Are you interested in developing a water-smart landscape for your home or property? The WaterSense Water-Smart Landscapes guide (14 pp, 2.3 MB, About PDF) can get you started. Choosing the right plants, supporting soil health, and proper maintenance are all keys to water-smart landscapes. Consider the following suggestions to create a landscape that has curb appeal and is easy to maintain.
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Plan ahead for a water-smart landscape.
If you're designing a new landscape or rethinking your current one, the WaterSense Water Budget Tool can help you plan your landscape for water efficiency and tell you if you have designed a landscape that will use an appropriate amount of water for your climate.
Use regionally appropriate, low water-using and native plants.
Once established, these plants require little water beyond normal rainfall. Also, because native plants are adapted to local soils and climatic conditions, they rarely require the addition of fertilizer and are more resistant to pests and diseases than are other species. Be careful when selecting exotic species, as some may be invasive, which may require more water and could displace native plants.
Recognize site conditions and plant appropriately.
Areas of the same site may vary significantly in soil type or exposure to sun and wind, as well as evaporation rates and moisture levels. Placing plants that prefer shade in open sun will affect their ability to thrive. Be mindful of a site's exposure to the elements and choose plants that will thrive in the site's conditions.
Group plants according to their water needs.
Grouping vegetation with similar watering needs into specific "hydrozones" reduces water use and protects the plants from both underwatering and overwatering by allowing you to water to each zone's specific needs. For example, turf areas and shrub areas should always be separated into different hydrozones because of their differing water needs.
Place turfgrass strategically.
In traditional landscapes, turfgrass receives the highest percentage of irrigation water. This is because the most commonly used varieties of turfgrass require more water than many other plants in the landscape and homeowners tend to overwater turfgrass. As a result, landscapes with large expanses of turfgrass generally use more water than those with a mixture of other plants. To reduce outdoor water use, consider planting turfgrass only where it has a practical function, such as a play area. Choose turfgrass types that don't use a lot of water, such as low water-using or native grasses and those that can withstand drought.
For more information on turfgrass and water use, see EPA's Research Report on Turfgrass Allowance (PDF) (12 pp, 104 K, About PDF)
Minimize steep slopes.
Slopes can be challenging because of the potential for erosion and runoff. If slopes cannot be avoided in your landscape design, install plantings with deeper root zones such as native ground covers and shrubs to provide stabilization and prevent erosion.
Aerate your soil.
Soil can become compacted during home construction or from normal foot traffic. Aerating your soil with a simple lawn aerator can increase the infiltration of water into the ground, improving water flow to the plant's root zone and reducing water runoff.
In addition to making landscapes attractive, mulch adds an extra layer between plant roots and air, helping to protect plants in a variety of ways. Mulch helps reduce evaporation, which allows soil to retain water longer and means plants require less frequent watering. Mulch also helps plants thrive by inhibiting weed growth, preventing soil erosion, and moderating soil temperature.
Different plants require different soil conditions, so it’s best to choose a mulch type based on plant varieties and their soil needs. Organic mulch such as hardwood chips, straw, leaves, pine needles and grass clippings will help improve the condition of soil, by adding nutrients as it decomposes. Inorganic mulches like rocks, pebbles, or gravel may help to eliminate weeds. Avoid using rock mulches in sunny areas or around non-arid climate plants, as they radiate large amounts of heat and promote water loss that can lead to scorching.
Applying mulch to a depth of three to four inches provides the right coverage for most plants; excessive amounts of mulch can restrict water flow to plant roots. Leave a few inches of space between organic mulches and the base of trees or other woody plants to prevent rot. Don’t forget to pull any weeds prior to mulching and spread evenly to prevent thin areas where the mulch can’t do its job. The eXtension program Exit(part of the Cooperative Extension System) has additional information about mulch and water conservation.
Leave the grass clippings on your lawn after you mow. The clippings quickly decompose and release valuable nutrients back into the soil to feed the grass, reducing the need for nitrogen.
Keep your soil healthy!
Healthy soils effectively cycle nutrients, minimize runoff, retain water, and absorb excess nutrients, sediments and pollutants. Have your soil tested for nutrient content, pH, soil composition, and organic matter content. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Office EXIT or state universities for a soil test kit or soil testing services. Very sandy soil, heavy clay, compacted soil, or extreme soil pH may impact which plants are right for your yard. In these cases, seek advice from a nursery, horticulturist, Cooperative Extension, or other expert.
Raise your lawn mower cutting height.
Raise your lawn mower blade, especially in the summer, when mowing too close to the ground will promote thirsty new growth. Longer grass promotes deeper root growth and a more drought resistant lawn. Longer grass blades also help shade each other, reducing evaporation, and minimizing weed growth. The optimal turfgrass height is the tallest allowable height within the recommended mowing range for the turf species grown.
Provide regular maintenance.
Replace mulch around shrubs and garden plants, and remove weeds and thatch as necessary.
Minimize or eliminate fertilizer.
Fertilizer encourages thirsty new growth, causing your landscape to require additional water. Minimize or eliminate the use of fertilizer where possible. If you do need fertilizer, look for a product that contains "natural organic" or "slow-release" ingredients. These fertilizers feed plants slowly and evenly, helping to create healthier plants with strong root systems and no excessive "top growth". Moreover, using "slow-release" fertilizers can reduce nutrient run-off into ground and surface waters, protecting natural resources.