A central Arizona city is fitting its focus onto the acceptance of the natural landscape it was gifted. As part of that focus, it is teaching its residents to appreciate it, too.
Surprise, Ariz., broke ground on a community Xeriscape Demonstration Garden at the end of October. The word prefix of the concept of a Xeriscape comes from the Greek “xero,” meaning dry.
“The intention behind a Xeriscape Demonstration Garden is really to showcase what an appropriate desert-adapted landscape looks like,” explained water resource analyst for the city of Surprise Amy Peterson.
Peterson said the city has a large transplant population, many from the Midwest, who may not know or understand the natural climate of the desert region.
“The soil conditions have large implications on the types of plants you can grow here in your landscape,” she said.
Water is a precious commodity in the city with a population of nearly 150,000 residents. The city has seen a 10% annual water usage growth for the last 10 years, with landscape irrigation composing a large portion of the demand.
“We’ve planned our infrastructure and resources accordingly, but our options are to build infrastructure or use our system more wisely,” said the city’s water resource management Assistant Director Michael Boule. “We’re seeing a continual rise in use. The time to do this is now based on where we are in this drought.”
There are already 11 water providers within the city, and the city government of Surprise is only the second largest provider for their residents. Most of the companies actually predate the city’s own system.
“I think what triggered the city to finally go ahead and go forth with serious plans to develop a garden was just the understanding that we’re in a long-term drought in Arizona,” Peterson said. “We’re actively growing our conservation program, and we need something very visible for the community so that we can use it as a tool for our program. Really, the timing of the climate that we’re in today is what’s triggered us to do this.”
As part of the Xeriscape, the water department accepted two totem sculptures from local high school students to incorporate into the scenery. The students were given college credit for their work, which was designed with the seven principles of Xeriscapes in mind. Those include sound landscape planning and design, limitation of turf to functional and active recreation areas, use of water-efficient plants, efficient irrigation, soil amendments, use of mulches and appropriate landscape maintenance.
The Maricopa County Master Gardeners have a long-standing positive relationship with the city of Surprise Water Conservation Program. The city hopes that the new Xeriscape Demonstration Garden will team up with the Master Gardeners in order to help spread awareness by leading tours of the demonstration garden.
“There aren’t a lot of examples of this close to where our residents live,” Peterson said. “We’re excited to see them share with us the educational aspect of our conservation program.”
In Surprise, the largest amount of water usage comes from landscaping, and, since the desert isn’t designed for plantings that need a lot of water, the plants actually need way more water to function in the arid climate.
“Here in the desert, it’s not as simple as pouring water on it,” said water conservation specialist for the city of Surprise Amanda Rothermal, explaining there are many plants that are acclimated to the desert climate.
“(Being in the desert) does not mean you can only have cactuses,” she said. “There are quite a few plants that you can use. This allows us to showcase those plants that can thrive here.”
Besides the showcase for residents, the Xeriscape Demonstration Garden is designed with the intention of garnering support from homeowner associations’ board members, offering school tours and providing for general personal recommendations to reduce water and encourage water conservation as a city.
Water conservation efforts have been underway in Surprise for many years. A rebate program geared at water conservation also helps homeowners statewide.
“Pretty much all of the landscapes in Arizona need supplemental short controllers for irrigation systems,” Rothermal explained. “In Arizona, you have a sprinkler system if you have grass or you have a drip line if you have anything other than grass, and those are hooked up to a controller. The smart controllers pretty much automate the thinking in terms of how much water to put on each of the plants … What (water companies) do is they connect your irritation controller to weather station information, and they’ll automatically adjust our water based on the season and the weather.”
The Xeriscape, which was grant funded by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, the U.S. Forest Service and city water utility funds, is just over 2 acres in area, located the Surprise City Hall campus, just west of West Valley Arts HQ. The project is expected to be finished by February.