Getting water smart in the landscape

How do you renovate a tropical-themed condo complex in Las Vegas and still retain something of a lush look while reducing water usage? For D&K Landscape, it’s not that difficult.

One of the secrets is to make turf conversion a jumping off point for a nice design. Southern Nevada has an active program for reducing water usage by replacing high water use plants like turfgrass with more arid-adapted plants and hardscapes, and companies like D&K are using the financial incentives to the advantage of their clients.


The front entry to Island Park condos in Las Vegas was renovated with drought-tolerant ground cover that will save about 50 percent of water costs.

“We’re looking at this turf conversion as more of an upgrade,” says Pete Battisti, senior designer for D&K. As an example, he cites Island Park, an existing condominium complex where D&K was asked to take out the turf and undertake a renovation while maintaining the property’s tropical theme.

Water savings is a hot topic in Nevada now, and has been for years. For properties that remove turf and then landscape with a suitable, arid-adapted plant palette, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is paying $1.50 per square foot. The incentives gradually decrease: the $1.50 rebate drops down to $1 per square foot after the first 5,000 square feet, and there is concern that the program might be dropped entirely at some point. D&K has been able to use that as a great starting point when talking to clients about a landscape makeover.

Battisti says the Island Park project is also an example of company flexibility, with the job scheduled to progress over a period of months, or even years, in different phases as the client balances budget restraints and attempts to satisfy the landscape design desires of different condo owners. D&K finished the first phase this spring, with work on phase two taking place this summer.

“The first phase was doing the entry and the streetscape leading into the property,” he says. Island Park already features some trees that are good water savers, including three kinds of palm trees and different pine species, such as Aleppo and Mondale. Battisti added some multi-trunk crepe myrtles, 10 in the first phase, which add some color to the property, but don’t increase water use.

The landscape project at Island Park will be completed by D&K Landscape workers in several phases.

With a total of about 50,000 square feet of turf coming out on the approximately 3-acre property, a lot of space must be filled. Battisti says he came up with a tiered effect for the plant materials, with trees dropping down in height to shrubs that include four kinds of Euonymus, pineapple guavas, Japanese privets and variegated mock orange. These are nice, full plants that are not big water users.

A lot of ground cover is also needed. In talking to the client, Battisti decided that they didn’t want to go with the bare-minimum gravel and boulder effect that is becoming more common around Las Vegas as turf is eliminated. He created many small, isolated ground cover islands of different sizes, utilizing plants like purple and new gold lantana, prostrate rosemary, two different types of jasmine and winter creeper. These were planted in plots of varying sizes, and the client will be watching the different species over time and selecting the types that condo owners prefer to install in future phases of the renovation.

Battisti says these ground cover plants will use about 40 gallons of water per year per square foot when covering 100 percent of the converted area, a water savings of approximately 50 percent over turf. In addition, the project called for removing the existing sprinkler irrigation system and converting to drip irrigation throughout. Three irrigation clocks will also be changed out, and there is a rebate on those, too. He recommended that the complex also install a weather station, and the client is considering this as a means of achieving higher watering efficiency.

Island Park had existing concrete walkways, and the new design leaves those in place, but to promote community connectedness and exercise, the trails will be expanded. Red decomposed granite will be used there, some of it replacing turfed areas.

“Also, we’re entertaining the idea of putting in fire pits and raised seating walls around the pool area,” Battisti says. He has also designed raised masonry walls through the property for improved security and aesthetics. The walls will be concrete masonry with stone veneer and caps, with the veneer also available for the columns on the perimeter walls.

D&K is using its experience in other disciplines to provide ideas to the Island Park condo owners. One of those areas is in playgrounds, with a playground for children from 2 to 5 years of age under consideration. The total cost of the turf conversion will be about $150,000, but the cost of the project could ultimately double that as new ideas are gradually incorporated and accepted.

About 50,000 square feet of turf will be removed, but some will be left for special purposes.
Streetscapes are being renovated along with 3 acres of condominium grounds.

D&K Chief Operating Officer Dan Bishop says that Island Park is a good illustration of his company’s flexibility in working with clients. With over 100 employees, the company can handle multimillion-dollar jobs, but these free-flowing renovations fit right into its modus operandi. The company had the maintenance contract for Island Park prior to this year, so D&K as a natural fit to get the renovation contract.

Sometimes it works the other way around, however. The company can get a turf conversion job and end up with more install work along with the maintenance contract. Bishop notes that water is “the new oil” in Las Vegas, it is so precious, and property owners, both residential and commercial, are very receptive to renovation ideas that can take it into account.

“I’ve got a couple of go-getter guys out there plugging conversions in wherever we can,” Bishop says of his business development force, and once the company does a renovation they usually also end up with the maintenance contract as well as any future install work.

The conversion itself is pretty simple, he says. On a large job he will send a couple of men to kill the grass with two applications of Roundup Pro or another herbicide, and three days later a five-man crew will move in and, using one to four sod cutters, remove the turf. They use a Bobcat to load it into a 10-wheeler and haul it to a landfill.

Inevitably, sprinkler irrigation systems are stripped out and replaced with a new drip system. Drip will water everything, unless a small bit of turf is left for a play area. If the irrigation valve is in good shape it will be left in place, if not it will be replaced. A filter and pressure regulator will be added, and the drip lines are ready to be charged. The D&K contract will often call for replacing the valves on an as-needed basis. The company, which is certified as a Water Smart landscaper by the water authority, prefers the barbed Toro DPJ 2-gallon emitters, both for ease of installation and maintenance.

Not many clients desire the lush look that Island Park wanted to maintain, and Bishop is a big fan of rock mulch on most properties. They use a lot of boulders and often specify two sizes of rock mulch, cobblestones and gravel, to achieve something more than the standard gravel-everywhere look. The cobble will be used to feature slopes or decorative areas. It will be spread by the same Bobcat used to haul away turf. Some of these jobs can be huge (one involved removing 169,000 square feet of turf), and the company makes a small profit on every square foot.

Bishop says that D&K has employed a designer since the company started up 14 years ago. The company uses Battisti in conjunction with his business development people (he doesn’t like the term “sales”), with no charge for design services in projects like Island Park where the company does the installation. The business development people are long-time masonry and construction experts who know what they are talking about with clients.

Rock, decomposed granite and flagstones will be used for paths where turf once grew.

As a design/build firm, D&K will often get involved with prestigious housing or commercial developments, either in new construction or renovations. The company now has a new playground division and a masonry division for hardscapes. Since attaining a C18 masonry license, they can pretty much take on any landscaping job that includes hardscaping.

“We can handle all of that in-house,” Bishop says of the various add-ons. That fluidity gives the company a lot of potential. As Battisti comes up with ideas for clients to consider, more and more work flows the company’s way.

“We don’t strong-arm people with that,” he points out, but the more good ideas that clients see, the more they want to go beyond simply removing grass and replacing it with gravel. It is one of the reasons why the company continues to be busy.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.