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Water-Wise Landscaping

A combination of native plants, healthy soil and smart irrigation can transform a thirsty landscape into one that conserves water and thrives without chemicals.

Sprinkler Robert Couse Baker

Overhead watering is extremely inefficient. As much as 50 percent is lost to run-off, evaporation or wind. A better alternative are drip irrigation systems that use either soaker hoses or emitters to release small amounts of water at the bases of plants. Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

THE AVERAGE AMERICAN uses 100 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Typically, 30 percent is for outdoor use, but this quantity can greatly increase in hot, dry climates. Water-wise landscaping practices significantly reduce the need for irrigation and the quantity of water used, while maintaining an attractive garden. There are two basic strategies: selecting plants, shrubs and trees that do not require significant irrigation in your climate, and using water-saving practices when irrigating.


Careful consideration of the water demand when selecting plants is crucial, especially for perennials. “Natives are going to use less water,” explains Matt Vance, a conservation biologist based in Maine. “Maybe when you first establish them, there is going to be water demand that is on par with your ornamentals, but when they are established, they will require much less than lawns and ornamentals.”


Low-maintenance, tolerant native perennials such as coneflowers make good choices for rain gardens. Photo Credit: USFWS

Planting a rain garden is a good way to begin replacing part of a lawn. One strategy is to disconnect downspouts and channel rainwater into a rain garden with deep-rooted native plants. These systems help prevent drainage and runoff issues by channeling water, where it can drain down into the soil before mosquitos have an opportunity to breed. The soil composition may need to be altered to enhance drainage, by adding sand and organic matter. You’ll need to select plants that tolerate both normal and wet growing conditions in the center of the rain garden. Although plant selection varies by location, aster, daylily, iris and coneflower are generally good choices.

If not selecting natives, use low-water or drought-resistant plants that are appropriate for the given climate. Many local university extension offices or garden experts can provide valuable information on the topic.

Because turfgrass requires significant amounts of water, reducing the size of lawns in climates that lack significant rainfall is helpful. Another water-saving strategy is to allow lawns to turn brown during times of light rainfall.

Borrowing from Ecology

Wintercreek Restoration

Boulders help control erosion and create
heat sinks and shelter. They also anchor the landscape aesthetically. Photo credit: Wintercreek Restoration

Planting with natives is a great strategy, but Rick Martinson, owner of Bend, Oregon-based WinterCreek Restoration, takes it a step further, creating landscapes based on the region’s naturally occurring plant associations. Before coming up with a plan, Martinson evaluates the site’s conditions, including soil chemistry and structure, dominant plant associations and cultural and land-use history, and balances them with the aesthetic aspects. His goal is to establish a landscape that can sustain itself with minimal inputs, including irrigation—a tall order, especially with a construction site that has been cleared of organic material and left barren for several months.

“People typically bring in ornamental plants and put them in sterile soil,” says Martinson. “A lot of landscape plants are in a constant state of stress.” These stressed-out plants require higher inputs of fertilizer and water, and actually produce pheromones that attract pests, which in turn are often vectors for diseases. Choosing plants that are appropriate for the site helps reestablish healthy microbial populations in the soil, which then in turn support healthier plants.

Martinson takes advantage of a site’s microclimates, and often creates more. For example, using boulders to create informal terraces on a slope interrupts the flow of run-off; the boulders also capture moisture and act as heat sinks, creating cooler, moister conditions right around them. He emulates Central Oregon’s shrub-steppe community by clustering plantings near the boulders, leaving space between these “islands.”


“The cool thing is these principles can be applied anywhere,” says Martinson, who has consulted on projects across the country. If you aren’t familiar with your region’s plant associations, the EPA’s Ecoregions maps are a good place to start. Native plant societies and native plant nurseries are also good resources.

12 Tips for Saving Water Through Strategic Maintenance


  • Water plants primarily during critical growth periods and times of drought.
  • Irrigate in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation.
  • Water thoroughly but less often, ensuring that the plants’ root zone is wet.
  • Apply compost to boost the water-holding ability of soil.
  • Apply two to six inches of mulch around plants to retain moisture and prevent evaporation.
  • Water plants more when they are getting established, but wean plants off once this is no longer necessary.
  • Use drip irrigation and soaker hoses instead of sprinklers for greater water efficiency and higher crop yields.
  • Use a rainwater collection system .Remove weeds, which compete with garden plants for moisture and nutrients.
  • Group plants with similar water needs together.
  • Maintain lawns with a higher mowing height to reduce water consumption.
  • Do not over-fertilize; follow the instructions on the package.


Sound irrigation practices make up the second broad category of water-wise landscaping strategies. Here are some of our top recommendations:

Start with the soil. Soil health is paramount for water-wise landscapes. Sandy soils have larger particles and do not retain water well, but they provide good aeration. Clay soils retain water, but may provide inadequate aeration, resulting in less oxygen for plant roots. Loam, a combination of clay, sand and silt, provides an ideal balance between water retention and plant aeration. Organic matter can improve the quality of both sandy and clay soils, helping to both retain water and enhance aeration.
Know your plants. Understanding the water needs of a landscape reduces under- or over-watering. During critical growth periods, many plants experience water stress, demonstrated by wilting leaves or browning leaf tips. Ensure that germinating seeds, seedlings just emerging from the soil and newly planted shrubs or trees have adequate amounts of water. Established plants will have a lower water demand.
Gauge soil moisture. Test the moisture levels before watering. “A common mistake that gardeners make is to test the moisture content of the soil in the top couple inches,” says Erickson. “Unless you are germinating seeds, you really want to zero in at the root level, where plants are uptaking the water. For a full-grown tomato plant, you might be measuring at six or more inches. Oftentimes, you will find you won’t be watering as much [when testing the moisture content of soil at the root level].”
Upgrade controllers. Drip irrigation is much more efficient than using sprinklers, but not all systems are created equally. Standard clock timers deliver the same amount of water at the pre-scheduled times, regardless of soil moisture, air temperature or humidity. Replacing one of these with a WaterSense-labeled irrigation controller can save an average home nearly 8,800 gallons of water annually. These “smart” controllers use weather and soil data to tailor irrigation schedules to actual conditions, so that the irrigation only delivers water to plants when it is needed. Many are Wi-Fi enabled and can be controlled by smartphone or tablet.

RainGarden SW

A native garden in New England will use different plants than one in the South (pictured), but both rely on similar design principles.

Designing a Native Garden If your project doesn’t warrant hiring a landscape designer or architect, it may still require some landscape design or rehabilitation. Here are some pointers for creating a successful native garden.

- Suit the plants to the region, plant community, soil conditions and microclimate. - Think in three strata: canopy, shrub layer and groundcover.
- Place shrubs, forbs and grasses in groups of three, five or more. Avoid planting in pairs—the eye jumps back and forth between the two. The exception is trees; you may have space for only one or two.
- Avoid planting in straight lines or perfect circles.
- Do not use too many species in small areas.
- Use repetition of groups of plants and colors to allow the eye to flow through the landscape.
- Be aware of each plant’s ultimate height and spread at maturity. Do not overplant or plant too close to structures.

Source: The Wild Ones Handbook: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes (EPA Publication)