Landscapes are a big gulp of water. And in the era of water meters, an overwatered lawn is dollar bills swirling down storm drains and cash evaporating from sprinkler heads.
Escalating water district bills, water meters, the constant threat of drought and environmental responsibility are all reasons to invest some time learning smart and simple strategies for conserving water used to maintain outdoor spaces.
Don Smith, water management coordinator for the city of Folsom, said landscapes account for the largest demand on our water supplies, up to 70 percent of water use during the peak irrigation season. Other cities and water districts in the Sacramento area, where the norm is hot summer temperatures and a long growing season, estimate landscapes demand 50 percent to 70 percent of a household's water use.
"The percentage is high in the hot, Central Valley, especially with so much turf, " Smith said. "Turf is the thirstiest. Half the water used is wasted, and that's a conservative estimate. We find people who water every day."
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Fortunately, fundamental practices such as converting to drip irrigation, savvy plant selection, mulches, smart design and less or no lawn will conserve water and reduce water bills without the need to make your yard look like "moonscapes" in Las Vegas or Phoenix.
"A water-efficient landscape doesn't mean cactus and rocks, " said Sacramento landscape designer Roberta Walker. "People think the lush English garden represents romance, but smart design can give them both the look and water savings. If you want bougainvillea, hibiscus and a lot of tropical plants in our growing zone, it's going to be challenging. I say let's live and plant for where we live. We don't have rainfall year-around. Why put in a garden suitable for another growing zone?"
Walker specializes in water-efficient landscapes. Her work has been featured in "Sunset" magazine three times and she has appeared on national TV. Walker says people were taking "baby steps" toward water-efficient landscapes 15 years ago, but that has changed.
"I no longer have to convince people, they come to me already convinced, " she said. "They want to save some money and often they've gone on water meters. One man in Elk Grove had a $400 a month water bill. When the economy crashed, my business boomed. Clients started asking, 'How can we be more water-efficient, save more money?' "
Popular landscape plants that require little water, once established, include salvias, penstemons, succulents, ornamental grasses, ground-cover junipers, sedums and ceanothus. Nurseries, responding to customer demand for less-thirsty plants, and area spring and fall plant sales now make many varieties available.
Lawns can be removed, reduced in size or swapped out for newer, alternative turf choices that require much less water.
Chuck Ingels, horticulture adviser for Sacramento County's UC Cooperative Extension, conducted a "Turf Demonstration Project" from 2010-2012 in an effort to study water-efficient, low-maintenance alternatives to traditional lawns. A couple showed promise, but both also had downsides.
"If less water and maintenance are the main issue, I would recommend 'UC Verde' buffalograss, " Ingels said. "But people have to be able to deal with the winter dormancy (brown color). The stakes aren't yet high enough for most people to put up brown lawns in winter in exchange for reduced water and maintenance. Another year or two of drought would provide those stakes."
Ingels said dune sedge (Carex pansa "Asilomar") also fared well. He added that it is slow to fill in, which may discourage some from planting. Information on the "Turf Demonstration Project" can be accessed at http://ucanr.org/turfproject.
Delta Bluegrass Company in Stockton sells native grass blends (in sod form) it claims, "Once established, require approximately 50 percent less water compared to traditional sod varieties." One blend, the Native Mow Free, is a slow-grower that can be left unmowed in certain areas.
Converting landscape areas planted with shrubs, perennials, ground covers, containers and trees from spray sprinkler heads to drip irrigation is an efficient strategy to put water where it is needed (the root zone) and apply it slowly to discourage runoff. Thirty percent of sprinkler water used for landscapes is wasted because of evaporation and runoff, according to the Regional Water Authority.
Conserving water is a big deal in California, where the state Legislature passed several water laws in 2009 (Water Conservation Act), including one for urban water conservation known as the "20x2020." Basically, it calls for a 10 percent per capita reduction in water use by 2016 and a 20 percent reduction by 2020.
To comply with the law and blaze a more environmentally conscious trail, urban water agencies have launched educational programs for both professionals and the public. Smith conducts home water audits in Folsom where he advises people how and where they can reduce water usage. Often it's a matter of teaching people how to program their irrigation controller box. Many controllers, he said, were initially set by contractors when homes were built and have never been reprogrammed.
"The cost of water is going up, " said Smith. "I'm a customer, too, so I can see both sides of it. We see the early adapters. And then there are those who are hostile and don't want to be told anything. The largest group wants to learn how to lower their water bills and they're sensitive to environmental issues."
The nonprofit EcoLandscape California promotes "ecologically sustainable landscaping, " by training professionals and educating the public. Water conservation is one of its major concerns. Sacramento-area landscape designer Cheryl Buckwalter is executive director of EcoLandscape California.
"People want their landscapes to be beautiful, " said Buckwalter. "They want 'the look, ' but now, with water rates going up, they also want it to be really easy care and trouble-free."
Buckwalter said the biggest eye-opener is when people realize their landscape plants are happy with less water. Plus, birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators are drawn to a modern, water-efficient landscape, she added.
Happy plants during periods of 100-degree days are surrounded by mulch. Mulch is a necessity in hot, dry climates, yet Buckwalter said it is absent in too many landscapes in the Sacramento region.
"Mulch is invaluable, " Buckwalter said.
Mulches often are confused with compost. A mulch, like bark, wood chips or straw, is placed on top the soil. It acts as a porous blanket, helping soil retain moisture and reducing weeds. Compost also can be used as a mulch, but its cost (when purchased in bags) often makes it more affordable and valuable when worked into the soil as an amendment.
Sacramento landscape designer Candace Schuncke also is a strong advocate of mulches, even recommending fallen leaves as free, organic mulch.
"Maintain at least three inches of mulch in planting beds to hold moisture, prevent evaporation and to keep plant roots more productive, " Schuncke said. "Plants will simply grow better."
Buckwalter added, "Mulches can be inexpensive, even free if you can get tree-trimmers to leave you a pile of wood chips."
Winter is prime time to plan a water-efficient landscape. Homework done now makes the transition easier and also can save you considerable money by avoiding costly mistakes.
"People can have a beautiful, water-efficient landscape that supports and protects the environment, " Buckwalter said. "It will increase the value of their home. Without a lawn, you'll see more butterflies and birds.
"People in the neighborhood will stop and comment, 'I can't believe how much more beautiful your yard looks!' "
Water-thrifty lawn alternatives
Sacramento landscape designer Candace Schuncke recommends the following plants as lawn alternatives. She advises using three to five plant types in masses for seasonal interest and to complement each other. Keep in mind, there are many more good choices.
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Spreads to 15 feet, California native.
Carex "Prairie Fire" (Carex testacea). Orange foliage, grass-like.
"Red Buckwheat" (Eriogonum grande var. rubesceums). Compact 1x3-foot clumps, long bloomer. California native.
Ceanothus "Diamond Heights" (Ceanothus griseus horizontalis). Foot tall, 4-6 feet wide, variegated foliage, California native.
Gazania hybrids, trailing types. Good for slopes, long-lasting, colorful blooms.
California fuchsia "Everett's Choice" (Epilobium canum). Summer-to-fall bloomer. Attracts hummingbirds. California native.
Juniper "Icee Blue" (Juniperus horizontalis). 4-inches tall, can spread 8 feet.
Juniper "Green Mound" (Juniperus procumbens). 6-inches tall, can spread 6 feet.
Myoporum "Pink" (Myoporum pavifolium). Long bloomer, 3-6 inches tall, 9-foot spread.
Myoporum "Putah Creek" (Myoporum pavifolium). Foot tall, 8-feet wide. Fast grower.
Sedum "Dragon's Blood" (Sedum spurium). 4-inches tall, 4-feet wide, maroon color!
Sedum (Sedum angelicum). 4-inches tall, plant 6-8 feet apart.
Sedum "Ogon" (Sedum makinoi). 2-inches tall, 8-10 foot spread. Variegated, yellow-gold foliage.
Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus). 2-4 inches tall, 3-feet wide.
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum). 3-inches tall, 3-feet wide.
Click for water-saving info
The following sites offer information on ways to conserve water.
Regional Water Authority (click on Be Water Smart Information): http://www.rwah2o.org/rwa/
EcoLandscape California: www.ecolandscape.org
Sacramento County Co-Operative Extension "Turf Demonstration Project" (alternatives to traditional turf): http://ucanr.org/turfproject
UC Cooperative Extension, Sacramento County (click on Water-Efficient Plants): http://ucanr.edu/sacmg
UC Davis Arboretum: http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/
Tips to avoid water bill blues
Off we go
Plants and lawns require little to no extra water in winter. Turn the automated system off at the controller. Often it's marked in red as "System Off" and is next to "System On." Should we have a few weeks without rain, turn it back on and irrigate, but don't forget to shut it off again!
Lawn runoff is expensive
Runoff costs money and pollutes because of chemical products used on lawns. If water is flowing across sidewalks and into gutters, it's not soaking into lawns. Runoff can occur after only 3 minutes of sprinkler time. If it takes 3 minutes, reset the station run time to 3 minutes, but add one or two more watering cycles an hour or so apart.
Gushers, leaks and sprinkler-head blockage often go undetected because systems run late at night or early morning. Manually turn on systems for monthly inspections during daylight hours.
When in doubt
Not sure if plants need water? The old-school technique is to push a finger into the soil and test. However, moisture meters will keep your nails clean. They can be purchased for as little as $10 or go high-tech and spend more than $500.
How often should you water traditional lawns? Every three days is the standard for summer. Aerating a compacted lawn helps water penetrate to roots. Also, check out the newer rotary or rotator nozzles that produce less spray mist and therefore less evaporation than standard spray-head sprinkler types.
Mulch is a good thing
Spread mulch around plants to help retain soil moisture, control weeds and add organic matter and nutrients. Mulch reduces maintenance and water use. Common mulch materials include bark, wood chips, straw (around vegetables), lawn clippings, leaves and pine needles.
H2O plant planning
Arrange plants with similar water and sunlight needs in zones or areas of your garden. Set watering times on the controller for each station accordingly.
The right stuff
In no-lawn areas, drip systems are much more efficient than sprinklers at delivering water slowly to root systems. Seriously consider installing or converting to drip irrigation.
Make seasonal adjustments. Learn all the functions of your irrigation system controller. Yes, some are more complicated than others. If you need help, attend a workshop or schedule a home water audit from your water district.
Visit the many water-efficient landscape gardens in the Sacramento area. The UC Davis Arboretum, Fair Oaks Horticulture Center and California Native Plant Demonstration Garden are excellent learning sites. Several water districts, including the Sacramento Suburban Water District, maintain gardens. Check with your district.
Go online or attend workshops and seminars (most are free) conducted by water districts, municipalities and county co-operative extensions (UC Master Gardeners). The more you know, the more you save!
Dan Vierria is a University of California Lifetime Master Gardener and retired garden writer for The Sacramento Bee.