conserving water in your landscape: sprinkler watering grass

Conserving Water in Your Landscape

How to create and maintain an outdoor space that minimizes water use.

Water conservation is a vital part of sustainability, especially in the drought-ridden western United States. There are many ways to save water in a landscape and this is an essential step in preserving a vital natural resource. By adopting drought-tolerant landscaping and water-wise gardening practices, you can maintain a lush, vibrant outdoor space while minimizing water usage. These strategies not only conserve water but also save you money and enhance the resilience of your garden.

Learn how to conserve water inside your home here.

Planning & design

Whether you measure and graph out a landscape plan or simply know in your mind what you want to accomplish, it is good to have at least a general plan for effectively conserving water in your landscape.

Take time to inventory the different parts of your yard: what areas get the most and least amount of sun, which might be more exposed to wind or winter salt, what spots might be drier than others, and any purpose you wish a plant to serve, such as shade or privacy. This will help you to select the appropriate plants for those areas.

Localscapes is a great free resource to give you ideas on how to structure your yard for optimal water conservation. Based in Utah (the second driest state in the U.S.), this program offers free classes detailing water efficient design principles and even have sample designs on their website.

Importance of soil quality

The quality of your soil is not only important for plant health, but can also have a big impact on their water needs. In fact, the Oregon State Extension writes, “Soil improvement is the best investment you can make to ensure healthy plants and water conservation.”

Obtaining a soil test through your local extension service is a great tool to help identify soil type and any nutrient deficiencies.

A universal solution to most soil issues is the addition of compost. Even without a soil test, amending your garden soil with quality compost is a surefire way to improve its quality by increasing its ability to absorb and store water and increasing the air spaces necessary for deeper root growth. The addition of compost helps with water retention in sandy soils, while improving drainage in clay soils. Compost contains organic matter which adds important nutrients, making it a natural fertilizer. I find that maintaining adequate compost in my garden beds eliminates the need for me to fertilize completely. Learn more about composting here.

Initially, incorporate 2 to 4 inches of organic matter throughout entire garden beds instead of just amending individual holes. This practice promotes a healthier environment for root development and plant establishment. In subsequent years, adding one inch of compost throughout beds is adequate.

Proper plant selection & placement

gloved hands holding a plant above a hole dug into the soil

Choosing the right plant for the right place is imperative to creating a water efficient landscape. Native plant species should be incorporated as much as possible. These plants are already adapted to your region’s climate and soil, and usually don’t require as much supplemental water as non-native plants.

Try the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to discover native options in your area, or use the resources provided by your state’s extension office. Visit local gardens to see these plants up close and get inspired for planting design ideas.

There are many nurseries that specialize in native plants, and I have noticed more nurseries are creating designated sections for these plants, so make sure you search for one of these in your neighborhood.

But you don’t have to be limited to native plants only; there are numerous varieties of drought tolerant plants available, so make sure to research what will do well in your area.

In general, annuals will likely require more water than perennials. I tend to avoid planting many annuals, mostly because I’m a plant snob and find most of them to be uninteresting and generic, but also because I don’t want to purchase and replant each year.

Learn more helpful criteria for selecting appropriate plants on the Creating a Sustainable Garden page.

Planting tips

Make sure to group plantings with similar water needs together, and program watering zones accordingly. Consider spacing plants tightly, still ensuring they have enough room to reach their mature sizes, but no more than necessary. Besides creating a visually appealing full design, this approach also helps to both suppress weeds and shade plant roots, slowing water evaporation from the soil.

Limit planting to the spring or fall so plants have time to get established before the hot weather. In the last few years, I have become a big proponent of fall planting. I have had a good amount of success with plants surviving by planting during this time; the downside it that it is often harder to find what you are looking for as the gardening season starts to wind down.


Many people think of xeriscaping as an uninspiring, barren wasteland composed of primarily rocks and maybe some cacti. While this is one low water design, it is certainly not the only one. By definition, xeriscaping is a landscape that requires little or no water. This is not synonymous with a traditional desertscape unless, of course, that is what you desire. With the right plant choices, it is still possible to have a lush, full plantings without a single boulder or spiny plant in sight.

There are numerous beautiful flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees to choose from that are very drought-tolerant. Many of my favorite perennials with low water needs and many are also great sources of nectar for bees and hummingbirds.

See my blog post detailing my favorite drought-tolerant perennials, groundcovers, grasses, and shrubs. Some can be found in the next section.

Drought-tolerant park strips

An easy place to start waterwise landscaping is removing useless parking strip turf, the grass in between the street and sidewalk. In addition to being pointless, much of the water used to irrigate these narrow strips of grass ends up being wasted onto cement and asphalt.

I have planted several park strips composed of a mix of native plants and drought-tolerant perennials. They are lush, beautiful, pollinator-friendly, and only require watering once a week, maybe twice during prolonged periods of 100 degree weather. I converted the installed sprinkler heads to drip irrigation.

Flowering park strip
This pic is the first year after planting my current park strip. I chose Agastache, Catmint, Bee Balm, Purple Coneflower, Coreopsis, Penstemon, and Little Bluestem ‘Blaze’ grass. It is a pollinator paradise, with the occasional hummingbird. The trees are Japanese tree lilac, ‘Ivory Silk.’
I love the unique blue flowers of plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). The foilage turns a beautiful red in the fall. It spreads quickly by underground runners so make sure it is planted in a contained area.
Flowering park strip
This park strip contains Jupiter’s Beard, Lamb’s Ear, Lavender, Blue Flax, Stonecress, and Candytuft.

Lawn alternatives

Grass lawns may be the biggest barrier to conserving water in your landscape. They are thirsty and being the sizable spans of single plant monoculture they are, they offer little benefit to insects and other wildlife. In addition, lawns are labor and resource intensive, requiring frequent watering, fertilizing, herbicides, and manicuring. Consider digging up areas turfgrass and replacing with more biodiverse groups of drought-tolerant plants in order to conserve water as well as creating food sources and shelter for wildlife.

Whatever you do, please refrain from tearing out your entire lawn only to replace it with rock mulch. It is expensive, offers nothing to wildlife or insects, and personally I find it very unattractive. Worst of all, this creates a super hot microclimate. Rocks absorb and reflect heat, increasing both surface air temperature as well as the temperature of the soil. This can potentially make it harder to cool your home, and potentially overheat any existing plants to the point of their demise.

In addition, weed seeds still get lodged and germinate in between the rocks, and they can be very difficult to remove. The weight of rocks compacts soil, which hinders root growth of desired plants and penetration of water and nutrients.

Rocks and stones should accent and complement the landscape, not be the primary feature.

Maybe you don’t want to deal with filling your yard with plants like those mentioned above, and that’s ok. One of the most low maintenance, water efficient landscaping alternatives you can do is to install an ecolawn. This is a low water substitute to traditional turf that offers many of the same benefits, such as withstanding high amounts of foot traffic, dust and noise reduction, control of water runoff and erosion, and temperature moderation. Typically an ecolawn consists of a mix of broadleaf plants that stay green throughout the summer. These include plants such as clover, yarrow, and English daisy, as well as grasses, generally perennial ryegrass.

Besides demanding less water, ecolawns don’t need as much maintenance and thus resources, using little to no fertilizer or herbicides, and requiring less frequent mowing or even none at all.

The process of planting an ecolawn from seed is the same as a regular grass lawn. Sow seeds in the spring or early fall and keep well watered through germination and through the first summer. The seeds can be added to bare ground or existing grass. Read more about this process here.

It can be daunting to consider getting rid of an entire lawn, so if that is not within your budget or project capacity, start with one section at a time. As mentioned above, I think the easiest place to start ripping out turfgrass is the park strip. Next are any areas of grass that are oddly shaped, on a slope, are rarely used, or otherwise don’t make sense, such as narrow strips of grass that span the area between the house or driveway and fence. Spaces measuring less than eight feet in width (like parking strips) aren’t large enough to contain all the water from sprinklers, creating a lot of water waste from overspray.

The quickest way to remove lawn is to rent a sod cutter from Home Depot or other rental outlet. I promise the sod will be the easiest thing to get rid of. We didn’t even finish removing a large area of grass before passersby asked if they could take it off our hands. If you posted it for free on an online marketplace, I’m sure it would be gone in an instant.

Artificial grass

artificial grass

You may be wondering, what about artificial grass? Isn’t that an eco-friendly option? True, it doesn’t require any water, but still requires some maintenance, and unfortunately, the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits.

Simply put, consider what artificial turf is made from. Yep, our favorite material, plastic–usually polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon with a synthetic rubber infill layer. And plastics are made from fossil fuels. The manufacturing and transportation already creates a carbon footprint even before being installed in your yard.

Being made of plastic, particles break off and make their way into the soil and waterways in the form of microplastic pollution. Remember that many chemicals are used manufacturing plastic, and like other plastic products, artificial grass has been found to leach harmful chemicals (including PFAS and phthalates), heavy metals like lead, and other pollutants. Individually, many of these substances have been found to cause various serious health effects, including cancer, but direct correlation of artificial turf on these conditions is controversial.

Learn more about microplastics and plastic pollution here.

Artificial lawns usually last anywhere between 10-20 years, and after that where do they inevitably end up? The landfill.

If you’ve ever walked on fake grass in the summer, you know it gets hot. Like really hot. Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research reports that surface temperatures of artificial turf average 35-55℉ higher than natural grass. The highest temperature recorded by a study was 200℉; in contrast temperatures on real grass rarely reach over 100℉. Not surprisingly, spending significant amounts of time on hot artificial turf or playing fields can increase risk of dehydration, heatstroke and even thermal burns to bare feet or pet paws. In one case, the heat was enough to lead to the melting of athlete’s cleats. This heat contributes to the urban heat island effect, and even to global warming.

What can be done to combat the heat? Watering, that thing we’re trying to get away from. Got a pet? Urine odors can accumulate in artificial turf, and spraying with the hose is one way to help mitigate the smell, in addition to cleaning with vinegar or peroxide.

And finally, artificial grass provides nothing for living creatures. With the level of heat, nothing can live in it. It is not a food source. It does not contain any organic material to benefit the soil and the microorganisms that dwell in it, and it restricts access beneath it for worms and other burrowing insects. Animals that feed on these insects, like birds, must look elsewhere.

The authors of recent study released in October 2023 summarize their findings as contributing “to increasing knowledge that artificial turfs not only contributes to other known impacts, such as climate change, chemical leaching or local biodiversity loss, but is also is a major source of plastic pollution in the aquatic environment.”


Maintaining an adequate layer of mulch is another significant component of decreasing water needs in your yard. Blanketing your garden beds with a 3- to 5-inch layer of mulch can decrease water evaporation from soil by up to 70% when compared to uncovered soil. In addition, mulch serves numerous other desirable functions: suppressing weed growth, moderating soil temperatures, and adding nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

Plant-based mulch options include materials like wood chips, shredded bark, straw or hay, grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, and nut hulls. I like to use grass clippings in my vegetable garden, which I collect from the mulch setting on my lawn mower. Note that with this type of mulch, you want to keep the layer thinner than other types of mulches, around 3⁄4- to 1-inch deep. A deep layer of grass clippings can get matted down and prevent air from reaching the soil. It also becomes slimy and malodorous.

For my flower beds, I prefer shredded bark. I like its appearance and it is long lasting, only requiring replenishment every several years.

Avoid rubber mulch, a synthetic material that doesn’t decompose and gets very hot and malodorous.

Spread mulch uniformly, ensuring to leave a gap of a few inches around a plant’s stem or trunk. This open area promotes air circulation at the base of the plant and helps prevent diseases.

For a more in depth look, read Mulching the Landscape, from the University of Nebraska Extension.

How to water more efficiently

According to the EPA, homeowners use 30-60% of fresh water in their landscape, depending on the region. This results in skyrocketing a household’s daily water use from an average of 320 gallons per day to 1,000-3,000 gallons per day during the summer months.

After making a plan, preparing soil, choosing drought-tolerant plants, and mulching, adopting good watering practices are the last important component in decreasing water use in your landscape.

Manage & optimize irrigation systems

It is important that you frequently inspect your irrigation system. Repair broken PVC or sprinkler heads promptly. Fix misdirected sprinkler heads so they aren’t watering the street or sidewalk or leaving dry, dead spots in the lawn. Replace hose washers as needed.

infographic for EPA WaterSense irrigation controllers

Update old system controllers to WaterSense certified smart controllers. These use either local weather data or soil moisture sensors to determine watering schedule.

You can, of course, run your system manually based on the weather and plant appearance. More on that below.

Do not turn on your sprinkler system when the nighttime temperatures are barely above freezing. Please. Your plants do not need it. Wait until risk of frost is past, which you can find by looking up your last average frost date. For me in Utah, it’s around Mother’s Day. Some years I haven’t turned them on until June. And when temps are getting chilly in the fall, turn them off.

Consider converting old spray heads and nozzles to more efficient versions that spray a larger droplet size, which reduces evaporation. When installing or replacing sprinklers, look for ones labeled WaterSense, which meets EPA criteria. Rotary sprinkler heads, also called multi-stream rotational sprinkler heads, are the most water efficient, losing less to evaporation and applying water slow enough to be absorbed in clay soils. It is easy to retrofit existing fixed spray pop up sprinkler heads with these more efficient models. The downside of course is that the rotary heads are more expensive, about $8 each compared to $2-3 for basic fixed spray. But you may make up the difference in price on your water bill.

fixed spray vs rotary head sprinkler

For garden beds, retrofit sprinkler heads to drip irrigation. A multi-year study by Washington State University found their drip system used half as much water and led to half as many weeds in a field when compared to their overhead spray system. Note that drip should not be on the same watering zone as spray heads, as their run times are vastly different.

How to water plants

Watering practices are somewhat dependent on the type of soil in your yard. In general, correct watering involves watering slowly, deeply, and infrequently. This encourages deeper root growth, as water is retained for longer periods of time at deeper soil levels; deeper roots make plants more resistant to dry conditions. When water is applied too rapidly, it tends to run off the ground surface rather than penetrating into the soil. If you find that water is puddling or running off during irrigation, water in short, repeated cycles. Allow one hour in between cycles for water to move into the soil.

Water is also best applied directly to plant root systems rather than the plant itself to decrease evaporation. This is best accomplished by drip irrigation rather than overhead sprinklers, which lose water from both overspray and evaporation. Drip irrigation is the best garden watering system, keeping a consistent level of moisture in the soil and preventing water from accumulating on plant leaves which might lead to the development of fungus.

Drip irrigation also decreases erosion and runoff, and leads to decreased weed growth as water is only applied to desired areas. A multi-year study by Washington State University found their drip system used half as much water and led to half as many weeds in a field when compared to their overhead spray system.

Infographic showing where to water for trees.

When it comes to trees and shrubs, most of the roots that absorb water and nutrients from the ground are located in the top 12 inches of surrounding soil, extending up to 1.5 times the diameter of the canopy or spread of the plant. The most effective watering practice is to saturate this area 8 to 10 inches deep.

When to water plants

Newly placed plants will need consistent watering for their first growing season until they are established. This is why planting in the spring or fall is so important–plants have time to develop deeper roots during cooler months and are less prone to stress. Less supplemental water may be required during these times. As plants become more mature and develop deeper roots, time between watering can be gradually extended.

How often to water depends on a variety of factors including precipitation, temperature, and types of vegetation and soil. Pay attention to the weather; don’t just “set it and forget it.” This means be conscious not to water on when it’s pouring rain outside, or even for the next day or two afterwards depending on how saturated the soil is. This is where smart irrigation controllers are valuable tool.

To check soil moisture of clay-type soils, insert a screwdriver into the ground. If it penetrates the soil easily, you do not need to water yet. If it requires some effort, the soil is getting dry. Those will sandy soils need to water frequently but not deeply, as water drains quickly through this type of soil.

Take cues from your landscape. When plants start to look droopy, give them a drink. When you walk on the lawn and footprints are left behind, it’s time to water. Conversely, if mushrooms start popping up, or water starts to flow off your lawn or out of garden beds, it’s time to back down on watering.

If you need assistance developing a good watering schedule, find a professional to help. Check with your local extension service or municipality–they may offer a free irrigation audit. Government organizations are another potential resource; in Utah, the Division of Natural Resources publishes a weekly watering guide with recommendations on how many days to water each coming week.

As for the best time of day to water, a good rule of thumb is when the sun is NOT up. Early morning is ideal, as this allows time for water to penetrate the soil. Watering at night potentially can invite rot and fungal growth since water has a long time to sit before the sun begins to dry things out; however, I’ve never had problems with this.

The evaporation rate is the highest during mid-day, so refrain from watering between about 10am to 8pm. It is one of my biggest pet peeves to see sprinklers running mid-afternoon on a summer day when it is 100℉ outside. In addition, refrain from watering during windy conditions (above 5mph) which blows water away from desired areas.

When watering is restricted, prioritize watering plants in the following order:

  1. Trees
  2. Shrubs
  3. Perennials
  4. Annuals
  5. Grass

Lawn watering considerations

First and foremost, our society needs to adjust expectations of a bright, uniformly green lawn all year round. In hot, dry climates, this is not and should not be a reality. Learn to accept a lawn that isn’t green during the hottest months.

Grass can survive on as little as one inch of water per week. I have a section, albeit in part shade, that I didn’t water at all last summer and it has survived just fine. Minimizing watering and allowing lawns to go dormant, i.e. brown, is perfectly ok and will not kill your lawn. As soon as the weather cools, it will start to become green again.

Learn how to audit your lawn irrigation system to determine the length of time needed for watering.

There are some things you can to to make your lawn more water efficient.

  • Choose grass varieties appropriate to your area. Your local extension service is a great resource to find this information. In general, fescues are more drought tolerant.
  • Allow grass to grow longer and refrain from mowing to less than a 3″ height. Taller grass develops deeper roots that can access water lower in the soil. Tall blades of grass also shade the roots and soil, reducing water loss from evaporation.
  • Mow in the early evening, which helps prevent extra moisture loss.
  • Use the mulch setting on your lawn mower rather than the collecting bag. Mulched grass helps retain soil moisture and also provides nutrients as it breaks down into the soil.
  • Keep your mower blade sharp so that it cuts grass cleanly. Dull blades shred grass, which results in increased water loss per grass blade.
  • Aerating your lawn once a year decreases soil impaction and thatch, improving water penetration. Following aeration by top-dressing with quality compost can further this benefit, in addition to adding nutrients.
  • Reduce or eliminate fertilizer use. As a result, the grass will grow more slowly and use less water.

Maximize existing water

Rainwater harvesting

Collecting rain water with a rain barrel or cistern is a great way to save on water. This water can be used to irrigate throughout the garden and is great for potted plants. Learn more about rainwater harvesting here.

Another option is to divert water in a rain garden, which is a garden planted in a low area like a depression or a natural slope or at the base of a roof downspout. Its purpose is to meant to divert rainwater away from roofs, sidewalks, parking lots, and roads, preventing runoff and allowing the water to soak into the ground instead. Bioswales are similar in that they are meant to slow water to allow it to infiltrate. Even simply adjusting downspouts to areas where water is needed is helpful.

Why is this important? As rain washes hard surfaces clean of dirt, dog waste, garbage, motor oil, fertilizer, and other chemicals and pollution, this water flows into gutters and down storm drains. Storm water does not undergo treatment and ultimately this polluted water ends up in nearby streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes.

A rain garden captures some of this dirty water and allows it to penetrate the soil. Plant roots and the soil itself filter out pollutants before the water reaches the groundwater aquifers. These gardens also help prevent erosion. They are not always filled with water—in fact they are most often dry and only contain moisture when there is precipitation.

You don’t have to live in a rainy area to benefit from a rain garden. Residents of Tucson, AZ have utilized this practice successfully in their arid environment.

Learn more about rain gardens and bioswales here.

Decrease runoff

Diverting water with the above rainwater collection methods is a not the only way to both harness natural irrigation to your vegetation and decrease potential pollutants from entering waterways.

Utilizing water permeable hardscaping is another strategy to keep water in the landscape. Permeable pavers allow rainwater to drain through into the groundwater, rather than running off into sewer and stormwater drains. This article discusses the three different types of pavers: pervious, permeable, and porous. Earth911 further discusses different options.

Greywater recycling

Capturing and reusing water that drains from bathroom showers, tubs, sinks, and washing machines is known as greywater. This water can be used in the landscape. Learn more about how grey water recycling works here.

Other outdoor water saving tips

  • Keep pools covered when not in use to decrease evaporation.
  • Wash your car at a commercial car wash, or at least wash your car on an unpaved surface so the excess water can be absorbed by the ground.
  • Sweep or blow walkways clean rather than hosing them down.
  • Keeping your yard weed free not only looks nice, but helps out your plants since weeds compete with them for water and nutrients.
  • Keep a bucket in your shower to collect water while waiting to heat up. This can be used to water potted plants or dry spots in the yard.
  • Plants in containers dry out more quickly than those in the ground. During a drought, you might want to reduce the number of container plants you grow. Also take into consideration what type of planters you purchase. For instance, glazed terra cotta pots don’t lose water through the sides of the pot as quickly as unglazed terra cotta.


There are a variety of measures you can implement to reduce water consumption in your landscape effectively. These practices, summarized below, not only decrease your water usage but also enhance the overall sustainability of your outdoor environment.

  • Make a plan.
  • Remember to address soil quality before planting.
  • Choose plants wisely, opting for native varieties and drought-tolerant species.
  • Replace exisiting lawn with an ecolawn or other less thirsty plants.
  • Mulch garden beds to retain moisture.
  • Employ efficient irrigation practices.
  • Modify your landscape to optimize use of rainwater.
Scroll to Top