1. Choose native plants.
Native plants have had eons to adjust to the area’s normal rainfall, soil, and climate. Once established, they require little or no watering. Start your research on native plants at your local cooperative extension or botanical garden.
Websites such as eNature.com or H2ouse.org can help you find the best species for your location. You could also use a handy database of nurseries nationwide that specialize in native plants.
2. Don’t supersize plants.
The bigger the plant, the more water it might require. So don’t plant shrubs genetically programmed to grow bigger than you need.
Before you buy, research at the library or online how tall and wide mature shrubs will grow. A Leyland Cypress, for instance, could grow to 20 feet in a few years, overkill if you only need a 5-foot hedge.
Also, don’t overcrowd plants: Follow label planting instructions. Fewer plants require less water. And flora that looks sparse at first will fill the area in a few seasons.
3. Pile on the mulch.
Mulching around plants is a great way to reduce water loss. Mulch also cuts down on water-stealing weeds.
Natural mulches include compost, bark chips, and pine needles. Save money by spreading your grass clippings and ground-up leaves on flower and vegetable gardens. These organic mulches gradually break down and add nutrients to the soil.
Inorganic material, such as landscaping paper, rocks, and pebbles, are a more permanent option, although they can heat up too much in some climates.
4. Make paths porous.
Garden paths made of porous material allow rainwater to seep into the ground and nourish plant roots, not run off into the street.
Use gravel, pebbles, non-mortared concrete pavers, or spaced bricks. Beware, however, that weeds will grow between paving materials. To keep down weeds, line the walk with landscaping paper (or even newspaper) before you pile on the porous material.
5. Lose the lawn.
A green lawn is a suburban ideal that drinks more than 20,000 gallons of water each year.
You can keep those cool blades under your feet and save water by planting drought-resistant varieties. Bermuda and buffalo grass, for instance, require 20% less water than fescue or bluegrass, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Keep grass long to shade roots and retard evaporation. Mow less often; and when you do, raise the height of your mower blade to 3 inches.
6. Put thirsty plants together.
To save water, group plants into watering zones.
- Place the thirstiest plants near the house where they can drink roof runoff.
- Farther out, make a transition zone for plants that need supplemental drip irrigation.
- Farther still is a natural zone for native plants that can survive on rainfall alone.
7. Plant and water when it’s cool.
New plants and transplants need far less water if you put them in the ground in early fall or early spring when it’s cooler. By summer, they’ll have established a deep, healthy root system that needs less watering.
Water in the cool of the morning, when you’ll lose less water to evaporation than in the heat of the day. Resist watering at dusk; wet foliage during the night encourages fungus and mildew growth.
8. Build a berm.
Trees and shrubs need extra water during their first couple of years to help roots take hold. An efficient way to keep roots moist is to mound several inches of soil into a donut-shaped berm. Make the berm the width of the tree — including branches.
Use a hose or bucket to fill the donut dam to the top. Water will absorb slowly instead of running off.
Another option: Attach a $25 to $30 drip irrigator bag to the tree. It looks like a plastic flotation tube and releases water slowly over several hours.
9. Follow the sun.
Before you plant, get to know how — and how long — the sun bathes your garden. Determine patterns of shade and sun.
Use dry-soil plants in sunny areas, and use plants that require more water in shady areas where evaporation is slower.
10. Create the illusion of water.
A good way to conserve water in the garden is to capture rain water from your roof in a rain barrel. During a moderate rainfall, a 25-by-40-foot roof can shed 600 gallons per hour.
All you’ll need is a capture system (roof gutters and downspouts), a storage system (large-capacity barrels) and delivery system (garden hose).
Also, use rainwater to fill water features, which calm your nerves and attract birds and butterflies. Use a recirculating pump to keep the water flowing; replace evaporation with your rain barrel supply.