With severe drought conditions across large swatches of the west and pockets of the rest of the United States, many homeowners are looking for ways to conserve water on landscaping. But there’s no need to rip out your whole yard and replace it with gravel—unless you want to. There are plenty of other ways to create a drought-tolerant landscape while also creating a beautiful and functional space. And drought-tolerant landscaping not only saves water immediately, but will be more resilient against future droughts. Here are some ideas:
Take on manageable pieces
Identify your biggest areas of water consumption. Besides lawns, the biggest areas of water use tend to be rose gardens, summer vegetables and cut flower gardens. If you’re not ready to eliminate these areas entirely, figure out how you might want to reduce their size. A rose garden, for example, could be made into a smaller group of favorite bushes. Vegetables and cut flowers can go in containers or raised beds where you will have more control over how much water they get. Mix compost into soil for better moisture retention.
Make your lawn more water-efficient
If you want to keep a lawn, consider downsizing to a smaller swatch, picking a spot where you’ll get the most use, like a play area for kids. Find low water grasses for your area. Raise the blades on your lawn mower—keeping grass longer will reduce evaporation and promote deeper root growth. Leave clippings on the grass after mowing to help retain moisture and return nutrients to the soil–extra clippings can also be tossed on the compost pile. Aerate soil with a soil aerator tool to reduce runoff and help water absorb into the soil.
Or go lawn-free
Consider replacing your lawn with an alternate ground cover. Try ornamental grasses for interesting textures, low-growing flowering plants for seasonal color or edibles like low-growing herbs or strawberries. Some cities offer financial incentives for switching to a drought-tolerant landscape or for using gray water (reused water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances.) Check your area for opportunities.
Add more areas of low-water use
Replace a section of lawn with an outdoor seating area, a sandbox for kids or a raised bed with herbs. Create intrigue by laying down paths of flagstone, pavers, gravel, mulch or other porous material. Add new focal points like a porch swing, fire pit, or a patio. Instead of water-thirsty blooms, think of other ways to incorporate color with colorful perennials, planters, chairs or bright native grasses.
Optimize your sprinkler system
Inspect your sprinkler system for leaks, broken heads or misdirected heads that water driveways, sidewalks, or the street. Make sure the system runs early in the morning or late in the day. Consider a “smart” system that will monitor the soil and automatically adjust watering as necessary. Try watering less frequently or for shorter periods. When reducing your irrigation, make changes gradually, so plants and trees have time to adjust.
If you have plants with high water needs, plant them together. Use a drip irrigation system or soaker hose to minimize run off and evaporation. Watering deeply and infrequently encourages deeper roots and more resilient plants. Take advantage of natural sources of water by putting in plants next to paths, driveways and other spots where water run off naturally occurs. Direct eave spouts into raised beds or other planted areas and consider using rainbarrels to collect rain water.
Native plants are a great choice for drought-tolerant landscaping because they won’t need much (if any) watering once established. Over time native plants have developed a natural resistance to pests and won’t require added chemicals and special care. For ideas on good native plants for your area, ask at a local nursery, look on the EPA’s listing of native and regionally appropriate plants, or contact your local extension office.
Shrubs, perennials, bulbs and trees use less water than most annuals and lawns and well-established plants use less water than newly-planted ones. Evergreens and other trees are also a good choice—they’re drought-resistant and offer shade that helps retain moisture in the rest of the yard. Cover steep areas with deep-rooted native ground covers and/or shrubs to discourage water run-off and erosion. Mulching is essential—it helps soil retain moisture and keeps weeds at bay. Use organic mulch like bark, cocoa husks, or pine needles that decompose and nourish the soil. Layer mulch about three inches deep and replace as necessary.
And don’t worry too much about the pool
New research indicates that pools use only about as much water as a lawn of the same size. And covering a pool will cut water use by 50-70 percent, making a covered pool about equal in water use to drought-tolerant landscaping.