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Water-Wise Gardening

Water Wise planting is a systematic approach to water conservation in the semi-arid Rocky Mountain West that promotes creative landscaping while using 30% to 50% less water.  


The following are the seven basic principles  that will take you from the important first step of planning to the final implementation.

Site analysis
Which areas will dry first? Study the direction of the prevailing winds. What exposure to sunlight will each area receive? Look at where water will collect or run off on slopes and swales.  

Soil Improvement.
Proper soil preparation is critical. Almost all soils in the Rocky Mountain region need more organic matter. Rototilling should be done to break up compacted soils & to incorporate lots of organic matter. This serves two purposes: to incorporate air space in the soil and to allow for better water absorption & holding capacity.

Turf Areas
Limit turf areas. Consider different types of grass. Consider alternatives to turf, such as ground covers, alternative grasses and hardscape features. Separate turf areas from other plantings when setting the zones of a sprinkler system to increase water efficiency.

Mulches cover the soil and modify the extremes of soil temperature and serve to unify the landscape design. Mulches minimize evaporation, reduce weed growth and slow erosion. Organic mulches, like wood chips or bark, can be incorporated into the soil. Non-organic mulches, rocks and gravel are another choice. Some dry land plants actually prefer gravel mulches. 

Low water use plant and zoning of plants
Choose low water use plants and group them according to their water requirements. Take advantage of any micro climates, water drainage areas or existing water in the landscape that were identified during your site analysis and site plants accordingly. Consolidate any higher water use plantings in the most accessible and maintainable section of the landscape. Use plant zones to create garden rooms. Be sure to plan for the mature size of the plant and match plant placement to its cultural requirements.

Efficient irrigationWeather Trak
A well planned irrigation system can reduce water consumption in turf areas up to 40%. Plan turf areas separate from other plantings. Sprinklers can be used for turf areas and all other areas - ground covers, trees, shrubs, flowers can be most efficiently watered with low volume drip, bubble or aerosol emitters. Timers are helpful in regulating when water is applied.  

Read how ET Controllers can save water


All landscaping requires a certain amount of maintenance. The amount of time and money spent on maintenance can be significantly reduced through low water use landscaping without sacrificing beauty or function.

Lawn Maintenance
How do you tell if your lawn is dry? When you walk on the grass and your footprints are readily visible, your lawn is drying out. Another sign your lawn is dry is when major portions of the lawn take on a bluish-gray color. 

Core aeration relieves soil compaction and allows water, air, and fertilizer to penetrate the soil surface. Less water will run off during irrigation. Core aerate once in the spring and again in the fall during cooler periods. The ground should not be dry when you aerate.

Set your mower to a higher level (2 1/2 - 3"). Mow when the grass is about 1" longer than cutting height. Use a mulching mower to recycle moisture and nutrients back into the lawn.

If you have brown spots in the lawn, check the soil in that area for dryness. Don't assume all brown spots are due to lack of water. There could be disease or other factors. Brown spots that are dry from may occur in areas that receive additional sun or wind. They may occur where sprinkler systems miss or apply less water. Hand water brown spots in the lawn instead of increasing the frequency of water on all the turf. Learn to tolerate a less than perfect lawn. 

Fertilize in the spring and fall. If you apply a slow-release fertilizer in the spring, you won't need to fertilize in the heat of the summer.  

Flower and Vegetable Garden Maintenance
Improve your soil. Prepare your beds by adding 1" of Premier sphagnum peat moss or Nature's Yield compost and rototilling or spading it into the soil.

There are many flowers that use less water. Group them together keeping in mind plant heights, colors, and sunlight requirements.

Space plants appropriately. Allow room for the plants to grow and so each plant will have adequate water available in the hot days of summer.

Remove weeds when small, they are water thieves.

Apply mulch. Mini Nuggets Bark Mulch will reduce evaporation, retain moisture, and control weeds.  It has the advantage of being able to be mixed into the soil at the end of the season and amends the soil for the following season.

Newly planted flowers and vegetable plants require that you check them daily for water needs. All of their roots are in the soil they came with and it takes a couple weeks for them to get fully rooted into the garden soil. As the roots move out, they require less frequent watering. You can speed this process by loosening some of the roots from the soil ball as you plant. Water with Ferti-lome Root Stimulator after you plant.

Add Soil Moist crystals to patio pots and hanging baskets so they will hold and then release more water.

Drip irrigation is more efficient than overhead spraying especially in perennial flower and vegetable areas.

Tree and Shrub Maintenance
Mulch around trees and shrubs. (This inhibits weed growth, soil compaction, and water competition while improving soil.)

Tree roots can extend out to over 3 times the height of the tree. Soaking the ground next to the tree trunk is a waste of water. General landscape watering around the tree is best. They obtain water best when the water soaks deep into the soil near the feeder roots which can be far from the tree.  

Newly planted trees can be permanently damaged by lack of water. Apply a 3" layer of mulch at least 2 feet wide around the trunk. Keep the mulch 2" away from the trunk. Check the moisture level in the original root ball under the mulch. Don't let this soil to get too dry.

Watering Guidelines

The best time is in the early morning hours (Finish before 9 a.m.) Watering should also be adjusted for seasons and weather changes. Use a rain gauge. You can measure how much water you are applying and if you get more than 1/2" of rain, you can delay watering for at least a couple more days. On cooler stretches of days or in shady areas, you can water less frequently

Check the coverage of your sprinkler system. Watch for broken heads or broken lines. Clogged nozzles will result in uneven spray patterns. Fix sprinkler heads that have tipped sideways or have twisted away from the direction they were intended to cover.

Put a shutoff nozzle on the end of your hose so you don't waste water while moving across the garden. Adjust the nozzle to a coarse spray.

Click on this link to calculate your most efficient watering times based on your sprinkler system, type of plants, the days you are allowed to water, and time of year. 

More on Xeriscape from CSU Cooperative Extension

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