Water-Wise Landscapes

5 steps to designing landscapes that work with natural flow to conserve water.

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By Paige Payne
From the June 2024 Issue

 

In an era where water conservation is more important than ever, creating water-wise landscapes is not only an aesthetic choice, but a vital environmental commitment. But this doesn’t mean you need to provide austere landscapes. In fact, by understanding topography and designing landscapes that work in harmony with natural water flow, you can create outdoor spaces that conserve water while providing attractive and functional living areas.

Whether you’re designing from scratch or modifying an existing site, this article will walk you through how to plan landscapes that are both beautiful and water-wise.

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(All Photos: Emily Sierra/Online Landscape Designs)

1. Assess The Land

A thorough assessment of your client’s property is an important first step. This will help ensure that your design and plant selections will be in tune with the natural patterns and features of the landscape. Take time to interview the homeowner or site manager about how water flows — or doesn’t — on the property.

Schedule permitting, start with walk-throughs of the site at different times of day—or ask the clients about the sun’s patterns over the day. Pay attention to anything that stands out and try to get a feel for what the land may be trying to tell you. Low or high sun exposure in different areas of the site will dictate plant choices.

Also observe or ask about the wind direction and strength during various times of day as well as through the seasons. Wind can increase evaporation rates from soil and plants (see Hydrozoning), which may require strategic placement of windbreaks or other features in your landscape.

Equally important is identifying “problem” areas where water naturally collects that could benefit from a rain garden or thirsty plants. These could also be foot-trodden areas, indicating a potential need for additional pathways, or spots that are particularly eroded, which could benefit from certain plantings or features to mitigate further damage. Identifying these issues early on will help you incorporate solutions that are both functional and beautiful.

2. Do A Water Audit

The overall goal of a water-wise landscape is to reduce water usage and keep water on the site. Ideally, you want to allow both rain and irrigation water to stay on site and filter into the soil, rather than allowing it to be diverted off the property.

Conducting a water audit will help you with this aim. You’ll be able to see how much water is currently being used on the site, where it naturally flows, and areas where it can be conserved. This can be done by a permaculture or landscape designer that specializes in water-wise landscaping or by a specialized irrigation company. There are also often non-profit or government funded options that offer water audits and services at low cost or even for free. Check in your local area for water audit resources.

Adopting water-wise strategies in landscape design is not just a trend but a necessary shift. By taking steps to understand the land and its water needs, using hardscape elements and water-catchment features, and selecting and placing plants wisely, you can create beautiful, functional outdoor spaces that conserve water and support the local ecosystem.

A water audit typically involves several key steps:

  • Gather information on the client’s current water usage. This can be done by reviewing water bills over the past year to understand monthly and seasonal water usage patterns.
  • Inspect the irrigation system (if there is one). Check for leaks or inefficiencies and note any areas of the landscape that may be over- or under-watered. To Note: Spray zones should be converted to drip zone wherever possible (in planting beds). Drip systems allow water to be distributed directly to plant roots versus broadcast spraying water which leads to water loss through evaporation. Also install a smart controller or rain sensor.
  • Assess soil moisture levels in different areas. Dig or probe into the soil in a few areas to see how well water is being retained or lost.
  • Observe and map water movement across the site. During or after rain or irrigation, take note of how water flows through the property, including areas where water pools or drains rapidly.

A thorough water audit not only reveals the current state of water usage on a landscape, but areas for improvement.

A secondary part of a water audit is to assess how much lawn is on the site. We all know turfgrass takes a lot of water to maintain — and a good portion of that water is lost through evaporation. There are often government programs in dry areas that offer grants and low cost services to convert lawn to water-wise landscaping. So, wherever possible, it’s good practice to minimize lawn spaces and replace them with some of the options I share in this article.

3. Incorporate Hardscape Elements

Hardscape elements offer both functional benefits and aesthetic appeal without the traditional water demands. A wide range of hardscaping options exist, from boulder gardens, to raised beds, to natural play structures. However, I recommend expanding your definition of hardscape to include any type of permeable surface. This would be any area in a landscape that requires little to no maintenance and allows water to pass through and be captured in the soil.

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Gravel paths offer beauty and function, allowing rainwater to permeate.

 

These are some of the hardscape elements I use in my own designs:

Gravel Paths or Patios. Gravel paths/patios offer both beauty and function. They allow rainwater to permeate directly into the soil, enhancing groundwater recharge and reducing runoff. As with any landscape, staying on top of weeds will be important. Using smaller rock (such as chipped stone) or decomposed rock will make weeding easier than larger gravel options. In addition, foot traffic on paths will keep weed growth to a minimum.

Flagstone & Permeable Paver Patios. Flagstones and permeable pavers are excellent choices for patios because they are both very durable and naturally attractive. (You may have other types of natural stone in your local area that also work well.) Ideally, these should be dry-set (no concrete underneath) and set in sand or road base to allow water to percolate. The gaps in between the stones or pavers can also be filled with low-water ground cover such as woolly thyme or creeping veronica to increase infiltration of water.

Mulch or Living Paths. Like gravel, mulch or living paths provide a low-maintenance and permeable surface that can be used for walking or sitting areas. Mulch paths can also serve as a buffer between plants and lawn areas, which reduces overwatering risk. Some great options for pathway mulch include bark mulch, wood chips, or pine straw. For a living pathway, consider ground covers like wooly thyme, creeping veronica, bugle weed, or creeping Jenny, which can all handle moderate foot traffic. However, make sure the ground cover plant you choose is not invasive in your area. The Invasive Plant Atlas of the U.S. is a great resource.

Ground covers will fill in fastest when planted about one foot on center and will spread out completely in one to three years depending on how closely you plant them. I like to use smaller plants like plugs or 2″ pots that come in flats. They are not only less expensive, but easier to fit into the joints between stones.

Meadows & Native Habitat Gardens. Meadows and native habitat areas are naturally low-maintenance and will help retain water in a landscape. They can be composed of a variety of grasses, wildflowers, and other plants to provide year-round interest and support pollinators and beneficial insects. Native habitat gardens support local wildlife by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites. Such meadows are great to include around the perimeter of a property or along fence lines. This allows the landscape to flow from a more manicured look near the home to a more naturalized setting as it moves away from the house.

4. Use Water-Catchment Features

Water-catchment features are another excellent way to keep water on a site. They’re specifically designed to slow down the flow of water, which increases its potential to permeate into the soil. Some of my favorite water-catchment features include bioswales, raingardens, and dry creeks. (To Note: never use landscape fabric underneath the rocks or plantings. Over time, the fabric clogs up and prevents water from reaching the soil, which leads to runoff, and ultimately garbage, when the fabric breaks down.)

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A dry creek bed, like the one shown here, can help channel water to areas where it can filter back into the ground—rather than just becoming stormwater run-off.

 

Bioswales are shallow vegetated channels that collect and filter rainwater runoff. They can be used to channel water from downspouts or other areas into planting beds, where the plants help filter pollutants and allow the water to slowly infiltrate into the soil.

Rain gardens work similarly to bioswales but are more bowl-shaped depressions in the ground that are planted with a mixture of moisture-loving plants. They can be an effective solution for areas where water tends to pool or collect during heavy rainfall.

Dry Creeks are another great way to manage excess water and create an attractive landscape feature. These shallow channels mimic the natural flow of water and can be lined with gravel, rocks, or plants to help filter and infiltrate water back into the ground.

5. Choose & Place Plants Wisely

Once all the larger landscape features have been laid out, the final step is choosing the right plants and positioning them thoughtfully to create a vibrant outdoor space that requires less maintenance and water. I use these guidelines when selecting plants:

  • Choose native plants when possible. Native plants will naturally thrive in your climate, soil, and water conditions.
  • Put the right plants in the right places. If you put the right plant where it wants to grow, it will naturally thrive. If it doesn’t, it’s not the right plant in the right place.
  • Maximize density of plantings. Plants shade the soil and roots of other plants and form a living system under the soil, which reduces the need for water and maintenance. However, keep a good balance because overplanting can lead to crowding or competition.
  • Group plants by water needs. Put plants with similar water needs together for efficient watering zones. (See Hydrozoning.)

Adopting water-wise strategies in landscape design is not just a trend but a necessary shift. By taking steps to understand the land and its water needs, using hardscape elements and water-catchment features, and selecting and placing plants wisely, you can create beautiful, functional outdoor spaces that conserve water and support the local ecosystem.

Paige Payne, Founder, Online Landscape DesignsPayne, the founder and lead landscape designer at Online Landscape Designs, aims to enrich people’s lives by connecting them to the natural world through outdoor spaces. With 24 years of experience in the landscape industry and a profound love for Nature, Payne utilizes her knowledge to create Earth-centered landscape and permaculture designs. These designs focus on water-wise, native, pollinator-friendly, and edible gardens as well as how to integrate these elements into one cohesive design. Payne is a Permaculture Designer and a mentor with the Permaculture Women’s Guild. Additionally, she provides eco-friendly garden and landscape education both online and in person across Colorado and the U.S.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at cmenapace@groupc.com.

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