Landscape Water Conservation – Part 1

I knew it! It happens every time! Just as I planned to write on water conservation and drought preparedness for our landscapes, we get much needed and welcome relief from the rain storms that passed through our area this week. I should have planned on writing about this topic months ago – maybe it would have rained sooner!

You’ve probably heard of the hydrological cycle – the fate of water as it falls as rain, goes into aquifers, creeks, rivers, lakes and the ocean, and evaporates back into the air, only to fall again to the earth. Horticulturists refer to another cycle – the “hydo-illogical cycle”. This is related to how our attitude concerning water conservation changes from apathy during rainy periods, to concern as a dry period develops, to anxiety, and then to panic when water restrictions are put into place due to extreme and prolonged drought conditions, only to cycle back to apathy once it begins raining again.

Recurring droughts and water shortages are a part of life for Texas, even East Texas where we normally think of our area as water-rich with an average rainfall of 44 inches per year. However, our rainfall pattern is it is not evenly distributed throughout the year. It only makes sense to prepare for drought conditions so our landscape plants don’t suffer unnecessarily from poor planning or irrigation practices. Earth-Kind landscaping includes water conservation as one its main objectives, and pulls together 7 principles to help you develop a water-efficient landscape.

These principles include: 1) planning your landscape with water conservation in mind; 2) using plants appropriate for our area and your soil type; 3) having practical turf areas; 4) improving the soil prior to planting; 5) employing efficient irrigation practices; 6) using mulches to cover bare soil; and 7) applying appropriate maintenance practices.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll discuss these items in a little more detail, so you can see how you can incorporate them into your yard and landscape. By applying these principles, you not only make your yard better prepared for drought, but you also help conserve this most precious resource – water!

Start With a Plan: Creating a water-efficient landscape begins with a well-thought-out landscape design. Sketch your yard with locations of existing structures, trees, shrubs and grass areas. Then consider the landscape budget, appearance, function, maintenance and water requirements. Implementing your landscape design can be done gradually over several years. This process can also be applied to existing yards.

Drawing a landscape design will 1) help you understand, organize, and develop the site for the best use and enjoyment; 2) create a visual relationship between the house and the site; 3) reduce the overall maintenance level; and 4) preserve and protect the environment.

A professional landscape designer or architect can greatly assist you in the design process. Help can be as simple as generating ideas for your site, to as detailed as a completed blueprint design and help with installation.

The steps involved in drawing up a plan begin with a base plan or scale drawing. This includes all the major features of the property, including the house, property lines, easements, existing walks, drives, fences, trees, etc. The base plan should show compass and prevailing wind directions. Once this plan is completed, you then place tracing paper over it and sketch many possible ideas and solutions to your landscape needs and problems.

Organize your thoughts by listing things needed to satisfy your requirements and life-style. Study your site to determine where shade and wind protection are needed; where privacy is desired; and which open views should be preserved. Areas for development may include a children’s play area, a work or service area, outdoor entertaining, and the area that the public will see and use. Realize any potential limitations of your site and plan accordingly.

When considering how to develop the site, don’t be guided by a stereotyped concept that landscaping should consist of introduced broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs, arranged in traditional or formal ways. Be sure to preserve, as much as possible, any existing vegetation, including trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses. These native plants are already adapted to the site conditions. Every effort should be made to incorporate them into the design.

Keep in mind that a landscape is not just a group of plants arranged in a certain way. Design is a problem-solving process. By applying known principles of design to parking, pedestrian circulation, and creation of privacy and outdoor living areas, an environment that is functional and attractive can be developed.

An existing site can be greatly improved through creative placement of attractive structures, such as shelters or gazebos; decks and paths of treated wood, brick, or decorative pavers; a strategically placed sculpture; or a small water feature.

One key in designing a site is to create or identify zones based on water needs. You might have one zone in which plants require no supplemental water once they are established. Another zone would be for watering occasionally only as needed during dry periods. And a third zone consisting of high-value plants and annual color that require regular watering to maintain their health and appearance. You can then plan your irrigation system accordingly, and not have to water the entire landscape to satisfy only a few plants with higher water requirements.

Texas AgriLife Extension horticulturists have created a web site that pulls together several publications and short videos – all with a view to drought preparedness. Visit and browse through the information at http://earthkind.tamu.edu/drought

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