn mowing (8%), dislike lawnmowers (5%), dislike of pesticides (5%).

A note of interest is that 58% of responses expressed a motivating factor that was in some way anti mono-culture lawn. However, of the relatively high percentage against mono-culture lawn, only 13% can be attributed to high water usage for lawns and the need for water conservation. Clearly the dominant factors motivating xeriscape landscaping was not for water saving or environmental reasons.

Source of motivation to xeriscape

A third line of questioning sought to identify source of household motivation to xeriscape (see Table 2). Half of the responses (50%) indicated that choice of xeriscape was influenced by neighbouring properties and friends. Meanwhile, an additional 25% of responses claimed to have been influenced through books and magazines. Fifteen percent of respondents claimed that their motivation to xeriscape was the result of their own idea while just 10% were influence through their workplace. In no instance did a respondent mention incentive from the City of Saskatoon as a source of motivation to xeriscape.

A high number of respondents round the idea for non-xeriscape from their neighbours and friends (50%). Books and magazines, experimentation, and the workplace were all additional sources of motivation toward xeriscape. All respondents stated that the City of Saskatoon did not offer financial incentives for xeriscape. The City of Saskatoon may want to reconsider this position in the near future in order to promote water conservation. Although Saskatoon has abundant water supply from the South Saskatchewan River, the city should be promoting water conservation for a variety of other reasons. Financial incentives are offered by the province for toilet rebates, which suggests there is some concern for water conservation at the provincial level. Given that outdoor watering places the heaviest pressure on water infrastructure in the summer, it would be advisable for Saskatoon to offer some compensation for those willing to conserve water in their landscape planning. Offering a small financial incentive would potentially encourage households to convert ground cover from high water demand 'lawnscape' to low water demand xeriscape, thus easing the city's burden of treating and pumping water to its customers.

Perceived benefit of xeriscape

We were interested to hear from homeowners what they perceived to be the main benefit(s) of xeriscape (sec Table 3). In response to this question respondents often provided more than one answer. Almost half of all responses (48%) stated that landscape aesthetics and enjoyment of gardening were the benefits of xeriscape. Approximately 15% of responses reported that a healthy garden and improved weed control were the benefits of xeriscape. Low maintenance was reported to be the benefit of xeriscape in 10% of all responses while just 9% of responses claimed water conservation was the benefit of non-lawn landscaping. These responses closely align with Table 1 results, factors motivating xeriscape. The results from this question highlight the importance of aesthetics (24%), enjoyment of gardening (25%) and healthy garden (15%) as opposed to water conservation (9%).

Financial cost of xeriscape

Half of the homeowners surveyed in this study reported that xeriscape is more expensive than mono-culture lawn landscaping. Purchasing different plants and mulch can be costly. With adequate knowledge, taking cuttings from other plants and sharing plants with neighbours was reported in this survey to be an inexpensive way to xeriscape and build neighbourly relations. Plant and seed exchanges exist informally in the city and have become a popular way to landscape. Xeriscape may have an initial high input cost if one does purchase plants instead of seed-sharing. Xeriscape discourages weeds and most watering can be done using a rain collection system, since water requirements will be minimal.

If financial incentives are not feasible from the city, an education program promoting water conservation landscaping can be offered. In other cities, educating the public on water conservation and xeriscape has proven successful (Brandes et al. 2005; Atwood, Kreutzwiser

& de Loe, 2007). The City of Saskatoon did offer xeriscape workshops in 2007 to promote water conservation, but this program was discontinued in subsequent years.


Relation to other environmental practices

This research shows that xeriscape homeowners have undertaken other environmental practises. For example, a large percentage of respondents pay for curb side recycling (75%) and also recycle regularly (95%). We see that choice of residential landscaping has a connection to other environmentally sustainable actions. Sixty-five percent of homeowners that practice xeriscape also compost yard and kitchen waste while 70% have a vegetable garden. If the city actively promoted xeriscape landscaping this could increase the awareness of other environmentally sustainable activities such as promoting local food security and recycling while reducing dependency on pesticide use and reduced noise pollution from lawnmowers. Sixty five percent of respondents with xeriscape landscaping do not use chemicals. Moreover, half of the respondents with xeriscape also walk to work as their main mode of transportation. In addition, just over half the respondents owned only one household vehicle.


The results of this research show that aesthetics are the prime motivating factor behind xeriscape landscaping in this study. The greatest influence or source of motivation toward xeriscape is from a neighbour or friend, presumably already practicing xeriscape. Water conservation or reduced cost of household water bills was not a principal motivating factor in the conversion from mono-culture lawn to xeriscape. Yet, xeriscape homeowners seem to be highly active in other environmental practices including efficient transportation, recycling and local food production.

Although water conservation may not be the main motivating factor, it still was a factor. Saskatoon, and other Canadian cities, should give consideration to the promotion of xeriscape to build urban water security, particularly during summer periods. Based on this research, the promotion of xeriscape need not only focus on household benefits from water conservation. Instead, the city should promote the aesthetics of xeriscape combined with the externality of gardening enjoyment, outdoor activity, low yard maintenance of xeriscape, and elimination of pesticide use. The promotion of xeriscape has many perhaps unintended benefits in the urban realm, from low maintenance design to neighbourhood aesthetics and health promotion. Xeriscape will also contribute to extending the life of water and sewer infrastructure, and thereby promote other favourable environmental practices such as energy conservation and reduced residential pesticide and herbicide use. Outdoor water requirements for high water use landscaping, such as the monoculture lawn, increase water demand in the growing season, placing serious pressure on municipal governments to meet these demands. Promoting xeriscape can help alleviate high water demand in summer season particularly in new residential neighbourhoods at a time when surface supplies are typically most stressed (Williams 1997).

A limiting factor in this study was its small sample size of twenty participants. A larger sample size and perhaps a multi-city study would be informative. A multi-city survey would also be helpful to identify any regional disparities.

The City of Saskatoon does not currently offer financial incentives or education programs for xeriscape. This gap should be re-evaluated in this time of water scarcity in the prairie region (Schindler and Donahue 2006). City engagement with gardening clubs, local farmers, university researchers and xeriscape experts would enable greater coordination of programs and incentives on the relationship between urban water security and healthy landscaping choices at the household level. Building urban water security from the bottom up through the promotion of those motivating factors identified in this research may be the most effective means of attaining urban water security.


The authors are grateful to all those who took part in the "front porch" interviews for this research. We also thank Sara Williams of Saskatoon for allowing use of her photos in this paper. Keith Bigelow, Department of Geography and Planning, prepared Figure 1. Special thanks go to Blair MacPherson and Angie Paquin for providing the French translation of the abstract. The authors are grateful for the helpful comments provided by two anonymous reviewers and for the editorial assistance provided by Michelle Swanson, University of Winnipeg. Any errors or omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors.


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Brittany Smith and Robert J. Patrick

Department of Geography and Planning

College of Arts and Science

University of Saskatchewan
Table 1: Factors motivating xeriscape

Factors motivating xeriscape # of responses (%)

Aesthetics 8 (21)
Enjoy gardening, plants, and flowers 8 (21)
Water conservation 6 (16)
Low maintenance 5 (13)
Previous lawn did not grow well 4 (11)
Do not like mowing lawn 3 (8)
Do not like lawnmowers 2 (5)
Against chemical herbicides and pesticides 2 (5)

Table 2: Source of motivation to xeriscape

Source of motivation to xeriscape # Responses (%)

Neighbourhood, friends 10 (50%)
Books & magazines 5 (25%)
Own idea, gardening, experimentation 3 (15%)
From work 2 (10%)
City of Saskatoon, incentives/disincentives 0

Table 3: Perceived benefit of xeriscape

Perceived benefit of xeriscape # Responses

Aesthetics 13 (24%)
Enjoy gardening, outdoors 13 (24%)
Healthy garden, improved weed control 8 (15%)
Low Maintenance 6 (11%)
Water savings 5 (9%)
Social interaction with people 5 (9%)
Uniqueness 4 (7%)
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Author:Smith, Brittany; Patrick, Robert J.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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