Many of us want to use less water in our home landscapes, but we may not be sure how to begin. We don’t want to be the ones on the street with the “ugly brown yard,” but water is a precious natural resource, and maybe watering your lawn until it’s running off into the gutter is not the best use of this resource.
About two-thirds of residential water in Idaho is used on landscapes. So, if you wish to cut back, where to begin?
First, examine what you hope to accomplish. Do you want to lower your water use, and, subsequently, your water bills? Do you want to create a more interesting landscape that provides habitat for native birds, pollinators and other wildlife? Are you hoping for less maintenance? How do you use your yard? Do you need a big lawn for children’s soccer games? Or will a smaller area of lawn satisfy any HOA requirements, leaving more room for colorful beds of flowering plants?
You may hear any number of terms used to describe water-saving landscape techniques, including drought-tolerant, water-wise, water-thrifty and xeric. All refer to the concept of decreasing water input into a managed landscape.
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And please note, the term is “xericscape,” not “zeroscape.” Drought-tolerant landscapes are not all about gravel and spiky, gray plants.
If you have an established landscape, it can seem like a daunting task to create a more water-wise yard and garden.
Some homeowners may choose to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch. However, there are small steps that can make the process more manageable.
The first strategy is just to begin watering your lawn less. Tony McCammon, University of Idaho Extension educator, says most Idaho homeowners water their lawns almost twice as much as is necessary.
▪ If you have an irrigation or sprinkler system, don’t adopt a “set it and forget it” attitude. Check that your system delivers water to the right places and in the right amounts.
▪ Water your lawn deeply and infrequently and be aware that your lawn needs less water in the spring and fall months when the weather is cooler.
▪ Don’t water during the hottest part of the afternoon, during windy weather or when it’s raining outside.
▪ Make sure your sprinklers actually water your yard and garden beds, not the street, the driveway, sidewalks or the side of your house.
▪ Finally, consider installing “smart” irrigation system controllers, which use climate information or soil moisture to determine if your lawn needs irrigating.
About that lawn ...
Water-wise lawn care doesn’t just include altering your watering routine.
▪ When mowing, raise the cutting height to 3 inches during the summer. Taller blades of grass shade the ground, preventing moisture loss, and promote deeper, healthier root growth.
▪ And while you’re mowing, don’t bag your grass clippings. Research has shown that leaving grass clippings on your lawn, as opposed to bagging clippings, can replace one application of fertilizer per year.
▪ If you wish to replace your existing Kentucky bluegrass lawn, there are other varieties of grass as well as lawn substitutes available. Other grass varieties that perform well in our area with less water include sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina), buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) and two varieties available from The Turf Company in Meridian: Eduraturf and Xerilawn.
Lawn substitutes to consider include woolly thyme (Thymus psuedolanuginosus), elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum), iceplant (Delosperma species) and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). This list of lawn alternatives is by no means exhaustive.
The right plants
Once you’ve addressed your lawn, often the biggest water consumer, you’ll want to select water-wise, drought-tolerant ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers for the rest of your landscape.
Consider using native plants, which typically need less water and little, if any, supplemental fertilizer.
There is no “one size fits all” list of plants for use in low-water landscapes. Your ultimate plant choices will depend on your individual location, growing conditions and personal preferences. Something that thrives on the east side of your home, for instance, may struggle on the west side.
Draggin’ Wing Farm (waterthriftyplants.com) in Boise specializes in growing and selling drought-tolerant plants that are either native or well adapted to Idaho and the Intermountain West. Draggin’ Wing’s owner, Diane Jones, offers the following list as some easy-to-grow, satisfying plants to consider for use in local gardens.
▪ Flowering perennials: Yarrows (Achillea species), salvias, buckwheats (Eriogonum species), penstemons, fleabanes (Erigeron species), lavenders (Lavandula species), Blanketflower (Gaillardia species), sundancer daisy (Hymenoxis acaulis) and Lewis flax (Linum lewisii)
▪ Ground covers: Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), rosy pussytoes (Antennaria microphylla), creeping thymes (T. pseudolanuginosus, T. serpyllum), sedums, woolly veronica (Veronica pectinata)
▪ Shrubs: Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), Mormon tea (Ephedra species), syringa or mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), golden currant (Ribes aureum)
▪ Ornamental grasses: Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Although revamping your home landscape in stages is a manageable approach for many do-it-yourselfers, some may still be apprehensive about undertaking the job on their own.
If that’s the case, there are a number of landscape professionals who can assist with the process.
Peggy Faith of Xeric Gardening (xericgardening.com), for instance, has been creating drought-tolerant residential gardens in the Treasure Valley since 2004. Her advice when undertaking any changes to your home landscape is to try to identify the one thing you most want to change about your garden and work from there. Beginning with the area that you feel the most passionate about ensures greater chances of success and follow-through.
Make sure to relay your exact wants and needs to the pro you’re working with. (Faith has worked with property owners whose goals ranged from solely saving money on their water bills to those who were inspired to decrease their lawns and increase pollinator habitat.) And remember to mention any homeowners association requirements.
The first couple of years after installing a xeric garden are usually the time of highest maintenance, but it is a different sort of maintenance, Faith says.
Rather than weekly lawn mowing, drought-tolerant lawn grasses may require monthly — or even quarterly — mowing. Garden beds planted with drought-tolerant plants do require weeding to remove competition for soil moisture.
However, mulching significantly reduces the number of weeds, and consistently pulling any weeds that do germinate will substantially lower the chance of them seeding out.
Subsequent years should see a decrease in the number of weeds, and the job of weeding becomes one that can be accomplished with a cup of coffee or a cold beverage in one hand.
Nell Frazer Lindquist is the nursery and greenhouse coordinator and the garden-tour coordinator at the Idaho Botanical Garden. She is also a master gardener and has a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and a master’s degree in urban planning from Texas A&M University.
▪ Free classes in water-wise gardening are being offered from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, March 22 and 29 and April 5. Hosted by the Boise Public Library (Cole and Ustick) and sponsored by Suez, City of Boise, University of Idaho Extension and the Idaho Botanical Garden. Register by calling 362-7336 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
▪ Many gardening centers, the Idaho Botanical Garden, Boise City Parks and Recreation and many others offer classes related to landscaping. Check their websites for information. Boise Parks and Recreation has a free lawn and irrigation class at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, for instance. Visit bprwebtrac.cityofboise.org for information.
Here are a few Web resources to start checking out
Suez/United Water Idaho “Save Water and Beautify Your Garden”: unitedwater.com/idaho/idaho/xeriscape.aspx
Landscaping with Native Plants of the Intermountain Region: blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/id/publications.Par.71153.File.dat/Landscaping-small.pdf
12 Tips for Cutting Water Usage in Your Landscape: cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/magazine/winter2010/12tips.asp
Idaho Landscapes and Gardens. Lawn and Turf Irrigation: web.cals.uidaho.edu/idahogardens/category/turf-irrigation
Watering Home Lawns: How Much and How Often or Watering Home Lawns and Landscapes: cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS1157.pdf
Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper: qwel.net
Water-Smart Landscape Design Tips: www3.epa.gov/watersense/outdoor/landscaping_tips.html
Tips for Watering Wisely: www3.epa.gov/watersense/outdoor/watering_tips.html
Landscape for Life: landscapeforlife.org.
Denver Water “Remodel Your Yard”: denverwater.org/Conservation/Xeriscape
“Beautiful No-Mow Lawns”: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives by local author, Evelyn J. Hadden
“Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook” by local author Mary Ann Newcomer and John Cretti
“Lawn Gone!:” Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard” by Pam Penick
“Landscaping on the New Frontier: Waterwise Design for the Intermountain West” by Susan E. Meyer, Roger K. Kjelgren, Darrel G. Morrison, William A. Varga, and Bettina Schultz
“The Landscaping Revolution: Garden with Mother Nature, Not Against Her” by Andy and Sally Wasowski
Annual: A plant with a life cycle that lasts only one year, from seed to blooms to seed.
Biennial: A plant that usually lives only two years, normally producing flowers and seed the second year.
Botanical name: The scientific name of a plant, composed of two words: the genus and the species (for example, Philadelphus lewisii). Many plants may have multiple common names or different plants may share a common name, but using the botanical name specifies exactly which plant is being referred to. For example, Philadelphus lewisii may be known commonly as syringa or mock orange.
Cultivar: A contraction of the terms “cultivated variety”; refers to a plant created through human breeding using techniques such as plant selection and plant crossing.
Deciduous: Trees or shrubs that lose their leaves in fall and winter.
Hardening off: Process of gradually acclimatizing greenhouse or indoor-grown plants in stages to different temperatures or to outdoor growing conditions.
Hardiness: The ability of a plant to withstand low temperatures or frost, without artificial protection. Usually refers to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map that’s based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree zones.
Heirloom: An open-pollinated plant cultivar developed through many years of plant selection.
Some horticulturists define heirloom plants by the number of years they have been in cultivation, with many heirloom vegetables tracing their heritage back hundreds of years. Other authorities use 1951, when the first hybrid vegetable varieties were introduced, as a cutoff year for heirloom vegetables. Anything introduced after 1951 is considered a “modern” vegetable cultivar.
Hybrid: The offspring of two plants of different species or varieties of plants. Hybrids are created when the pollen from one kind of plant is used to pollinate an entirely different variety, resulting in a new plant altogether.
Microclimate: Variations of the climate within a given area, usually influenced by hills, hollows, structures or proximity to bodies of water.
Open-pollinated: Open-pollinated plants require pollination by wind, insects or the gardener to set fruit and produce seed. The seed can be saved each year by home gardeners and will grow true to type from each time.
Perennial: A plant that grows and lives for more than two years. Perennials usually produce one flower crop each year, lasting anywhere from a week to a month or longer.
Pollination: The transfer of pollen from the stamen (male part of the flower) to the pistil (female part of the flower), which results in the formation of a seed.
Species: A naturally occurring plant, which evolved with no human manipulation or intervention.
See a xeric garden first
A visit to xeric demonstration gardens in the Boise area will inspire your journey to water conservation in your own home landscape. Some include:
- The Idaho Botanical Garden’s Water Conservation Landscape, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise.
- The BLM FireWise Garden at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise. Also features a display of various lawn grasses, including those mentioned in this story.
- Suez’s low-water demonstration garden at 8248 W. Victory Road, Boise.
- Draggin’ Wing Farm’s demonstration gardens at 5300 N. Stinger Drive, Boise.