Conventional lawn and garden care contributes to pollution of our air and water and uses up non-renewable resources such as fuel and water. Many typical landscapes receive high inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, water and time, and require a lot of energy (human as well as gas-powered) to maintain.
With conservation landscaping, there is often less maintenance over the long term, while still presenting a “maintained” appearance. Conservation landscapes, like any new landscape, will require some upkeep, but these alternative measures are usually less costly and less harmful to the environment. Garden maintenance is reduced to only minimal seasonal cleanup and occasional weeding or plant management. The savings realized by using little or no chemicals, and less water and gas, can more than make up for initial costs of installing the landscaping. Redefining landscaping goals overall and gradually shifting to using native species provide even greater rewards in terms of environmental quality, landscape sustainability, improved aesthetics, cost savings, and bringing wildlife to the property.
See these simple tips for water-efficient landscaping for more ideas on lowering water use in your yard. For full details, visit: EPA WaterSense Landscaping Tips
Plan ahead for a water-smart landscape.
If you're designing a new landscape or rethinking your current one, the WaterSense Water Budget Tool (EPA WaterSense Water Budget Tool) can help you plan your landscape for water-efficiency and tell you if you have designed a landscape that will use an appropriate amount of water for your climate.
Use regionally appropriate, low water-using and native plants.
For more information on appropriate plant choice, visit these listings of native or regionally-appropriate plants: EPA WaterSense What to Plant
Once established, these plants require little water beyond normal rainfall. Also, because native plants are adapted to local soils and climatic conditions, they rarely require the addition of fertilizer and are more resistant to pests and diseases than are other species. Be careful when selecting exotic species, as some may be invasive, which may require more water and could displace native plants.
Recognize site conditions and plant appropriately.
Areas of the same site may vary significantly in soil type or exposure to sun and wind, as well as evaporation rates and moisture levels. Placing plants that prefer shade in open sun will affect their ability to thrive. Be mindful of a site's exposure to the elements and choose plants that will thrive in the site's conditions.
Group plants according to their water needs.
Grouping vegetation with similar watering needs into specific "hydrozones" reduces water use and protects the plants from both underwatering and overwatering by allowing you to water to each zone's specific needs. For example, turf areas and shrub areas should always be separated into different hydrozones because of their differing water needs.
Place turfgrass strategically.
In traditional landscapes, turfgrass receives the highest percentage of irrigation water. This is because the most commonly used varieties of turfgrass require more water than many other plants in the landscape and homeowners tend to overwater turfgrass. As a result, landscapes with large expanses of turfgrass generally use more water than those with a mixture of other plants. To reduce outdoor water use, consider planting turfgrass only where it has a practical function, such as a play area. Choose turfgrass types that don't use a lot of water, such as low water-using or native grasses and those that can withstand drought.
For more information on turfgrass and water use, see EPA's Research Report on Turfgrass Allowance (PDF) (12 pp, 104 K)
Minimize steep slopes.
Slopes can be challenging because of the potential for erosion and runoff. If slopes cannot be avoided in your landscape design, install plantings with deeper root zones such as native ground covers and shrubs to provide stabilization and prevent erosion.
Aerate your soil.
Soil can become compacted during home construction or from normal foot traffic. Aerating your soil with a simple lawn aerator can increase the infiltration of water into the ground, improving water flow to the plant's root zone and reducing water runoff.
Use mulch around shrubs and garden plants.
This will help to reduce evaporation, inhibit weed growth, moderate soil temperature, and prevent erosion. Types of mulches include bark chips, grass clippings, straw, leaves, stones, and brick chips. Leave a few inches of space between trunks of woody plants and organic mulches to prevent rot.
Leave the grass clippings on your lawn after you mow. The clippings quickly decompose and release valuable nutrients back into the soil to feed the grass, reducing the need for nitrogen.
Keep your soil healthy!
Healthy soils effectively cycle nutrients, minimize runoff, retain water, and absorb excess nutrients, sediments and pollutants. Have your soil tested for nutrient content, pH, soil composition, and organic matter content. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Office EXIT or state universities for a soil test kit or soil testing services. Very sandy soil, heavy clay, compacted soil, or extreme soil pH may impact which plants are right for your yard. In these cases, seek advice from a nursery, horticulturist, Cooperative Extension, or other expert.
Raise your lawn mower cutting height.
Raise your lawn mower blade, especially in the summer, when mowing too close to the ground will promote thirsty new growth. Longer grass promotes deeper root growth and a more drought resistant lawn. Longer grass blades also help shade each other, reducing evaporation, and minimizing weed growth. The optimal turfgrass height is the tallest allowable height within the recommended mowing range for the turf species grown.
Provide regular maintenance.
Replace mulch around shrubs and garden plants, and remove weeds and thatch as necessary.
Minimize or eliminate fertilizer.
Fertilizer encourages thirsty new growth, causing your landscape to require additional water. Minimize or eliminate the use of fertilizer where possible. If you do need fertilizer, look for a product that contains "natural organic" or "slow-release" ingredients. These fertilizers feed plants slowly and evenly, helping to create healthier plants with strong root systems and no excessive "top growth". Moreover, using "slow-release" fertilizers can reduce nutrient run-off into ground and surface waters, protecting natural resources.
Sources: EPA Water Sense, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping - Chesapeake Bay Watershed