Ways to Save Water

Adjust Plant Care Practices

Raise the lawn mowing height to at least 3 inches in tall fescue and 1.5 inches in bermudagrass or other warm-season grasses.  Doing so reduces heat stress on the grass blades and enables the grass to grow deeper roots, both of which increase a lawn’s drought resistance. Avoid heavy pruning of shrubs and trees; it stimulates new growth. Research has shown that during drought, lawns will remain greener longer if they continue to be fertilized. However, fertilize lawns only moderately, about ¼ to 1/3 less than normal when water will be limited. Avoid fertilizing trees, shrub, groundcovers and perennials when drought occurs. Where there is bare soil around plants, apply and maintain 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch to reduce evaporation of water from soil and limit weed competition.

Reduce Turf Area, Alter Landscape Plant Palette

Lawns have among the highest plant water requirements in a landscape, and they often occupy areas of a landscape where their benefits and functions are not required. In addition, lawn irrigation systems must perform efficiently and water applications must be managed carefully for the grass to perform well. If you want to reduce landscape and garden water demand further, consider removing lawn where its benefits and functions are not needed. Replace it with lower water-using plant material or other landscape treatment that requires less water. 

Although many water conservation strategies call for an end to lawn irrigation or removing lawns altogether, remember that removing a lawn will only bring water savings if it is replaced with:

  1. no plants and the irrigation is turned off, which results in the loss of the essential functions and benefits of landscapes; or,
  2. trees, shrubs, or groundcovers, and these are cared for and irrigated according to their requirements.

Considerable water can also be saved simply by changing turf species. Lawn or turfgrasses are classified as either cool-season (tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass, bentgrass) or warm-season (bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, St. Augustinegrass, buffalograss) based on whether they grow best in cooler seasons (fall to spring) or warmer seasons (spring to fall). Tall fescue is the most commonly planted lawn grass is non-desert areas of California. Research has clearly shown that, when properly managed and irrigated, warm-season grasses require about 20% less water than that needed by tall fescue and other cool-season grasses. 

If you decide to replace a turf area with other plants, you do not need to select only native plants, so-called drought tolerant plants, or desert native plants in order to significantly reduce water use. As noted earlier, common trees, shrubs, and groundcovers are actually very drought resistant once established.

  Photo courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

Reduce Planted Area

The final, and most extreme step to reduce landscape water demand is to reduce the area devoted to plants of any type. The water demand of a landscape depends mostly on the amount of leaf area it has, so eliminating plant material can greatly reduce a landscape’s water demand regardless of what type of plants remain. Of course the irrigation must be effectively managed on the remaining plants so that they are not over-watered, which would negate potential water savings. Removing plant material and reducing the overall planted area also reduces the benefits that landscapes provide, but this can be acceptable in certain areas of most properties. Service areas and areas where little activity takes place are good candidates for this treatment. In these settings, no plants may be necessary, or a planting using a few widely-spaced trees, shrubs and other non-turf plants can be well-designed to provide screening, color, shade, or other desirable features, yet have a low water demand. 

  Photo courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

  Photos courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

Photos courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation

  Image © Pam Pavela

Image © Pam Pavela

What is the Ultimate Low-Water-Use Living Landscape?

California Native Plants. Find out  in the next chapter why native plants are so important in our landscapes, and if selected properly, how they can provide an easy-care and attractive landscape.