After you have planned your xeriscape, the next step is to prepare the soil. This may involve removing a portion of lawn, killing pre-emergent weeds and pests in the soil, amending the soil to create the needed aeration and nutrient balance, and for some areas grading. Preparing the soil is time well spent. It contributes to healthy growth of your new plants and saves time spent weeding in the future.
First, kill the existing top growth of grass and weeds in the area you want to plant. There are a number of ways to accomplish this including the use of boiling water or vinegar. Do not use salt, as it will contaminate the soil and nothing will grow there.
The most effective way to kill a large area of turf is to use a glyphosate product like Roundup®. These herbicides are absorbed through the leaves and travel through the plant to kill the roots. They are not active in the soil, so they will not affect plants you add later. Since the patent has expired for Roundup, there are a number of similar products from which to choose: Touchdown, Spectracide, Durango, Ranger, Glyphomax, Credit , Cornerstone, Glyfos, Mirage, Buccaneer, Rascal, Honcho, and others. Get the concentrated version, which is more cost effective and add your own water as specified. Be sure to follow product label directions for application, to get the best results.
It may take up to two weeks for the lawn to turn brown. After the top growth is dead, it can be removed or just turned back into the soil. Read more in The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension article, “Converting Turf to a Xeriscape Landscape” (pdf).
Weed & Pest Control
Depending on your soil analysis, you may want to take the next step and kill soilborne pests before planting. Solarization is a nonchemical technique to capture the sun’s radiant heat to raise the temperature of the soil. By covering the soil with a clear plastic tarp for four to six weeks during hot weather, the top 12 to 18 inches of soil will become hot enough to kill weeds, pathogens and other soilborne pests. Solarization also helps speed the breakdown of soluable nutrients in the soil, so they are available to the plants in your xeriscape. Read more about solarization in the University of California Integrated Pest Management article, “Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes.”
Find out what type of soil you already have, to help choose suitable plants. Have the soil analyzed for nutrients and pH balance to see if it is acidic or alkaline. You could save money by using a soil pH meter to perform you own pH testing. To find a lab that performs soil testing, check with local landscaping companies for a reference. Local colleges with an agriculture department or your state agricultural services may also test soil samples. Depending on the analysis results, you may need to amend the soil to provide nutrients and to conserve moisture.
Is your soil sandy or tightly compacted clay? By selecting native plants that are adapted to local soil conditions, you can simplify the soil preparation process. However, most soils benefit from addition of compost or other organic matter to add nutrients and to create the right balance of drainage and moisture retention.
Adding gypsum and sand will help loosen clay soil to improve the workability and drainage capacity. If you have sandy soil and choose plants that favor sandy soil, you may not need to change the soil structure.
Before planting, you may also want to terrace a slope or create mounds for water channeling or to add visual interest. If you are planting near the house, make sure the ground slopes away from the building.
In the video below, Texas Master Gardener Angie Hanna shows how to prepare the soil for a xeriscape garden area. You can also see xeriscapes in her yard that have been established for one, two and three years.
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