Water Smart Landscaping Tips
Homeowners spend roughly $45 billion on lawn and landscape services annually. But beyond the financial effects, it’s important to consider the environmental costs of using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and large amounts of water when landscaping. To reduce environmental impacts and enjoy less maintenance, consider the benefits of xeriscaping, a landscaping method that promotes water conservation. With xeriscaping you can reduce outdoor water consumption by as much as 50% while still supporting a beautiful landscape.
First, proper planning and design is essential. Consider site factors such as differences in soil, changes in sunlight levels and water-use zones. “Design with low-water-use plants, as there are lots of plants to choose from,” says Rick Kaldrovics, president of Outside Landscape Group “Also, divide your garden or property into water-need or water-use zones. Areas of the yard can be installed with low, medium and high water needs. Therefore, you can be more precise and efficient with water usage.”
Even the most seemingly uniform landscape can have a variety of different soil types, so proper soil analysis is essential to creating a water-smart landscape. Examine the soil, paying attention to factors such as structure, texture, topography and slope of the site. “To determine chemical characteristics of the soil, perform a soil test in the turf and planting beds by taking samples of your soil to your local extension agent,” says Jelani Linder, president of J. Linder Design and Consultants. The results will indicate whether your soil needs lime and what type of fertilizer best fits your needs.
With the number of different plant types in the marketplace, selecting the appropriate ones for your landscape can be overwhelming. Above all, consider adaptability of the plant to the site, focusing on factors such as sun exposure, light intensity, typical wind conditions, average seasonal temperatures and drainage patterns. Dave Gatti, CEO of P.O.P.S. Landscaping, recommends choosing native plants. “These plants have been grown to adjust to a variety of areas and are more likely to thrive with minimal care,” he says. They also require less water, fertilizer and pesticides than non-natives and are more energy efficient because they limit the amount of water and fossil fuels used per plant, from nursery to shipping to planting to continued care.
Turfgrass can be one of the most versatile and functional plant elements in the landscape, but it’s important to strike a balance if your goal is water conservation. “We try to minimize the amount of turfgrass we install for a variety of reasons,” says Thomas Boyce, owner of Boyce Design & Contracting. “Many turfgrasses are exotic, non-drought-tolerant species that require constant water and maintenance. Water and fossil fuels are two limited resources that are used much more when maintaining exotic plants, such as turfgrass, than with native plants or mulched areas.” The solution, says Eric King, ASLA, owner of King Landscaping www.erickinglandscaping.com, is to reduce lawn areas. “Lawns tend to be water hogs, so limit turf to areas where it is really needed, such as sports, entertaining or focal areas.”
A carefully designed irrigation system takes into account the water needs of plants, resulting in efficient irrigation and less water waste. “Water when plants need water, not on a set schedule,” says King. “Automatic irrigation systems can be a disadvantage in this instance because they create a water-dependent yard. Review your irrigation system annually to check for leaks, adjust coverage and correct as needed.”
Mulches can benefit the landscape in several ways, such as retaining water, preventing weeds that compete for moisture, preventing erosion and moderating soil temperature. But make sure to follow nature’s lead. “The most basic and fruitful approach to water conservation is summarized by saying ‘If it falls in the yard, it stays in the yard,’” says King. “That applies to things like leaf litter from fallen leaves. First, the term ‘litter’ implies it’s a nuisance rather than the asset it is. But more importantly, natural leaf fall provides organic matter, free mulch and looks great in natural woodland areas. More people are mowing leaves and spreading them in beds, reducing the amount of pine straw that has to be trucked in from other states.”
Above all else, water-conserving landscapes are low maintenance, requiring less water, less fertilizer, less routine pruning and fewer pesticides. So if it becomes too much to handle, chances are you’re missing the mark. “A well-designed landscape should get better with age, requiring less maintenance, irrigation and mulch,” says King. “Mow up leaves and spread back in beds, redirect rainfall back into the yard, use easy-care plants that require few chemicals and maintenance and reduce resource-dependent lawn areas.”
However, like any well-manicured landscape, cultivating a green landscape does require a certain amount of dedication. “Many people start out and realize the amount of work involved and stop,” says Neil Kain, owner of Kain Landscape, www.kainlandscape.com. “It doesn’t have to be that hard. If you do learn about the proper practices of eco-friendly landscaping and gardening, it will come to you. A lot of it is also common sense. Our society has become ruthlessly dependant on bagged goods from the big box stores and local nurseries and hardware stores over the last half century. Think back to just a mere 60-70 years ago. Many people grew their own food for everyday survival. Grocery stores were few and far between. That was real organic gardening.”
Landscape to hardscape
Installing hardscapes is one way to conserve water and add functionality to your yard.
Hardscaping, a growing trend in landscaping, refers to any element installed in the outdoors that does not have a life cycle or a roof. Patios, steps, walls and paths are all common hardscape elements that can be found in a residential property. When plants, trees and grass are replaced with brick, concrete and other hard surfaces, watering is no longer required in that area.
Because hardscapes are often made with impervious materials—meaning water does not soak into them—runoff and the erosion associated with it is a common problem. If runoff or standing water is a problem in your yard, choosing hardscapes made with permeable materials can help. “Porous paving materials, or hardscape materials that allow water to soak through them, lessen or eliminate runoff by allowing rainwater to slowly seep in at the point of contact rather than collecting over a hard surface,” says Thomas Boyce, owner of Innovative Outdoors. Runoff from hardscapes also can be directed back into beds or lawn areas to prevent erosion.
Eco-friendly landscaping trends
In an effort to conserve time, money and natural resources, homeowners increasingly are turning
to eco-friendly landscaping methods. Here, our experts weigh in on some of the current trends:
• “Constructing or purchasing rain barrels is a simple feature that homeowners can add in order to create a water-smart landscape. Relatively inexpensive and found at most garden centers, these barrels easily hook up to gutter systems and feature garden hose nozzles at their bases. This makes it easier to re-use rainwater to irrigate plants near the house.”—Thomas Boyce, Boyce Design & Contracting
• “More homeowners and landscapers are attempting to power down, using push mowers and cutting back on power tools to save with electricity.”—Dave A. Gatti, P.O.P.S. Landscaping
• “Creating and planting home vegetable gardens and neighborhood community gardens are becoming very popular. Using organic materials from local farms, manure, compost and using solar energy in the garden is quite popular as well.” —Neil Kain, Kain Landscape
• “In design, we are starting to reduce the size of lawn areas and develop more sustainable planting plans. In maintenance, compost tea and organic fertilizers are being introduced to provide the correct soil composition needed to support healthy plants and lawn areas.” —Jelani Linder, J. Linder Design and Consultants
• “In addition to using more green products, we are seeing homeowners making a conscious effort to support their local businesses by purchasing locally made products.”—Matt Dombrowski, Greenstone Recycled Stone Products
• “Although, there is a lot of interest in eco-friendly landscape requests from homeowners, I see the biggest trends on the construction side of things. We as contractors have had a very challenging time with recent historic droughts and economic downturns that have dictated change. We have had to find ways to reduce our cost on fuels. We have had to become more efficient with debris removal with the rising cost of waste management, where recycling debris is a big growing trend.” —Rick Kaldrovics, Outside Landscape Group