Skip to main content

Low-water use landscapes

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

My son Derek just moved to Monterey California to attend graduate school at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. California has been in a drought for a very long time, and so water conservation is a real concern there. In fact, most of our western states have water availability and use issues.

No matter where we live, we can all use water more efficiently. In the case of gardening, landscapes can use about 50 percent of our home water. Estimates show that gardeners use about twice as much water in their landscapes as is needed.

Several years ago I attended a program about xeriscaping, which is landscaping with drought-tolerant plants that conserve water. Here are seven principles to consider in water efficient landscaping.

First, plan and design. You could create an entirely new landscape, which is usually not feasible or desirable. Or, you can develop greater water efficiency in the existing landscape. Sometimes both approaches can be used as new sections are designed or older areas are remodeled.

Second, use turf alternatives. Consider converting lawn areas to groundcovers or hardscapes. Alternative grasses are available that use less water. Sometimes, though, we must simply accept that our cool-season grasses will go dormant and turn brown in the heat of summer.

Third, mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch is important for many reasons. It looks good. It keeps plant's roots cooler and reduces temperature fluctuations. Mulch can also reduce watering needs by as much as 50 percent.

Fourth, zone your plants. Separate your yard into water-use zones. Plants that survive well with only natural rainfall go into the low water use zone. A moderate water use zone includes plants that need some additional water during times of stress such as drought. High water use zones include plants selected for special needs or hobby interest that often need additional water.

Fifth, make soil improvements. The better and deeper the soil preparation and improvement, the greater a plant's ability to survive. Your best friend here is organic matter, added 1/3 by volume to the entire planting area. Other amendments should be done according to soil test results.

Sixth, use efficient irrigation. Irrigate each zone separately and only when needed. Use appropriate nozzles and only water the intended area, not your sidewalk and driveway.

Finally, use appropriate plant maintenance. This includes proper fertilization, pruning, and pest management. Know your plant material and put the right plant in the right place.

Help us save water for future generations by using it wisely in your yard and garden.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.