The typical U.S. household can use 40 to 60 gallons a day on average just to water lawns and gardens. About half that amount is wasted through evaporation, wind, poorly designed watering systems, or overwatering.
A water-friendly landscape offers several benefits. Besides conserving a precious resource, it reduces the cost of that water both to the individual and to the larger community infrastructure, helps eliminate runoff pollution and erosion, and reduces yard upkeep.
Several concepts can be used as guidelines as you work with your regional challenges, site topography, scope, and budget. These ideas are called xeriscaping, or creating a landscape emphasizing plants with low water needs; natural landscaping using native plants; harvesting rainwater; and creating rain gardens.
Landscapes with Low-Water Needs
Xeriscaping (pronounced “zeer-i-skey-ping”) combines the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry, with the word landscaping. The Denver Water Department coined “xeriscape” as a way to market water-conserving landscaping. Its approach focuses on seven areas: planning and design, soil analysis and improvement, selecting proper plants, creating practical turf areas, irrigating efficiently, using mulches, and proper maintenance.
While many may associate the word with stark visions of cacti, succulents and rocks, in reality xeriscaping can mean great color and textures from drought-tolerant vines, groundcovers, grasses, perennials, and shrubs. Picture prostrate rosemary, yarrow, perennial verbena, and sedum, for examples. Vegetation is not limited to native species but can include exotics that can handle the soil types, temperatures, light, and rainfall. Contact local nurseries or extension services for best suggestions.
Xeriscaping emphasizes proper groupings of plants with similar water needs. A landscape might mix larger groups of plants that survive on local conditions or that need supplemental watering only occasionally with smaller areas that need more care.
Another route to a water-friendly landscape is with native plants, ones that have evolved in an area over thousands of years, adapting to the conditions.
Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of native plants. Started in 1977 in Wisconsin, the group now has chapters in 12 states. Executive Director Donna VanBuecken says the group has seen continuing membership gains. “With global warming and climate change, people have become aware that they have a responsibility to the environment,” she says. “One thing they can be easily responsible for is the environment that surrounds their home.”
Successful natural landscaping, however, is not as simple as throwing seeds on the ground, she says. The site must be prepared and all non-native species eliminated. The first three years mean pulling, tilling, and smothering non-natives, weeds, and turf grass.
Once established, though, native plants bring many benefits. According to the group, native plants do not require fertilizers, use fewer pesticides, require less water than lawns, don't need to be mowed, provide shelter and food for wildlife, and promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage.
An old idea is gaining new popularity in water-friendly landscapes. Harvesting the rain is a concept that goes back to ancient times. Today, its benefits have drawn the interest of countries, regions, states, and even custom home builders.
Stanton Homes in the Raleigh, NC, area now offers rainwater harvesting systems as a standard feature in select new homes and an option in all new homes. CEO Stan Williams says, “With current drought conditions in the Raleigh area, we want to offer solutions to homeowners interested in ways to keep gardens and lawns green. These systems are easy to use, and it's amazing how far they can extend water usage for outdoor landscaping.”
To make this free on-site supply an effective way to handle landscape needs, homeowners need to plan for how much water could be available. The theory is that about six-tenths of a gallon will be collected per square foot of collection surface per inch of rainfall, so a 500-square-foot roof section directed to one downspout could collect about 300 gallons from an inch of rain. However, water is typically lost as rain splashes and the first collection of assorted debris is flushed out.
Calculate the square footage of the roof that drains to the downspout you plan to tap. Find your average rainfall amounts. Either size your barrel or collection tank accordingly or plan so overflow can be diverted from your building foundation. Rainwater harvesting companies offer options from single rain barrel kits to complete underground systems with pumps and irrigation lines.
Some areas of the country see feast or famine with rainfall. Rain gardens, another option for a water-friendly yard, are for the feast days.
Specifically planned at low spots in the yard, rain gardens naturally process the storm or surface water that is directed or naturally rushes there. The garden allows the water time to be taken up by flowering plants and grasses planted there as well as to soak into the soil. Correctly designed, the garden does not hold water long enough for it to become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Without a rain garden, that same water would rush away, causing erosion and carrying the pollutants it picks up along the way into public storm water systems or rivers and streams.
With their importance in controlling runoff, rain gardens have become a rallying project for several community groups. One such group, 10,000 Rain Gardens, is an initiative in Kansas City, MO, that combines the efforts of citizens, corporations, educators, non-profit organizations, and the government. Project Manager Lynn Hinkle says the “initiative has raised awareness of how each one of us can improve water quality in our community while improving the property values of our homes. Rain gardens are a beautiful way to make our city greener, cleaner and more livable.” Hinkle says hundreds of rain gardens have been built since the 10,000 Rain Gardens initiative was launched.
“Kansas City, Mo., has a goal to become recognized as one of the EPA's greenest cities through our efforts to capture more raindrops where they fall,” says Hinkle. She says more businesses are looking at rain gardens and green roofs to help capture rain water. Schools have been the most active participants and churches have offered to hold rain garden training sessions to encourage stewardship of the earth. City government projects have begun to adopt green solutions and will measure the impact of rain gardens and bio-swales in reducing the amount of storm water runoff that contributes to flooding and pollution.
With such beautiful, practical and money-saving options available, it's easy to make your landscape and your greater community truly green.