The homes no one seems to live in…whether they’re on your block or not, you’ve seen them. The mailboxes are riddled with rust and pizza delivery and Chinese takeout food fliers are piling up near the doors. Their yards are overrun with weeds, shrubs, trees and flowers.

A blight on the neighborhood? Probably. But do they have any value left? Definitely.

In fact, you might want to scoot on over and do a little research (although we don’t, of course, advocate trespassing). Because that hideously neglected lawn can tell you what grows in our neck of the woods without the aid of human intervention and might save you from the future shock of sky-high water bills.

We’re talking about xeriscaping, which you’ve probably heard of unless you’ve been living under a rock at that scary house. According to the National Xeriscape Council, more than 50 percent of the country’s residential water usage is applied to landscapes and lawns. Xeriscaping, however, can reduce landscape water use by 70 percent or more.

So what is xeriscaping? It’s the use of native plants that grow naturally in our region or non-native ones that will thrive in the hot and dry Texas sun (they’re also known as adaptive plants). The idea is that these native or adaptive plants are naturally suited to thrive on the amount of rainfall we normally receive each year and therefore require less maintenance.

Our neighborhood has the added benefit of the nearby City of Dallas’ Xeriscape Demonstration Garden, located at 2900 White Rock Road, on the west side of the lake. More than 80 varieties of plants are displayed here, so it’s one more source of education for the xeriscaper-wannabe. Call Dallas Water Utilities at 214-670-3155 for more information or to schedule a tour.

To further inspire you, we sought out neighbors who have devoted themselves to the xeriscape challenge and succeeded in designing gorgeous gardens while lowering their water usage. Many use mostly native and drought-tolerant plants mixed with old favorites that might require a little more water.

They’ll tell you what inspired them to begin xeriscaping, what challenges they faced and what their favorite plants are.

GARDENERS: JANELL AND CONRAD MIROCHNA

STARTED XERISCAPING: Eleven years ago when they moved into their home, which had no existing plants – “a clean slate.” Conrad says. Janell also was involved in the city of Dallas water conservation program at the time. “So she wanted me to practice what she preached!” Conrad says.

CHALLENGES OF XERISCAPING: “Knowing when to water,” Conrad says. “This was especially a concern when we were in a drought a few years ago.”

WHAT MAKES THEIR XERISCAPE UNIQUE: That it was “uniquely designed” for their house by friend and xeriscape specialist Bonnie Arnold Reese. They also have some plants that “wouldn’t be considered traditional xeriscape plants, such as Japanese maples,” Conrad says. “One of the beauties of xeriscape is that it can be whatever you want it to be as long as you design it with efficient water use in mind.”

FAVORITE XERISCAPE-WORTHY PLANT FOR TEXAS: Salvia Gregii (autumn sage). “We’ve had people stop by just to ask us what that plant is because it looked so great, even in the heat of the summer.”

GARDENER: ALAN FRANZ – landscape architect

STARTED XERISCAPING: Because his “front yard faces the southwest and bakes in the middle of summer. I laid out a plan of where I wanted things,” he says. He now has a garden full of perennials and shrubs that are “native or very well-adapted, and they can all handle the heat.”

CHALLENGES OF XERISCAPING: Finding plants that thrive (or at least tolerate) July and August heat and working with neighborhood soil.

WHAT MAKES HIS XERISCAPE UNIQUE: Franz’ xeriscape is designed like an English Garden, using a lot of color. “Consequently, it attracts a lot of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds,” he says.

FAVORITE XERISCAPE-WORTHY PLANT FOR TEXAS: Autumn Sage: “It’s a shrubby perennial, that is semi-evergreen in winter and blooms its head off from April to October.”

GARDENERS: ELIZABETH AND RANDALL RAUSCH

STARTED XERISCAPING: Because her father uses “native and naturalized plants (at his central Texas home) and manages to coax color from his garden most of the year, There was never any question that we would plant a garden with native and xeric plants.”

CHALLENGES OF XERISCAPING: “Self-control in garden centers and when browsing through gardening catalogs,” quips Elizabeth, adding that they’ve also had problems with early plantings of liriope and bermuda grass taking over flower beds.

WHAT MAKES THEIR XERISCAPING UNIQUE: The little details, such as evergreen plants “to give the garden year round structure and interest,” red berries on the pyracantha and nandina to “add winter color,” and rosemary growing on either side of their door “to greet visitors with a spicy scent.”

FAVORITE XERISCAPE-WORTHY PLANT FOR TEXAS: Elizabeth’s favorite is lavender Provence. “It blooms prolifically, smells wonderful, and the gray foliage adds year-round interest,” she says. Randall’s is Sakvia Big Blue, which blooms from early summer through frost.

XERISCAPING: Seven steps to a lush, colorful and water-efficient landscape

Obviously, Dallas in July is not the place nor time to start ripping out water-chugging plants and replacing them with native or adaptive ones. But it’s never too early to start planning for cooler weather. Below are seven steps to get you started toward planning a successful xeriscape.

Start with a plan. Create a scale drawing of your lot. Consider soil type, drainage, water availability, sun and shade, wind direction and views.

Analyze and improve the soil. Most soil will benefit from adding organic matter. Many neighborhood nurseries provide soil-testing services.

Use practical turf areas. Grass normally needs more water than any other landscape element. Consider how you will use an area and if grass is the best choice. Ground covers, shrubs, a deck or a patio are other options.

Select appropriate plants. There are many native plants that work well in our neighborhood, but Robert Enzman, landscape manager of Pickerings garden center, stresses that there are many non-native drought-tolerant plants that do just as well.

“Dwarf yaupon,’Ed Goucher’ abelia, holly: these are just as drought tolerant once they’re established as Texas sage, red yucca and plants like that, which are thought of as typical xeriscape plants,” he says.

For a list of these plants, call 214-670-3155 and request a copy of Dallas Water Utilities’ Natural Beauties brochure.

Use efficient irrigation to make every drop count. The most efficient hose-end sprinklers throw large drops of water close to the ground. Soaker hoses are inexpensive, easy to install and ideal for planting beds. Drop irrigation applies water slowly to the soil directly and may save up to 60 percent of the water required by other methods of irrigation.

But, Enzman stresses, know that at first, a xeriscape will require a bit more attention. “That first summer [after planting], everything should be hand-watered about three times a week and babied through that first summer.”

Use organic mulches to conserve water and prevent weed growth. Mulches help reduce moisture loss from soil and erosion, and can also slow weed growth.

Maintain appropriately. Xeriscapes require less maintenance than traditional landscapes. However, a properly maintained yard is hardier and better able to withstand drought, freezing and pest problems.