How to create a drought tolerant yard and replace your water consuming lawn

Placeholder while loading article actions

With many municipalities and states considering or enacting strict limits on residential grass, you may have considered ditching your home’s grass. Xeriscaping – or designing a landscape that needs little irrigation to survive – is no longer a radical idea, even if you don’t live in an area where lawns are restricted. Traditional lawn grasses are thirsty. Because of their shallow roots, they need 20 to 60 percent more water than other plants in your garden to appear lush and green, says Haven Kiers, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California. at Davies. The shallower the roots, the faster the grass dries out and the more water it needs, which is not ideal when parts of the country are facing unprecedented drought.

At least 50% of water in the western United States is used for landscape irrigation, says Lindsay Rogers, water policy analyst at Western Resource Defenders. “When you replace your lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping, you save about 40 percent on outdoor water use,” she says. “Not only is this important for water safety, but you save significantly on your water bills.”

Converting your lawn doesn’t mean having five spindly plants growing through a pile of rocks, or a sea of ​​cacti and gravel. Native plants generally require less water because they have naturally evolved and adapted to the environment. “You can have a drought-tolerant garden — emphasizing the word ‘garden’ — that’s both beautiful and durable,” says Kiers.

Here are some steps to transform your yard (or parts of it) into a more drought-friendly, yet still inviting space.

Take advantage of free and inexpensive help. Landscaping doesn’t come cheap. Contact your county extension office for advice on renovating your garden and for a list of plants suitable for your area, says Allison Colwell of Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture at Phoenix. Or see if any nearby colleges have a landscape architecture program. Kiers says students looking for experience often take on projects for a reasonable fee.

The rise – and beauty – of the native plant

Use online resources. Guides to converting your lawn to native plants are available on the American Society of Landscape Architects website, asla.orgincluding “Sustainable Residential Design: Improving Water Management” and “Sustainable Residential Design: Applying Green Design.” Brandy Hall, landscape designer and founder of Permaculture shades of green in Atlanta, offers a free online webinar titled “Introduction to Climate Action Landscaping.”

Ask about discounts. Cities, counties, states, and water districts in your area may offer rebates for replacing your lawn with native plants or financial assistance for irrigation upgrades. Discounts can often be combined for additional savings.

Map your space. Sketch out your garden, including a rough estimate of its length and width. Use circles to mark existing trees and shrubs and note any paths or permanent features. Also determine if the soil is clay or sandy; when you wet it, the clay will roll into a ball and the sand will break. Note which areas are sunny or shady, and where it is wet, damp or dry.

Once you have a plan, you can make copies and sketch out different designs and plants. Kiers says you should also take photos of your garden and take them to your local garden center or home improvement store to help sellers visualize your space and make suggestions. “It’s important to research the size of the plants,” says Colwell. “If you learn that a plant is going to grow to five feet, you want to place it in a space that allows for full growth, so you never have to prune it.”

Decide what you want. Choose plants that can handle the conditions in your location. “We get 55 inches of rain a year in Atlanta. Drought may not be a problem, but flooding is, and 80-90% of the water that falls on a mowed lawn runs off instead of soaking into the ground,” says Hall. “Then we are dealing with hot and dry summers, so we still have to irrigate. I look for plants that can handle 30 to 70 inches of rain per year and can handle hot, dry conditions.

Kill and remove the grass. There are several ways to do this. One is to shut off the water and solarize the lawn by covering it with black plastic. The trapped heat will fry the weed and you can grow it in the ground. It usually takes about two months. Another option is to cover the area with pieces of cardboard, then cover it with a few inches of mulch. As the cardboard degrades, it kills the grass and you can replace it with new plants. Or you can dig up the grass, removing the top one to two inches of soil, including the roots. This technique is the most laborious, but also the fastest.

Cover your ground. There are alternatives to the traditional water-hogging lawn. One is “no-mow” (sometimes called no-mow) grass. It is usually a mix of low growing grasses – most are a mix of fescues – which require little grooming, use less water and can be maintained like a sod lawn or left unmowed for an appearance. of meadow. You can also mulch heavily and establish a living ground cover using plants such as white clover, creeping thyme, creeping germander or bugleweed, which fill the niches and retain moisture, Kiers says.

How to have a lush garden without using too much water

Assess irrigation. In dry climates, a drought-resistant yard still needs water-efficient irrigation, Hall says. This could mean installing a low-pressure drip system, which delivers water to the root zone; convert your existing sprinklers to drip; or retrofit pop-up spray heads with water-efficient hardware, like an MP Rotator, that disperses larger water droplets that fall to the ground instead of evaporating. In humid climates, if you use native plants, you may not need irrigation once the plants are established.

Consider hiring a pro. Those who are uncomfortable with do-it-yourself gardening or have a bigger budget may want to consult with a landscape architect. To save time and avoid misunderstandings, prepare before your meeting. Take pictures of plants and landscaping that you like. (Make sure it’s a viable choice in your area.) Hiring a company to do a complete landscape overhaul can be expensive. Costs vary depending on area, density, existing plants and soil preparation. For example, in the Hall area, ¼ acre starts at around $30,000, including design, vegetation and labor, she says. Depending on how much equity you want to invest, a DIY conversion for the same space would cost around $10,000 to $16,000, Kiers says.

Be prepared for the interview. Xeriscaping does not mean zero healing. Even drought-tolerant plants need water and weeds should always be pulled. Yes, you’ll spend less time mowing, but expect to cut native grasses, perennials, and shrubs every one to two years.

Proceed step by step. You don’t have to do it all at once. “Are there places like a walkway where a border of native shrubs would work? If so, remove the grass and replace it,” says Kiers. “Then next year, do a another piece of lawn. A pop-up garden is expensive, but landscapes get better – fluffier, bigger and greener – over time.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategy. Find it on


Comments are closed.