Low-Water Landscaping For Dummies
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This isn’t a dry topic! As long spells without rain and ongoing droughts begin to impact more areas, having practical, useful information for managing is important.

Maintaining an attractive garden in climates that are arid or wherever the water supply is low or uncertain, many people believe, is difficult and challenging.

Not so. You just have to adapt, to change your ways.

Begin with getting to know appropriate plants and then learning how best to maintain them, particularly how to deliver (and accumulate/harvest!) the minimal water they do need in order to thrive.

Along the way, gather inspiration so you can find creative ways to bring color, beauty, and interest to your yard. This Cheat Sheet can give you some bare-bone basics and strategies that will make all the difference.

How to conserve water in your yard

Before you start making major changes in the way you manage and water your home landscape, consider making minor ones. Some or all of these can actually add up to a lot of saved water. Consider the following.

  • Prevent runoff from individual plants by creating a watering basin at their base. Mound up soil in a circle around the root zone of your plants, so water soaks in right there — where needed!
  • Improve your soil so it holds water better. Whether it’s sandy or gritty and water runs through it too quickly or it has clay content and compacts, the addition of organic matter inevitably helps. If you can’t redo entire beds, at least make every new planting hole a soil-improvement project.
  • Mulch your plantings. Yes, even groundcovers. Yes, even shrubs and trees. Mulch helps hold moisture in the upper layers of the soil, where most water goes and where most plant roots reside. Mulch also helps suppress weeds, which rob water and nutrients from your plants.
  • Double-check all water outlets and gear, to make sure they are not leaking and are in good repair. Where needed, replace and upgrade.
  • Investigate and invest in better watering tools. Hose and sprinkler technology has come a long way!
  • Collect water. Invest in rain barrels or cisterns. Look into using gray water and, if available in your municipality, reclaimed water.
  • Water wisely. Water in the morning so your plants enter the heat of the day hydrated. To avoid over- or underwatering, monitor your water use with gadgets or a simple finger test (plunge your finger in the soil up to the second knuckle; if it emerges clean and dry, add water).

Choose plants that don't require a lot of water

You can consider this part of the changes you make the most fun! Because of years of lingering droughts, savvy horticulturists, landscapers, and botanic gardens have been looking for and then, sometimes, tinkering with and improving good-looking plants that do well in dry conditions.

Nowadays, such plants aren’t hard to find — local nurseries and plant sales always have them. You’ll see them in the yards in your neighborhood and region (walk around and look, perhaps meet another gardener and have a chat). But there are so many choices.

To help you navigate this brave new world of tough plants, follow these steps:

  1. Study lists of low-water and drought-tolerant plants. Look at those offered at nurseries and garden centers (online or printed), regional botanic gardens, and those touted on the website or Instagram pages of landscapers in your area.
  2. Flag those plants whose form, color, height, and/or bloom time appeal to you.
  3. Find out more about your favorites. Do they have any special requirements (well-drained soil, alkaline soil, or a need for noonday shade, for instance) or any flaws (such as their bloom period is brief or they spread aggressively)?
  4. Find out whether desirable variations are available—cultivated varieties, nativars, different flower colors, or extended blooming periods.
  5. Narrow down your wish list. If possible, discuss it with a savvy nursery staffer or an experienced gardener in your neighborhood.
  6. Assess possible spots in your home landscape for the prospective plants. Aim to make a match — a match between the site and the plant. (If you do a good job, like any successful matchmaking, their life will be less stressful and more harmonious.) Have a plan for supplying necessary water.
  7. Buy and install at a low-stress time, such as spring or fall. Give baby plants good care for at least their first season in their new home, including supplemental water so their roots can get well-established. Later, they’ll repay your nurturing by becoming more and more independent and using far less water.

Say goodbye to turf

Lush green lawns are in the crosshairs of many water districts and municipalities, and homeowners are beginning to agree: Turf grass is just too much work and takes too much water.

Embrace this paradigm shift! Take out your struggling lawn and replace it with something that is water-thrifty. Among your choices:

  • Install a groundcover.
  • Put in raised beds and grow ornamental plants, edible ones, or both.
  • Put in a beautiful, natural-looking meadow planting.
  • Landscape creatively with gravel, rocks, and thoughtfully chosen drought-tolerant plants.
  • Consider artificial turf — it’s amazing how far it’s come and how good it can look.
  • Build a new patio, terrace, or deck (use the new permeable pavers to keep water from running off and away).

Better ways to get water to your landscape

Watering your yard doesn’t have to consume a lot of water, when you deploy some of the efficient new technologies and equipment. Then there’s these clever, tried-and-true ways to conserve (use whatever works!):

  • Consider installing an in-ground watering system. Yes, this may involve digging beds or entire areas; it may involve hiring experienced help. But it will be an investment that repays itself many times over because you won’t waste water with runoff and/or overwatering or lose it to evaporation. Instead, you’ll gain control.
  • Give leaky hoses a try. These trickle water out slowly, so it can soak in slowly. You can snake them through your plantings and yes, put them on a timer.
  • Invest in a simple drip-irrigation system. You may be surprised at how intuitive and simple set-up is and how well these networks of pipes and connectors work. Expanding or revising where the lines go is easy!
  • Deploy low-tech watering tricks. Borrow ideas from arid-land farmers such as sinking clay pots or pipes into the ground adjacent to thirsty plants so water goes slowly but directly into root zones.

Creating your own Japanese-style garden

As daily life gets more hectic or enervating, creating a sense of retreat at home is ever-more appealing. This type of Zen garden involves a lot of stones — a base of sand or gravel, some decorative rocks, and perhaps also some décor (ornaments) that are either made of rock or look like they are.

If you want to try your hand at making your own, rather than hiring a professional, I recommend you keep it small. After all, they were originally created to be miniature landscapes.

Stick to these steps to make your own Zen garden:

  1. Pick a site away from foot traffic and the street or busy views. A back corner or side yard works.
  2. Clear out the area completely of plants and debris.
  3. Lay down plastic or hardware cloth and anchor it in place (with an edging of rocks or even big hardware staples). This isn’t just to prevent weeds, it also keeps dirt and any ground moisture out of your display.Leave holes or plan to cut openings if you’ll install large rocks because they should be embedded a few inches or more into the ground for stability.
  4. Place a few big rocks and then add the gravel or sand layer.
  5. Add plants and décor last. Use just a few and only a few types. Simpler is best. For finishing touches, try a couple of items, including a Buddha or heron statue, a stone lantern, delicate wind chimes, or one dramatic and beautiful pot.
  6. Rake the sand or gravel in swirls or riverlike patterns. Keep the rake handy because you’ll have to keep the space looking fresh and neat from time to time.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Teri Chace has more than 35 books in publication, including the 2016 AHS award-winner Seeing Seeds. She’s also written and edited extensively for major consumer gardening/outdoor-living publications (Horticulture, North American Gardener, Backyard Living, Birds and Blooms) and is presently the garden-and-nature columnist for the award-winning “Bottom Line Personal” newsletter.

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