Low-Water Landscaping For Dummies
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Simply put, low-water landscaping is all about landscaping with less water. And no matter whether you’re trying to sustain an established yard in a desert-like climate or you’re wishing to make changes while adjusting to a limited or unpredictable water supply, the message is the same: You can do it!

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Having a beautiful landscape isn’t just nice, it’s also important. The plants in and around the area are more than décor, they’re alive — even in times when water is scarce.

We humans are bound in a relationship with plants, not just for the pleasurable beauty or fragrance they may provide as we come and go from our home or hang out in the yard, and not just for the other creatures they help sustain (from pollinators to birds). We’re also elementally bound together by the shared, interdependent, natural cycles of air — the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen — and water, the stuff of life as we know it.

When water is rationed or in short supply, when rain is a rare event, when we constantly hear dire stories about falling reservoirs and depleted aquifers, we worry. We should worry. Water is precious and vulnerable to human demands as well as forces that feel beyond our control, like weather patterns and macro-climate change.

And yet, having an attractive yard isn’t a foolish wish, nor is it a luxury. Your yard is part of your home and part of the big picture of the larger landscape.

Rather than giving up, adapt. Become a good steward. This article gives you a brief overview of what you can do. Find out how to conserve water, how to better deliver it to wisely chosen plants, and how to keep it all healthy and beautiful.

Defining Low-Water Landscaping

Low-water landscaping is using less water, more efficiently.

Sustaining home landscaping on less water isn’t mysterious. Many excellent techniques and ideas come from farming and agriculture. And, of course, research is continuing.

Certain water-conserving ideas from agriculture translate well to smaller and more intimate settings, whether you only have a courtyard or balcony, or you’re trying to maintain a half-acre or more around your home. Also other gardeners have developed clever, effective ways to successfully nurture many plants with less water.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Plenty of trial and error and research, worldwide and over many centuries, has yielded innovative and practical ways to install and care for plants.

Here, I begin by taking a closer look at where you can reduce water use and how. Not every suggestion will apply — but many will! Conserving is a matter of examining every opportunity.

See where it makes sense to implement

There are many places and times where saving water can (and should) be possible. These include the following:
  • Where getting water to your yard and plants is difficult or complex
  • Where the water supply is expensive/where water bills just keep going up and up
  • Where the water source is uncertain: unreliable, depleted, or drying up
  • Where rainfall is unpredictable, sparse, or briefly seasonal
  • Where water rationing is mandated and enforced
  • Where the landscaping you do have is suffering from lack of water
  • When you don’t have time, funds, or the energy to fuss over your yard
  • When you’re ready for a change to more responsible and creative landscaping
©Simone / Adobe Stock

Why being water-wise is important

Global climate-change weather models suggest that severe droughts may not be occasional anomalies to endure but become the norm — sobering news. Therefore confronting the situation and being proactive about your water use is imperative.

Should things improve or monsoon rains be generous, well, the good habits and practices you develop ought to stay in place anyway. Wasting water is a careless habit; conserving water shows respect for life itself, starting with the plants and creatures inhabiting your yard and also respect for your neighbors and neighborhood, your municipality, and your bioregion.

Leverage your water sources

Part of water-wise gardening is gathering all the water you can and sometimes storing it to use with care later — in other words, maximizing your supply. You may be surprised by some of these useful ideas:
  • Start monitoring how much water your garden needs and uses.
  • Install one or more rain barrels.
  • Collect and store water in a cistern or tank.
  • Use gray water. Gray water isn’t all of your household water, but rather the sources of relatively clean consumption, such as sinks, showers, bathtubs, and even the washing machine (not the toilet or utility sink). Some municipalities regulate the use of gray water and, of course, you don’t want to use certain soaps or cleaning agents, which would make the re-used water unsafe or unsuitable for your plants or soil.
  • Route or reroute drainage from your roof. Study and route or reroute drainage out in your yard.
  • Put in a rain garden, a garden area set up in a low area where rain pools or where you can divert your rain gutters.
  • Find out whether your municipality has reclaimed water, which is water that has been treated but isn’t meant for drinking/not potable. They may be using it to irrigate city parks and other public places, but it may also be possible to access it for your personal landscape.

For the details on how to implement all of the ideas in this article, check out my book Low-Water Landscaping For Dummies.

Eliminate wasteful watering practices

A series of seemingly minor changes in your watering habits can help. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Prevent runoff. Don’t overwater, don’t water too long, and help water soak in so plants can use it. It begins with good soil, actually.
  • Create watering basins around individual plants.
  • Create water-need zones by grouping plants with similar needs together so you can water them together.
  • Water when chance of evaporation is lowest. A full explanation and discussion — including myth-busting.
  • Choose watering gear wisely. Replace old-model sprinklers and sprinkler systems with some amazingly efficient new technology. A wide range of items and networks deliver water directly to the roots of your plants (and not to the sidewalk and gutter!).
  • Hold water in the ground around your plants by mulching. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s tremendously effective.
Just to get on the Mulch Soapbox for a moment: Anyone can mulch their plants and everyone, especially those needing to conserve water, should! Mulch has profound benefits.

Mulch prevents evaporation, which is huge because most plant roots are fairly close to the soil surface. Mulched plants need water less frequently and stay fresh-looking longer after a watering. Mulch also helps keep weeds at bay, and weeds are notorious for stealing water and nutrients from your desired plants.

Like to grow and display plants in containers, but you’ve definitely noticed that they’re more water-intensive than plants in the ground? Good news: You can get the needed water to potted plants without waste or worry. Among the options are clever self-watering pots and water-holding crystals added to potting soil.

Replace Impractical Plants with Practical Ones

If you’re honest with yourself, you already know that your yard — including but not limited to your lawn — has some plants that aren’t doing so well these days. Not enough water is obviously their problem. They’re getting to be too much trouble and expense to maintain.

To be blunt, the solution is obvious. Out with the old, in with the new! I want to reassure you that not only can you make changes, but you can also embrace changes by making smart and creative choices that will look great. Keep reading for some general suggestions.

Getting rid of your lawn

Taking out your grass feels like the end of an era … because it’s the end of an era. Green lawns suck up a lot of resources, mainly water but also fertilizer and perhaps weedkillers (all of which can be harmful to wildlife, your environs, and groundwater) — not to mention all your own effort and sweat in mowing and clipping. And what’s the point if water is limited and no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t look as lush as you want?

Completely removing your lawn isn’t as hard as you might think. Lawn grass isn’t deep-rooted, and you can dig it up and peel it away like a thick old carpet. You can also get rid of a lawn by tarping, solarizing the area, or undertaking sheet or “lasagna” mulching.

After the deed is done and you’ve removed your grass, you’ll have a clean slate, an area of open space, presumably in full sun and in full view of you and your neighbors. This is a brand-new landscaping opportunity! Yes, look at this transition as pivoting to a new and better way — because it is.

While you’re contemplating your next steps, don’t leave bare, exposed ground. Weeds — those hardiest and most resilient of all plants, even in dire drought conditions — will invade. The saying “nature abhors a vacuum” is never truer than when a spot is freshly cleared. Just cover over the area until you’re ready to re-landscape and replant.

Consider lawn alternatives

You have a lot of options for alternatives, depending on the size of the space, your budget, and your energy. I recommend you do a little (fun and inspiring) research by looking at how others in your neighborhood and region have dealt with lawn replacement.

Meanwhile, the following can jump-start your thinking:

  • Put in a native drought-tolerant grass or grass blend. True, your lawn won’t look like a golf green, but it may serve as a pretty and quite water-wise new installation. A plus: These types of grasses look more harmonious and natural, rather than out of place.
  • Consider ornamental grasses. Unlike turf grasses, ornamental grasses are clump-formers, so they tend to be taller and need to be planted more closely if you’re still wanting broad coverage. You can clip or mow to maintain a desired height.
  • Install a meadow. Full disclosure — installing a meadow takes soil preparation, careful selection of a balance of flowering plants and native grasses, and some regular maintenance to keep it looking nice. It’s gardening; you can’t just sprinkle a can of meadow mix and be done. However, the results can be gorgeous and gratifying, and the area definitely will consume very little water once established.

Some municipalities and homeowner associations are still reluctant to allow or approve of meadow gardens, particularly in front yards or areas clearly visible from the street.

  • Put in a groundcover. Plenty of plants certainly can fill in and cover up a broad area and look terrific. Some introduce different shades of green and other colors (and/or seasonal color changes, which can be lovely) to your home landscape. And, don’t be succulents-averse. There are more options than you may realize, and mixing and matching can also supply impressive, beautiful, and effective coverage.

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