Let Larsen Landscape help you save water with these easy 18 tips

Saving water in landscaping really comes down to one simple question. How many gallons of water going through the water meter end up on the landscape? It is easy to save water if someone normally saturates their entire landscape every day – the lawn always feels squishy when you walk on it and the gardens are constantly muddy with green algae growing everywhere. The answer, in that case, would be simply to cut back the sprinkler timer to about a quarter or a third of what is currently being used.

In my experience of over 25 years in the landscape industry, this exact scenario is more common than you might think. However, for the person who is already trying to use just enough water to keep their landscaping happy and would like to know how to use even less and still have a nice landscape, here are some tips that can help.

Water saving tip #1: Water less often and deeper. Sprinklers running twice a week (or even less often for some areas when the weather is not too hot) for a longer period of time will tend to drive the water deeper into the soil where it won’t evaporate. Ordinarily, less overall water is used this way than by watering daily.

Water saving tip #2: Some lawn areas may require a short sprinkler blast every day in the hottest days of summer to look their best. Depending on the water supply situation, maybe an imperfect looking lawn for a couple of months is acceptable, but if not, the daily blasts of water can be relatively short (just a couple of minutes long) and the deeper watering can still happen only once or twice a week.

Water saving tip #3: Watering very early in the morning (2:00 am or so) allows the water to sit longer and soak into the soil before the sun hits the soil and begins the evaporation process. Watering at 9:00 pm will also do this, but can lead to algae growth as the water sits all night long. In a severe drought situation this could be useful.

Water saving tip #4: Watering for very short amounts of time over and over on the same day can help prevent runoff of water onto the sidewalks and streets. This is particularly useful on hilly areas where the runoff problem tends to be aggravated. For instance, instead of running spray heads for 12 minutes at a time, try setting the controller to water for 2 minutes on each station, then two more minutes 30-60 minutes later. Doing this several times in a row will ensure you get more water on the landscape.

Water saving tip #5: Mulch all the garden areas. This means to add a layer of wood chips or even gravel. This layer lets the water penetrate to the soil but doesn’t let the sun hit the soil directly so you don’t lose your landscape water to evaporation. If you are using a weed fabric under the layer of mulch, the evaporation is even less, though this is not always practical with all gardens.

Water saving tip #6: Consider stirring water-saving polymer crystals into the soil around each plant (this is easiest to do when installing new plant material, but to some degree can be turned into the soil around existing plants). These tiny crystals absorb excess water when it touches them and the plant roots can then slowly pull the water out as it is needed. This allows you to stretch out the time between watering considerably. This approach is particularly helpful for new lawns when the crystals can be roto-tilled into the soil directly over the whole area. We installed a lawn with these crystals for one client on a partially shaded side of his house and he didn’t water at all for 4 months during the rainy season and had a great looking lawn. It would rain every week or so and the polymers stored it for the lawn to use until the next rain.

A word of caution on using polymers – it takes very little to do the job (like half a teaspoon for a typical potted plant stirred into the soil). Using too much can cause the plant to literally push up out of the ground when the polymers expand with water.

Water saving tip #7: There are sprinkler controllers available now that have miniature weather stations attached. These can override any wasteful watering cycles that are not really needed. A simpler version of this is a small rain override switch that can be easily and inexpensively installed on some sprinkler controllers. This system shuts off the watering cycles when it is raining.

Water saving tip #8: Some plants are much more drought tolerant than others and they don’t all look like they should be in a desert setting. A good plant designer can help on this, but just reading the label on a plant when you buy it often gives a clue.

Water saving tip #9: Proper zoning of a sprinkler system can help enormously. A shady garden usually needs a lot less water than a lawn area in the full sun and the shady garden sprinklers should be run for less time and less often. Most modern sprinkler controllers allow for watering different zones on different days. The trick is to design the system right in the first place, or redesign it if that wasn’t done.
Water saving tip #10: If plants are fed well they can hold up better under adverse conditions. Their roots go deeper and they are less susceptible to diseases. Organic plant foods can be obtained for this. You can spray the leaves directly with a product like Miracle Gro. This will help the plants grow much faster, but it tends to be a short term feeding and should be done every week or two to be fully effective. Normal feeding at the base of the shrubs with fertilizer crystals or an organic fertilizer should be done 3 times a year (at the beginning of spring, summer and fall). Feeding plants in the winter could lead to new growth that is very susceptible to frost.

Water saving tip #11: You can use environmental microbes (available at www.mightymicrobes.com or www.effens.com) to give your plants a huge advantage in the war on drought. The purpose of these microbes is to greatly improve soil conditions making for healthier plants that can survive better under adverse conditions. They can be used to naturally clean up ponds and other water supplies as well.

Water saving tip #12: In bigger yards with large landscaped areas, some of the planted area can be turned into more patio space. A new flagstone or concrete patio, of course, needs no water at all. There are numerous design possibilities for adding useful space that doesn’t use any water.

Water saving tip #13: Another way big lawn and garden areas can be converted to less water use is to plant a fruit orchard where only a few trees need to be watered over a large area and an individual sprinkler can be installed at each tree. Citrus trees, in particular, actually prefer to be watered only about once a week while well-established Live Oaks should not be watered at all. There are many deep rooting trees that need very little, if any, irrigation water once they are established. The area surrounding the trees can be covered with wood chips, decomposed granite or other material.

Water saving tip #14: Drip irrigation of the type typically sold in home improvement stores, can be a maintenance headache, mostly useful for watering potted plants (unless you have a lot of spare time to check the system frequently for breaks and clogs before you lose plants). There are, however, professional systems available that do hold up well. The best I have found is made by the Toro company.

Water saving tip #15: While a good drip irrigation system can help with water use, they are really only useful in flat terrain area (in hillside situations, the water coverage tends to be uneven, the excess water runs to the bottom of the system and creates bogs at the lower elevations). For hillside areas, the type of sprinkler that turns from side to side slowly with one steady stream of water tends to lay the water down with less runoff. These are called rotor sprinkler heads and the best I have found is called PGP’s and are made by the Hunter Company. They even make one that pops up a foot high, lays the water down gently, and then retracts out of harm’s way. If this watering approach for a hillside is coupled with a type of ground cover plant that has a drought tolerant nature, the water use is actually very low once the plant is established.

Water saving tip #16: Gypsum is great for breaking up clay soils and allowing water to penetrate deeper into the soil. This causes the roots to go deeper. Gypsum usually comes in a bag as a white powder and can be applied by simply spreading some on the soil around the base of the plants.

Water saving tip #17: Faux lawns have been seeing a lot of use in desert areas like Las Vegas. The up-side is that they always look great and continuing research has improved them to the point where some types look very real, you don’t need to water them and you don’t need a gardener to mow them either. The down-side is that they are relatively expensive to install, compared to a traditional lawn, they are not cool in the hot sun like a real lawn would be and they don’t create oxygen.

Water saving tip #18: If you live in an area where watering is restricted to certain days of the week, creative use of nighttime watering can extend the time you can water. If you water right after midnight, and then again just before midnight, 22 hours later, you can stretch out the water that stays on the landscape over a two day period.

Bruce Larsen
Larsen Landscaping
2059 Sargent Ave
Simi Valley, CA 93063