Drought-friendly Landscaping

By Kristen Castillo

January 24, 2013 6 min read

A great-looking yard takes lots of time and effort. It also can take a lot of money and water. To save cash and the environment, you may want to consider drought-friendly landscaping.

"I strongly suggest using the phrase 'drought tolerance' over 'drought resistance,'" says Jay Popko, a research associate at the University of Massachusetts' Stockbridge School of Agriculture. "Drought conditions are not something that can be overcome completely."

*Dollars and Cents

Drought-friendly landscaping, which often is called zeroscaping because it's about reducing water use, also can cut your water bill.

Landscape architect Chad Kennedy says savings will be dependent on local water costs and the size of your landscape.

"A retrofit from a traditional lawn to low-water-use shrubs with an efficient system and smart controller can reduce water use by up to 75 percent," he says.

Denis McCausland of Green Mountain Enterprise estimates, "In Denver, the average ... yard of 2,500 square feet can save about $500 per year in water savings."

He says you also can expect to save maintenance time, including mowing grass, weeding and fertilizing, as well as not having to do maintenance on your irrigation system as often.

*Getting Started

PLANET, the Professional Landcare Network, which is the national association of landscape professionals, recommends getting an irrigation audit.

"An irrigation system may need repair or adjustment, and a professional can also check for water distribution uniformity and make sure irrigation systems are installed and maintained properly," says PLANET member Kurt Bland of Bland Landscaping.

*Plant Smartly

"Drought-tolerant landscapes do not have to be boring, and with proper plant selection, they can be as interesting as any other landscape," says Bland, explaining that most of the United States has a "mesic climate" rather than a "xeric climate," which means drought comes in cycles instead of being constantly present.

"'Drought-friendly' doesn't necessarily mean concrete, rock and no plants," says Kennedy, who suggests choosing plants with low water requirements. "It is more about wise use and application of water and the correct choice of plant species."

He advises choosing plants that grow within the space available. "Plants that get too large for the space in which they are planted require more resources -- water, etc. -- than a smaller plant," says Kennedy, who also recommends spacing plants far apart because the plants will "compete less for available water."

PLANET suggests conserving water by "hydrozoning," which clusters plants that have similar water requirements together, noting that plant water requirements typically range from very low to low to medium.

Another drought-friendly idea is to limit grass in your landscaping.

"Turf grass uses most of the water in a landscape," Kennedy says. "The less lawn to water the more water can be saved."

Don't forget to use 2 to 3 inches of organic or inert mulch.

"These mulches keep the soil underneath moist by minimizing evaporation ... and minimizing the heat of the soil," Kennedy says. "An organic mulch can actually hold on to moisture and will add nutrients to the soil."

*What To Avoid

When zeroscaping, there are also things to avoid.

For example, don't use too much rock. "This can cause heat buildup," McCausland says. "Instead, combine rock with wood mulches and/or low-water-use lawn grass."

Although sloped landscape might be pretty, it can be wasteful. Here's why: "The more ups and downs you have in a landscape the more water runs away from the plants and to the surrounding gutters or storm drains," Kennedy explains. "If you need height in the landscape, do it with boulders, walls and vegetation rather than sloped landscape."

PLANET suggests avoiding watering on windy days to reduce evaporation, and be careful not to overwater plants, which can damage them.

*When To Water

Maximize your water use by irrigating before sunrise.

"By irrigating during the coolest time of the day, you avoid excessive evaporation of the valuable water being applied, and the surface will dry up as the sun comes up," Kennedy says. "Avoid irrigating just after sundown, as you may cause the soil surface to be wet for too long, allowing fungus and molds to grow."

PLANET advises watering your garden with rainwater stored in rain barrels.

Be mindful that good watering helps plants and trees get established.

"Water new plantings throughout the first year," Popko says. "Proper establishment relies on making sure new plantings adjust to their new surroundings and develop healthy root systems. On larger trees, watering may be needed for more than the first year."

*Drought Resources

As you're preparing your landscape, know your area's drought conditions, soil types, plant hardiness and ideal planting schedules. The following websites can be great drought resources: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb, http://drought.unl.edu and https://www.landcarenetwork.org/index.cfm.

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