Getting the lay of the land

cactusWhether you’re developing a new landscape, renovating an existing one or just looking for ways to conserve water in an urban environment, proper planning and design are essential to creating a landscape that is water-wise. Here are the steps:

Map it out

Identify permanent features

On a piece of graph paper, draw to approximate scale any permanent features of your property, including the location of:

  • Your house
  • Other buildings
  • Large rocks
  • Slopes
  • Existing trees or vegetation you plan to keep

southern view

Identify Characteristics
Tape tracing paper over your base plan and sketch different qualities and characteristics of your property, including:

  • Sun exposure
  • Existing shade
  • Direction of summer breezes
  • Slopes
  • Street noise
  • Soil types and any drainage problems that need to be corrected or considered
  • Rainwater that can be harvested, including where it falls or flows from your roof to the ground

Identify Use Areas

Tape on another piece of tracing paper and identify use areas. You’ll want to identify three different areas:

  • Public – Highly visible areas that receive the most care and water.
  • Private – Where the family plays the most (usually the backyard). It should be functional in design and receive less water than public areas.
  • Service – The least visible areas, requiring the least care and watering (sides of the house, garage, driveways).


Identify Wishes

Tape on another piece of tracing paper and identify areas you’d like to add:

  • Play area
  • Entertainment area
  • Wildlife area
  • Pool/spa area

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Shade is very cool

Shade cast by trees or structures can cool the landscape by as much as 20 degrees, reducing heat buildup and water evaporation from the soil. Shade also reduces heat buildup from hard surfaces, such as driveways, walks and walls.  Plan to shade these areas with trees and large shrubs, whenever possible. Trellises, arbors, walls or fences also can provide shade or scatter light.

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Zoom in on your watering zones.

The next step in planning your landscape is to identify the microclimates in your yard. Moisture, sun, shade, wind and heat – as well as the physical characteristics of your landscape – create different zones that require different amounts of water.

Once you have identified these microclimates, you can plant “with nature” by selecting plants that can survive and thrive within these zones without much watering. Ready? Tape another sheet of tracing paper over your base plan and sketch your water-use zones.

Very low water-use zones

Areas that offer the greatest potential for water savings:

  • Zones that don’t need any watering, such as driveways, decks, patios, rock gardens or pathways
  • Naturally wet zones, protected areas where exposure, shade and contour work together to inhibit evaporation. In these areas, irrigation is only necessary to establish new plantings

Low water-use zones

Somewhat exposed areas that need some watering:

  • Can take advantage of runoff from downspouts, patios and driveways for most of their water
  • Using low-volume irrigation systems and effective mulching over the soil and plant roots can often turn a moderate water-use zone into a low water-use zone

Moderate water-use zones

  • Sunlit areas with grass or plants that require more water
  • Keep these zones small and limited to only highly visible or functional areas, such as front entrances or recreational lawns

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Plant Selection

Right plant. Right place.

Once you’ve planned out your landscape, you can start picking the best plants for each of your zones. Tape another sheet of tracing paper over your base plan and add your plants, considering site characteristics, use areas, water-use zones and shade needs. There’s more information about water-wise plant selection later in this section.

Put like with like.

To reduce watering and maintenance, group plants with greater water needs together, and place them in a spot that is naturally moist, such as a low-lying area or at the bottom of a hill. Keeping plants with similar needs together allows you to provide just enough water to keep them healthy.

Low-water-use plants should be used:

  • In dry spots
  • In windy areas
  • In exposed areas
  • Against sunny south of west walls of buildings

Little plants are big winners.

Most people like the idea of super-sizing their shrubs from the nursery. But if you go smaller, you’ll save big – not only on nursery costs, but also on water bills. A less expensive one-gallon plant can quickly catch up to a five-gallon plant.

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Next Tip: Soil Improvements »