Water Wise Landscape Design Introduction

It makes good sense to develop a comprehensive landscape plan. A carefully thought out plan will enables creation of a beautiful water-wise outdoor space that makes the most of existing landscape features.

In the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, (2001 Water Plow Press) Amy Vickers lists the following eight fundamental steps for designing and maintaining a water-efficient landscape:Landscape_design1

  • Group plants according to their water needs
  • Use native and low-water-use plants
  • Limit turf areas to those needed for practical purposes
  • Use efficient irrigation systems
  • Schedule irrigation wisely
  • Provide healthy soil
  • Mulch over soil and around plants to reduce evaporation
  • Regular maintenance


Creating A Water-Wise Landscape Plan

Do-it-yourself types can develop their own water-wise landscape plan. The guidelines below come primarily from the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation by Amy Vickers. The local library should have books and magazines that can give additional advice. There is also a wealth of information available on the web.

Start With What’s Already There

Start with a simple base map of the property lines. To measure a landscape, a 50 foot (15.2 m) or longer tape measure is required along with a helpful relative/friend. Measure from the property lines to the house (or other structure), as well as all the exterior walls. Other impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks, decks and driveways should also be measured. If there are existing trees, shrubs, etc. that are to be kept in the landscape, they should be measured to place them accurately in the plan. Once all the measurements have been recorded, transfer them to graph paper. Most designers prefer to work with plans drawn to a 1:10 or 1:8 scale. This means that every 10 (or 8)  feet (3.04 m or 2.43 m) of actual measure equals 1 inch on the plan. So if the property is 50 feet wide by 100 feet long (15.2 m by 30.5 m) and a 1:10 scale is used, the plan would be 5 inches by 10 inches (12.7 cm by 25.4 cm).

Once the property lines have been drawn on the graph paper, fill in the details, including the house outline, sidewalks, driveways, etc. Show direction on the plan by drawing an arrow indicating North. This will help in selection of plants appropriate for specific exposures. Some of the other things that should be included on the base plan are:

  • The location of spigots, downspouts and external electrical outlets.
  • Fences, walls and other structures
  • Existing lawn, garden, shrub masses and flower beds
  • Trees (both yours and your neighbors, if they shade part of your yard)
  • Slopes
  • Existing sprinkler system

Once the base plan is completed for the existing landscape, it’s time to consider uses for the new landscape.

List Your Landscaping Goals

What do you want from your new landscape? Some people might want reduced maintenance others might be looking to improve shading and pleasant outdoor areas. Here is a list of some things to think about before creating a new plan.

  • Maintenance – Am I trying to reduce the amount of time I spend working in the yard?
  • Water use – Do I want to reduce my outdoor water consumption? (We hope so!)
  • Play areas – Is my yard an important play area for children, dogs, and/or adults? Can I decrease the size of the play area?
  • Sun and shade – Does my yard have enough shade or too much shade?
  • Irrigation system – Do I plan to install an irrigation system? For an existing system, can I reconfigure the system for the new landscape?
  • Aesthetics – Do I want more flowers? Do I want more trees? Do I want a vegetable garden? Do I want to add a patio or moss rocks or semi-permanent outdoor furniture? Where do I want to spend time in the yard?
  • Climate and region – How can I create a landscape that takes full advantage of the climate and region in which I live.
  • Budget – How much money do I want to spend on my landscaping project?

Develop a Landscape Master Plan

Once you have evaluated your current landscape and given some thought to the goals of the landscaping project you are ready to develop a master plan. This plan should be as complete and detailed as possible. You may not complete the entire plan in a single year. It may take many years. By creating a master plan you can progressively work to achieve all of your landscape goals.

Your master plan should be a “map” of the finished landscape on your property. Even if you don’t know exactly what trees and plants you intend to use, you can include a place for planting beds and trees in your drawing.

Here are some design issues to consider when developing your master plan:

  • Turf areas – You can save water by limiting turf to only those functional areas needed for walking, sitting, playing, recreation, picnicking, etc. Nonfunctional areas can be covered with drought-tolerant grasses, Xeric planting beds, alternative groundcovers, or hardscapes.
  • Planting beds – Nonfunctional planting beds add beauty and shape to your landscape. This is a great opportunity to use native plants, trees, and shrubs.
  • Hardscapes – Hardscapes include walkways, patios, driveways, etc. Consider using flagstones, gravel or other porous materials to reduce water accumulation.
  • Landscaping shapes and forms – Irregular designs, narrow strips of turf or plants, and small areas can be difficult to mow and water efficiently with an automatic system. However, these forms may be irrigated more successfully with drip or manual techniques. Design your landscape forms to maximize water efficiency.
  • Grading and drainage – Your soil type and the slope will affect water infiltration and runoff rates. You can create rainwater detention areas by creating shallow basins in areas with plants that have high-volume water needs. In other areas, by reducing or eliminating slopes you can reduce runoff and preserve topsoil. It is difficult to water and mow grass that is planted on a steep slope. If you yard includes a steep sloped area you could consider terracing – a technique that has been practiced for hundreds of years in steep mountainous regions such as the Himalayas and the Andes.
  • Sun and shade – Keep track of areas in your yard that receive morning, noon, and afternoon sun (and shade). Some plants prefer sunny spots while others thrive in shade. You can plan your planting beds accordingly.
  • Water use zones – Divide your plant materials into three categories: low water use (fed primarily by rainwater), moderate water use (requires occasional watering), and high water use (requires regular watering). To reduce water use, minimize usage of high water use plants and turf in you landscape plan.
  • Maintenance issues – If you want to reduce required regular maintenance in your landscape select low maintenance plants. Fast growing turf grass requires regular mowing, fertilizing, and aeration. Low water use grasses, groundcovers, and plants will require substantially less maintenance.
  • Cost – Your budget may be the single biggest constraint on you landscape plan. Consider implementing the plan slowing to spread the cost over several years. Remember, a low water use landscape will save you money in the long run with reduced water, fertilizer, and maintenance costs.





Here are some resources to help you develop your landscape plans. Good luck!













Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, Amy Vickers, 2001, Water Plow Press, Amherst, MA

Xeriscape Plant Guide, 1999, AWWA, Denver, CO.

Xeriscape Handbook : A How-To Guide to Natural, Resource-Wise Gardening, Gayle Weinstein, 1999, AWWA, Denver, CO.

Waterwise Landscaping with Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Xeriscape Guide for the Rocky Mountain Region, California, and the Desert Southwest, James M Knopf (Editor), Maureen McIntyre (Illustrator), 1999, Charisma Books.

The Xeriscape Flower Gardener : A Waterwise Guide for the Rocky Mountain Region, Jim Knopf, 1991, Johnson Books.

Dry-Land Gardening : A Xeriscaping Guide for Dry-Summer, Cold-Winter Climates, Jennifer Bennett, 1998, Firefly Books.

Residential Landscape Architecture: Design Process for the Private Residence, Norman K. Booth and James E. Hiss, 1998, Prentice Hall.

Landscaping : Principles and Practices : The Residential Design Workbook, Ferrell Bridwell, 1997, Delmar Publishing.

Landscape Plants for Western Regions: An Illustrated Guide to Plants for Water Conservation, by Bob Perry, Land Design Publishing, 1992 (Out of Print – Only Available Used or Library Loan)

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