Water is truly the life of the landscape. It’s the medium through which nutrients travel from the soil to your plants. It keeps our plants’ stems and leaves full and lush. It’s even a necessary factor in photosynthesis.

In this age of growing concern about water conservation, it’s important to recognize the critical role water plays in our landscapes – and to do all we can to use it responsibly. Regardless of the climate you inhabit, you can significantly improve your water use profile by designing your landscape with conservation in mind. Here are a few principles to take into account when designing for water conservation:

Reduce Your Need for Water

Plant selection makes a huge difference in the amount of water it will take to keep your landscape looking healthy and beautiful. Choose species and varieties that are known to be drought resistant. Many of these plants have special adaptations to help them retain moisture, such as small or deeply indented leaves, waxy coatings on their leaves or stems, or fleshy taproots.

Native plants are often a good choice for water conservation. However, don’t assume that because a plant is native it will be water wise. You’ll need to choose ones that are specifically adapted to thrive in soil similar to yours with little to no irrigation. Ask your landscape professional for suggestions.

Use the Water Available on Site

Every climate, no matter how dry, receives some annual rainfall. There are many ways to take advantage of this free water source, including:

  • Swales
  • Rain gardens
  • Rain barrels
  • Cisterns
  • Retention ponds

Another largely unrealized water resource is the effluent from your shower and laundry. Called graywater, it can be used to help irrigate your trees and landscape plants. If the possibility of using graywater appeals to you, check with your local municipality as many cities have restrictions on its use for landscaping.

Retain as Much Water as Possible on Site

Many properties lose much of the water that falls on them to runoff and evaporation. Excessive runoff can adversely affect your community’s storm water system in addition to robbing your soil of vital moisture. Here are a few things to consider doing in order to keep your water on site: 

  • Use mulch. Covering your soil with a thick layer of mulch will protect the surface of your soil from water loss through evaporation. A 2 inch to 4 inch layer is recommended for most situations.
  • Improve your soil. Clay soils may be so dense that they don’t absorb water well, creating lots of surface runoff. Sandy soils may have difficulty retaining water. Amending your soil with organic matter will help correct these conditions. A well-conditioned soil holds moisture like a sponge, making it available to your plants’ roots over a long period of time. When selecting both mulch and amendments, it’s important to choose ones that are compatible with your soil type and plant selection.
  • Go permeable. The paved areas of your property also contribute to your water-use profile. Consider opting for permeable pavement for driveways and patios. Permeable concrete, asphalt, or pavers will allow most of the water that falls on your property to sink into the ground to reduce storm-water runoff, replenish the water table, and nourish wide-reaching tree roots.
  • Water low. Sprinklers that send water high into the air are fun for kids to run through. Reserve them for special moments with your kids and grandkids. For your landscape, opt instead for drip irrigation or rotors that keep the water droplets large and low to the ground. You will lose a lot less water to evaporation and wind drift.

Improve Your Irrigation Efficiency

Many homeowners can reduce their outdoor water use by 20%, 40%, or even more by upgrading their irrigation systems. Today’s smart-irrigation controllers work in conjunction with high efficient, low precipitation rate sprinkler heads or emitters to monitor the weather and soil conditions on your property to determine the exact amount of moisture your plants need for optimal growth, and deliver just that amount with little waste. Maximum efficiency is based on the head selection and proper head layout. Emitter technology, too, has improved greatly over the past few years. Simply swapping out older rotors or sprinkler heads for new, water-efficient ones can make a significant dent in your water bill.

Zone Appropriately

Soil-moisture conditions can vary tremendously from one spot to another on even a small property. Shade, wind exposure, soil type and conditions, and drainage patterns all contribute to the creation of microclimates in your yard. Before planning your landscape, consult a landscape design expert to help you identify the different zones on your property. You’ll want to select plants that are appropriate for each, and create a separate irrigation zone for each area. This will ensure that all plants get the right amount of moisture for their needs without wasting a drop. 

A qualified landscape professional can help you achieve optimal results from any of these techniques. Your local irrigation and landscape design experts are intimately familiar with your local climate and soil types, as well as the most pressing water-related issues in your area. Ask them to recommend specific plants, techniques and equipment best suited to meeting your water use goals on your unique property. The water-conservation investments you make today will quickly pay off in the form of reduced water bills, healthier plants, and the knowledge that you are doing your part to treat our water supply with the respect it deserves.

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