How to Conserve Water Outdoors

The Landscape

In the arid West, most yearly household water is used on the landscape. Traditional landscapes are often comprised of plants from wetter parts of the country, because newcomers to the area brought with them their familiar flora. Though many types of turf grass, flowers, shrubs and trees not native to this area can be grown successfully, they almost always require large amounts of supplemental water.

A more water-efficient way to landscape is to install a xeriscape. A xeriscape is comprised of native or low-water plants (usually originating in other parts of the world with climates similar to our own). There is a myriad of species to choose from, and with proper planning, a colorful, stunning landscape is guaranteed.

Getting Started with Xeriscaping – the 7 Principles

Planning and Design

The most important step to xeriscaping is coming up with a good overall landscape plan that adheres to the seven principles described in the following sections. Many people do their own design, while others hire a professional designer. Professional designers often offer a full range of services, from full landscape design and installation to simply making suggestions on a design you have created yourself. It is important to carefully examine how you want to utilize areas of your landscape and create a design that reflects this in order to avoid later renovation.

Zoning of Plants

Group plants by their water needs. This creates microclimates for high, moderate, and low water use plants and allows you to irrigate more efficiently. Try to keep high water use areas (like turf) small and locate them in the most accessible areas for easier maintenance.

Plant Selection

Choose plants that are well-suited to this climate. Many xeriscape plants provide color well into the fall and keep their shape for winter interest in the landscape as well. The CSU Cooperative Extension supplies fact sheets with lists of xeric plant suggestions. Many have been tested by the university through their Plant Select Program to demonstrate extreme hardiness and vigor in our climate and will bear a Plant Select label in nurseries.

Turf Alternatives

Use turf sparingly, because it requires a lot of water. Consider alternative grasses like Buffalo Grass and fescues in your turf areas. Use pavers, flagstone, or decks in high traffic areas.

Soil Improvements

Rocky Mountain soils can be improved with the addition of organic matter. This increases the water holding capacity of the soil. Organic materials, such as compost, leaves, aged manure and grass clippings, also provide nutrients.


Apply a thick layer of organic mulch around plants. Mulch minimizes evaporation so that water stays in the soil. It also controls erosion and runoff and prevents weeds, which compete for available water. Many municipalities will offer free mulch to residents that is made from collected yardwaste.

Efficient Irrigation

A well-planned and maintained irrigation system will reduce the amount of water your landscape uses. Combined with appropriate design and zoning, irrigation can ensure that plants get only the water they need, as described in the next topic on appropriate maintenance.

Click on the image above for more information.

Appropriate Maintenance

Regular maintenance means watering based on plants’ needs as opposed to a regular schedule. Pruning, weeding, and fertilizing can also increase water savings and improve the beauty of your xeriscape.

Choosing a Landscape Contractor

Advice from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado

ALCC recommends the following guidelines to help you select a landscape contractor for a residential project. Homeowners should determine the following:

What services do you want?

  • Determine how the landscape will be used and project requirements such as design services, plant selection, construction, and maintenance.
  • Decide if you plan to care for areas of the landscape yourself.

Are they professional?

  • Make appointments to review prospective firms’ portfolios. Plan to ask a lot of questions such as:
    • How long has the firm been in business?
    • What’s the education background and work experience of the employees who will work on your project, and what kind of continuing education do they receive?
    • What certifications do workers hold?
    • What professional affiliations does the company hold?
    • Does the firm intend to use subcontractors?
    • How are the design fees structured?
    • What is the payment schedule?
  • Ask to see proof of insurance for liability and workers’ compensation. Be sure to ask about locally required licenses and permits; for example, a Colorado Nursery License, pesticide applicator’s license, or plumbing license may be required for certain projects.

Are they reputable?

  • Ask for customer references, and take the time to visit previous jobs of prospective contractors. Also visit a job in progress to see if the crew’s appearance and job presence are acceptable. Talk to past and present customers to answer questions such as:
  • Did the contractor display good work habits like returning calls promptly and keeping appointments?
  • Did the contractor honor the contract with the customer?
  • Was the contractor responsive to concerns expressed by the customer?
  • Did the contractor meet the customer’s expectations for technical competence?
  • Would the customer hire the firm again?

Will they put it in writing?

  • Ask the firm to provide a detailed written contract. Be sure the contract includes the scope of work to be performed (including the ongoing maintenance necessary to protect your investment), total costs, method of payment, guarantees, and mediation or arbitration clauses for resolving any dispute that might arise.
  • Review the contract carefully before signing .

Efficient irrigation

A well-planned and maintained irrigation system will reduce the amount of water your landscape uses. Combined with appropriate design and zoning, efficient irrigation can ensure that plants get only the water they need.

Drip irrigation (information to come)

Sprinkler irrigation

Often, the best method for watering turf is a traditional underground sprinkler system. Though a special type of drip system can be installed underneath turf, it can be quite difficult and costly to install it underneath already established turf. If utilizing a sprinkler system with either sprays or rotaries, the following guidelines will ensure you are running them as efficiently as possible.

  • Adjust pressure to conform to optimum standards by installing pressure regulators at the point of connection, valve box, or at each sprinkler head. High pressure causes misting and evaporation, and can cause heads to break. The proper pressure for fixed heads is between 20 and 30 PSI; proper pressure for rotor heads is between 50 and 70 PSI
  • Align sprinkler heads in such a way that the end of the spray of one head reaches the next head. This head-to-head pattern creates “double coverage,” increasing efficiency and ensuring a more consistently green turf.
  • Space heads evenly to apply water efficiently. For example, heads that spray an 8-foot radius should be spaced 8 feet apart. Uneven spacing lowers the efficiency and doesn’t allow for the double coverage mentioned above.
  • Check fixed heads for correct spray pattern. Spray patterns should match physical characteristics of site, such that patterns do not spray concrete, asphalt, fences, or buildings.
  • Match precipitation rates of each rotor head within a zone to avoid over- or under-watering. Quarter-turn heads should emit half the amount of water as half-circle heads. Likewise, a full-circle head should emit double the amount of water as a half-circle head. For example, if the corner heads in a square area deliver 2 gallons of water per minute, the heads along the edges of the square should deliver 4 gallons of water per minute, and the full head in the center should deliver 8 gallons of water per minute. If all heads are delivering the same volume of water, the center area won’t get enough water, while the corners will get too much.
  • Replace irrigation heads within a zone so that all heads are of the same type (i.e., fixed, rotor, or drip-type).
  • Repair or replace sunken, tilted, broken, or clogged heads to improve the distribution uniformity. Such problems are relatively easy to fix and greatly improve the efficiency of a zone when repaired.
  • Adjust heads to avoid watering concrete, asphalt, fences, and buildings to reduce waste.
  • Know how much water each zone of your system puts out and adjust your watering schedule accordingly. Check out our irrigation scheduling tip cards (link to tip cards )to find out how you can do this yourself.

A detailed look at your irrigation system through a professional inspection will give you an even better idea of how efficient your system is.

To find a certified irrigation contractor, the Irrigation Association has a searchable database of their certified members. Be sure to research (link to how to choose a contractor on homeowners page) potential companies thoroughly.

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