In many areas of the country, water use for irrigation exceeds indoor consumption, averaging more than 50% of total residential consumption in the U.S. So, while installing water-efficient fixtures inside a home is an important step toward water efficiency, addressing outside use should be at the top of your list, especially if your projects are in drought-prone locations.
But where outfitting a home with efficient bath fixtures is pretty straightforward, designing and installing water-efficient landscaping and irrigation can be complex. And while such a landscape need not be brown or austere, it should combine a mix of plantings and irrigation components that will minimize the amount of water needed to maintain an inviting environment.
Designing a landscape to conserve water—xeriscaping—requires choosing plants that will thrive in your region and your project’s particular microclimate; limiting the turf areas; making sure the soil on site will promote water absorption and deep root growth; and, if irrigation is installed, using an efficient system.
First, do no harm. Preserving soil quality is important for water efficiency. “For new construction, the first order of business is to maintain as much existing vegetation as possible,” says Robert Goo of the EPA’s Office of Water. “You don’t want to grade and clear the whole site; instead, cordon off and preserve areas that have value in terms of drainage and plants.” Also in the early stages, commit to losing some lawn. Some local and regional governments offer financial incentives to reduce the size of irrigated lawns, and in some places maximum allowable turf areas are regulated. The EPA’s WaterSense program for single-family homes recommends limiting turf area to a maximum of 40% of the site, balancing the rest of the landscaping with drought-resistant plantings and permeable surfaces.
WaterSense also recommends treating slopes in excess of 4:1 with vegetation that will help keep stormwater from running off the site, and covering exposed soil areas in planting beds with a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch.