5 Step Plan for a Low Water Yard
It seems like many of our clients are already very aware of our need to reduce water use in our landscapes, but for those of you yet to be convinced, here's some background information that might put this in context:
The water content of the Sierra Nevada snow pack is at its lowest level in nearly 20 years -- less than 40 percent of usual for this time of year, state water officials say. Southern California gets most of its water supply from the melting snow pack by way of the Colorado River. But the state water agency isn't expecting shortages this summer because the reservoirs are relatively full. If the next few years are equally as dry as the last few years, we could be looking forward to restrictions imposed upon our water usage.
The local chapter of the California Landscape Contractor's Association (CLCA, the professional body for landscapers in California) has been working with the local water authorities to create and implement a county wide certification program that aims to ensure that all irrigation systems installed in the landscape are as water efficient as possible.
The CLCA foresees a time when irrigation technicians will have to be certified in order to install or repair any irrigation system. At a recent chapter meeting, a representative from the water authority shared that up to 60% of water is used in the landscape, and that since the majority of the savings to be had inside the house have been covered, the authority are turning their attention to the outside.
Clearly, this is an imporant issue that is getting more and more attention every day. So, if you are a homeowner, you will want to know what specific steps you can take to reduce your own water consumption in your landscape.
Five Step Plan to Reduce Water from The Yard Fairy
1. Limit or get rid of grass.
When you are planning your yard take a long hard look at how much lawn area you really need. While grass looks pretty, it is very thirsty requiring about 1 gallon of water per square foot per week.
San Diego County seems to average lawn sizes of about 2,000-4,000 square feet, and at today's water prices they will typically cost $200 - $400 per year to irrigate. Studies done for the Arizona Department of Water Resources show that for most family activities 600 square feet, or about 20ft by 30ft, of lawn is plenty. By reducing the size of the lawn in this way, we can make a savings of nearly $140 -$280 per year on our water bill.
Not only are lawns thirsty, they require regular mowing and fertilizing to keep them looking good. It is estimated that 60% of the nitrogen applied to lawns as fertilizer is leached into the groundwater as nitrate, and for us in San Diego County that ends up in our ocean causing algae blooms and general pollution, in addition to being a health hazard. Lawn mowing not only depletes fossil fuels, but also emits pollutants and greenhouse gases.
According to the California Air Resources Board, the burning of the fuel needed to mow one lawn each year produces emissions equivalent to driving 350 miles. Annually, California lawn maintenance contributes pollutants equal to 3.5 million 1991 automobiles driven 16,000 miles each.
Now, do you really need a huge swath of green grass? You could replace it with mixed planter beds or low water ground cover.
2. Add more walkways or increase the size of your patio.
Only things that grow need water, so assuming your irrigation system is not unnecessarily watering your drive or walkways (see step 3), another step you can take is to increase the size of your hardscape. Many people put up with small patios that never feel quite comfortable for dining, conversation or just general relaxing. Often areas of the yard are inaccessible because there no walkways that lead there. Such 'hardscape' elements in a yard don't have to be concrete, indeed concrete will add to the cost of your AC bill in the heat of summer.
Look for water permiable surfaces such as decomposed granite, flagstone set on individual concrete pads, or pavers set on sand. While hardscape is relatively expensive, it forms the bones of your yard, and it's worth spending the time to plan and size it correctly.
3. Improve your Irrigation System.
Many irrigation systems are set up to water too frequently and for too long given the type of plants and soil present. Traditional spray systems are notorious for being badly adjusted so that they water areas that don't need it. The water is often blown off course by the wind, and evaporation is said to account for up to 30% to 50% of the water applied. Given these factors, you can improve the efficiency of your irrigation system by converting it to a modern drip system that delivers water directly to the soil at a much lower application rate.
You can also install a 'smart' irrigation controller that automatically adjusts the irrigation times based on the local weather conditions or evpotranspiration (ET) rate. These smart controllers have been found to provide significant savings: Santa Barbara, CA: Initial data from a trial of climate-based "smart" controllers in Santa Barbara County found that historically high water usage customers reduced their monthly water use by approximately 26% through the use of climate-based "smart" controllers, with some customers saving as much as 59%. - Santa Barbara County ET Controller Distribution and Installation Program, Final Report - June 30, 2003
4. Mulch your planter beds.
Mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil, primarily to modify the effects of the local climate. A wide variety of natural and synthetic materials are used, but our preferred suggestions are wood chip, bark or rocks. We recommend that you apply mulch to a depth of about 2". By doing this you not only reduce the evaporation of water from the soil by approximately 50%, but you also suppress weeds, and help improve the soil by adding organic matter.
5. Put water in its place.
A low water yard doesn't have to mean a no water yard. The addition of a pond or water feature can have a cooling effect in the landscape and the sound of running water is very soothing and can distract from annoying environmental sounds. If you would like to have plants that love to live in moist conditions, think about installing a bog garden - a planter area lined with pond liner to hold in the moisture.