It’s the second day of winter 2014 and the Eckerts’ landscape surrounding their Vail home is green and leafy with trees, bushes, yuccas and succulents.

The front yard welcomes visitors with a groomed version of the natural desert.

Water tumbling from the spa to the pool and several comfortable seating areas with Rincon Mountains views make the backyard an inviting gathering spot.

It’s a lush setting of low water-use plants that mimic the Sonoran Desert beyond the property.

Those features helped earn two Tucson companies the 2014 Xeriscape Award from the Arizona Landscape Contractors’ Association. The award was shared by landscape designer Shelly Ann Abbott of Landscape Design West LLC and landscape contractor Sonoran Gardens Inc.

Chris Niccum, owner of Sonoran Gardens, hopes the attention the award brings will help people better understand xeriscaping.

Homeowners continue to be surprised and confused that something so green and lush as Betty and Jerry Eckert’s gardens is called “xeriscape,” a term that combines two Greek root words to mean “dry landscaping.”

People still imagine that the term means “zero-scape,” essentially a dull, stark view of some rocks and cactus, says Niccum.

“Xeriscape came up as a water-saving principle,” says Niccum. “I believe it has developed into a landscaping style.”

For Tucson, that style means using native plants that thrive in low-water, desert conditions, he says.

Niccum explains that in xeriscaping, the perimeter of a property can look like natural desert. “As you move close to the house, the landscape becomes more ornamental and less natural,” he says. That makes the outdoor living area “an oasis.”

Abbott agrees that xeriscape isn’t merely bringing the desert into the backyard.

“It’s a dialog between this desert garden,” she says, sweeping her hand across the Eckert’s backyard during a recent visit, “and the garden out there,” she adds, pointing to the land beyond the back wall. “This is a kicked up version of what’s out there.”

When the Eckerts, transplants from Colorado, built their home in 2010, they had definite ideas of what they wanted for their gardens.

“We wanted some color,” says Betty Eckert. “We wanted to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. We wanted something blooming all year round.

“We wanted something that looked natural that flowed into the landscape.”

Desert flowering plants abound, from salvia, fairy duster, turpine bush, Mexican firecracker and penstemon to ocotillo, yucca and prickly pear.

“I also wanted textural variety,” adds Jerry Eckert. He got that with a variety of succulents, including agaves and cacti.

Mixed in are a few non-natives such as a bougainvillea, crepe myrtle and a citrus tree.

These high water-use plants add interest and some unusual color, says Abbott. As long as they don’t make up the majority of the plant palette, the landscape remains water efficient. “One plant each is doable,” she says.

Water efficiency includes collecting rainwater. That’s done on the Eckert property by using berms and other land contours to direct water to plants.

Bobcats, quail and other local wildlife are attracted to the desert setting. The Eckerts enjoy watching the critters from the spacious, comfortably furnished patio.

The seating area also provides Jerry fascinating views of the plants. “I sit on a chair and be mesmerized” by the desert spoon, ocotillo, grasses and beaked yucca that sway in the breeze, he says.

The outdoor living spaces — there’s also a fireplace and a second, smaller seating area — were essential to the Eckerts’ enjoyment of the desert.

Indeed, they see it as part of the house. Sliding glass doors turn the living room and patio into one big space. “This is an extension of the living room,” Jerry says. “It’s a broader part of the living area in the house.”

Niccum says the Eckert landscape is an example of what xeriscape really is, a desert garden oasis.

“Water efficient doesn’t mean you don’t have any plants,” he says. “Plants are selected more intelligently.”

Abbott says some people who see pictures of the Eckert’s yard mistakenly say they don’t want that, they want a xeriscape. “I think people don’t know they can do xeriscape and make it look fabulous.”

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net