Water-Saving Landscaping Techniques

Article From HouseLogic.com

By: Laura Fisher Kaiser
Published: September 24, 2009

Pick the right plants for your local growing conditions, and you’ll save water, cut down on maintenance, and still have a beautiful yard.

Even if you don’t live in a dry climate, fresh water may be an increasingly scarce and expensive commodity. One way to conserve water is to design a landscape plan that cuts down on the need for irrigation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, converting to a water-efficient landscape can reduce your outdoor water use by 20% to 50%, or as much as 10,000 gallons a year. That saves money, too, shaving between $30 and $70 off the average annual household water bill.

Often called xeriscaping or drought-tolerant landscaping, low-water landscaping also makes yard maintenance easier. Here are 10 strategies that will save water and still let you enjoy a beautiful, healthy garden.

1. Choose native plants

Plants that originated in a particular part of the country have had eons to get used to that area’s normal rainfall, soil, and climate. That means they require less maintenance and little or no watering once established. Your local cooperative extension or botanic garden is a good place to start a native plant search. Sites like eNature.com (http://www.enature.com/native_invasive/) or H2ouse (http://www.h2ouse.org/gardensoft/garden_types.aspx?listType=tours) can help you find the best species for your location. Portland-based PlantNative (http://www.plantnative.org/) has a handy database of nurseries nationwide that specialize in native plants. Note: Just because you see a plant in your neighbor’s yard doesn’t meant it’s a native.

2. Skip the supersizing

“Pick plants that grow only to the size you want them,” advises Margaret Grace, principal of Grace Design Associates (http://www.gracedesignassociates.com) in Santa Barbara, Calif. “If you need five-foot-high screening between you and a neighbor, don’t put in something that grows nine feet high. You’ll have to chop it back all the time.” That’s a huge waste of water, not to mention extra work.

3. Mulch to reduce evaporation

Putting two or three inches of mulch on top of the soil around your plants is a great way to reduce water loss. Mulch also cuts down on water-stealing weeds. The best mulch options are natural ones like compost, bark chips, and pine needles. These organic mulches gradually break down and add nutrients to the soil. Inorganic materials like rocks and pebbles are a more permanent option, although in some climates they can hold too much heat. A quick tip: Don’t pile mulch up in huge cones against a plant’s stem or it will trap too much moisture, which leads to fungus and rot.

4. Make paths porous

Paths made of pebbles, gravel, or non-mortared concrete pavers or brick allow water to percolate down to your plants’ roots instead of running off into a storm drain. No mortar does mean more room for weeds to grow, though.

5. Lose the lawn

The average American family uses more than 20,000 gallons a year watering the lawn. If you need grass for a play area or just like to feel the blades between your toes, you can still cut water use by replacing some of that conventional grass with varieties that need less water. Bermuda or buffalo grass can use 20% less water than fescue or bluegrass, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension (http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/datastore/datastoreview/showpage.cfm?usernumber=21&surveynumber=462). Keep it long, too. Raising your mower blade to three inches helps shade grass roots so they lose less water through evaporation.

6. Put thirsty plants together

Grouping plants with the same water needs means you don’t waste water where it’s not necessary. Create a “mini-oasis” near the house, where thirsty plants can benefit from roof runoff. Farther out, make a “transition zone” for plants that need supplemental drip irrigation (http://www.houselogic.com/articles/water-saving-irrigation-strategies/). Farther still is a “natural zone” for native plants that can survive on rainfall alone.

7. Plant and water when it’s cool

New plants and transplants need far less water if you put them in the ground in early fall or early spring, when it’s cooler. Similarly, water in the morning so you’ll lose less to evaporation in the heat of the day.

8. Do donuts

Trees and shrubs need extra water the first couple of years to help their roots take hold. An efficient way to keep them moist is to mound several inches of soil into a donut-shaped berm out about as far as the branches reach. Use a hose or bucket to fill the donut dam to the top. Water will absorb slowly instead of running off. Another option: Attach a $25 – $30 drip irrigator bag to the tree.

9. Follow the sun

Use dry-soil plants in sunny areas, and plants that require more water in shady areas where evaporation is slower.

10. Create the illusion of water

Yes, you can have a water feature in a low-water garden. In fact, a small pond or fountain with a recirculating pump uses very little water. Pumps start as low as $10. Bonus: Water features attract birds and butterflies.

Laura Fisher Kaiser is a contributing editor to Interior Design magazine and a former editor at This Old House Magazine.

Reprinted from HouseLogic (houselogic.com) with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®
Copyright 2009.  All rights reserved.