Water-Wise Landscaping Basics

What is a water-wise landscape?

A water-wise landscape is one that allows for a beautiful healthy landscape with water-wise plants, minimal supplemental irrigation and little to no adverse runoff.   Here are six basic principles of a water-wise landscape:

  1.  Appropriate plant selection:  Select trees, shrubs and groundcovers based on their adaptability to your region’s soil and climate. California has an abundance of beautiful native plants which generally have lower water demands, fewer pest problems and less fertilizer needs than plants that have been brought into our state.  The Sunset Plant Finder is a good tool to find the right plants for your area.
  2. The Right Plants for the Right Soil:  Knowing your soil and selecting the right kind of plants for your area is an important part of a water-wise landscape.
  3. Limit your grass:  Grass can be a huge source of outdoor water waste.  Consider cutting back or eliminating the amount of turf you have at your house.  Or if your family enjoys a large grassy yard, make sure you have a water-efficient sprinkler system.
  4. Efficient irrigation:  Most people water their landscaping more than it needs.  The greatest waste of outdoor water is applying too much too often.
  5. Mulch is good:  Use mulch wherever possible. A good mulch conserves water by significantly reducing moisture evaporation from the soil. Mulch also reduces weed populations, prevents soil compaction and keeps soil temperatures more moderate.
  6. Appropriate maintenance:  One of the best benefits of a water-wise landscape is that it requires less maintenance.  A well-designed landscape can decrease maintenance by as much as 50 percent through reduced mowing; once-a-year mulching; elimination of non-California-friendly plants; and more efficient watering techniques.

How Long Do I Need to Water?

One of the easiest ways to save water is to make sure that you are not overwatering your lawn and plants.  Most of us water more than we need to, which not only wastes water but ends up drowning our plants.  Watering for fewer days for the appropriate amount of time will give you healthier plants and use less water.

Here are some general guidelines on how to make sure that you are watering the correct amount.  For specific information on your landscape, this run time calculator tool by Rain Bird can help you design a specific plan for your landscape.  Rain Bird’s “When and How Much to Water” video may also help you figure out how much water is the right amount for your landscape.

1.       Irrigation for lawn areas can be kept to three days in the summer with “run and soak” cycling of an irrigation valve/station.

–        For example, Program A for sunny lawn areas, can have three start times, three minutes with 30-60 minutes between each run time.

–        Be aware that sun exposure and slope of the lawn area are factors to consider in calculating the amount of time the irrigation runs. Shaded lawn does not need as much water.

–        Ensure irrigation water does not result in runoff.

2.       Mature shrubs can usually be limited to watering two days a week in the summer.

·        Be aware that sun exposure and slope of the landscape areas are factors to consider in calculating the amount of time the water runs

·        Check Sunset’s Plant Finder to determine if your plants are high, medium, or low water use.

·        Water in cycles (e.g. 5 minutes of run time with time in between to allow water to soak through to the plant’s root zone).  Run times will depend on the plant type.

·        Watering with this technique encourages deep rooting by water percolating to depths of at least several inches into the soil for shrubs, deeper for trees.

·        Ensure irrigation water does not result in runoff.

3.     Once the root system is strong and deep enough, the plants will withstand more periods of no irrigation, particularly when the day length is shortened and the soil temperatures are cooler.

4.     Annuals or water-loving plants can be efficiently irrigated with this method as long as they are rooted into the native soil. On new plantings, make sure the root ball is moist as well as the surrounding soil to encourage rooting beyond the original container size.

5.      Apply 2-3” of mulch on any bare soil to keep soil temperatures cool.

What is Drip Irrigation?

Drip irrigation is the slow, precise application of water directly to the plants’ root. A drip irrigation, micro irrigation, system can be customized to meet your landscape’s specific needs while maintaining an optimum moisture level for your plants, efficiently conserving water that might otherwise be lost.

The Benefits of Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is an efficient and economical method of watering.  Experts say that drip irrigation is at least 90 percent more efficient than other irrigation methods and reduces runoff and evaporation.  Drip irrigation applies the water slowly where it is needed—at the plant’s roots.

Commonly used in commercial nursery and agricultural operations, homeowners are beginning to take advantage of its uses and benefits.

Drip irrigation involves placing tubing with emitters on the ground alongside the plants. The emitters slowly drip water into the soil at the root zone.  With this slow, appropriate direct application of water, plant health and growth is improved.  In addition, drip irrigation:

  • Prevents disease.
  • Reduces weed growth.
  • Saves time and water.
  • Requires less work and maintenance.

What is a smart controller?

Automatic sprinkler systems are run by a controller.  Just as technology has improved cell phones and other devices in our lives, so has technology changed residential sprinkler system controllers.

“Smart” controllers act like a thermostat for your sprinkler system—telling it when to turn on and off and using local weather conditions to create a personalized watering schedule that matches actual conditions at your house.  Instead of requiring the homeowner to set a schedule, smart controllers  use real-time weather information to create a watering schedule that better matches plants’ water needs.  The EPA estimates that a household that replaces a standard clock timer with smart controller can save nearly 8,800 gallons of water annually.

FACT:  If every U.S. homeowner with an automatic sprinkler system installed and properly operated a smart controller, we would save roughly 120 billion gallons of water annually from not overwatering lawns and landscapes.  That’s equal to the annual household water needs of nearly 1.3 million average American homes.

Getting smart with your existing controller

Even if you can’t replace your existing controller with a new weather-based controller, you can still save water by getting smart with the one you have.  Here are some tips:

  • One easy way to cut down how much water you use outdoors is to learn how much water your landscaping actually needs in order to thrive.  Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes people make.  To understand how much water your landscaping really needs, learn more about evapotranspiration (ET) here.  Simply put, you’re better off watering less frequently, but for slightly longer periods of time.
  • Water early in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are cooler.
  • Check your sprinkler system frequently and adjust sprinklers so only your lawn is watered and not the house, sidewalk, or street.
  • Put a layer of mulch around trees and plants to reduce evaporation and keep the soil cool.
  • Turn your system off when it rains.

Landscape water calculator links

Be Water Wise’s Watering Calculator
Santa Barbara’s Watering Calculator
San Diego’s Landscape Watering Calculator
City of Roseville’s Landscape Water Calculator