When Diane Downey first moved to California from her home in England, she was thrilled by the many ways in which she could indulge her passion for gardening. “I was amazed by all the beautiful plants I could grow,” says Downey. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

But she soon saw those plants in a new light. “I realized that just because I could grow them, doesn’t mean I should. The area we live in is naturally a desert. The water supply is tenuous and there are so many issues surrounding it. It made me aware that we need to do everything we can to use water as sensibly as possible.”

Downey started The Yard Fairy, an award-winning landscape design, installation and maintenance company based in San Diego. She made water conservation a top priority.

She’s not alone. A growing number of green industry professionals are following their own ethics and consumer demand by focusing on water efficiency in the landscape.

Becoming a waterwise landscape or irrigation professional isn’t just good for the environment; it can be great for business. Today’s conservation-oriented homeowners are paying attention to their environmental impact. Consumers are also feeling the pinch of rising water bills, even in places with abundant supplies.

Companies everywhere are responding. For example, KB Home, a major national builder, recently announced plans to participate in the EPA WaterSense home labeling program. WaterSense-labeled homes are inspected and certified to use 20 percent less water than typical new homes. Water-efficient landscapes and irrigation systems feature big in the EPA WaterSense criteria.

“Based on a survey process, we understand that homebuyers are looking for environmentally friendly homes that reduce their carbon footprint and offer substantial savings in the cost to operate the home over the long term,” says Craig LeMessurier, director of corporate communications at KB Home.

The more hardscape you have, the less you have to water but don't overdo it...put in plenty of plants because they can reduce the heat-island effect"

If you haven’t felt the water conservation trend in your area yet, you will. Contractors who are proficient in waterwise landscaping and irrigation have an edge in this green-oriented market.

Designing for efficiency

As Downey points out, there’s no one silver bullet for building a water-efficient landscape. It takes a series of steps, technologies and even new attitudes to create outdoor spaces that offer breathtaking beauty without gulping water.

The initial landscape design is one of the most important factors. “If the designer is basing decisions purely on aesthetics and doesn’t have a clue about the water needs of plants, you can run into problems,” says Gregg Catanese, G. Catanese Landscape Services, Saratoga, California.

Instead of choosing plants first and building an irrigation system to support them, the landscape and irrigation system should be designed in tandem. At the most basic level, this means grouping plants with similar moisture requirements together, enabling turf areas to be watered separately from planting beds, and integrating drip irrigation where feasible.

“The biggest thing is thinking as far ahead of the project as possible about the resources you’ll use,” says Lorin Unterberger, president of Waterwise Land and Waterscapes, Fort Collins, Colorado. He and other water-conscious designers reserve the highest water-use plants for areas near the house where people can most enjoy them.

“We ask clients where they’re going to spend their time,” says Unterberger. “We might include courtyard areas that will be more heavily watered and design the rest of the yard for curb appeal. These areas will still be attractive but they won’t use as much water as the areas where people will be dining or entertaining.”

He says it’s not about shoving environmentalism down the client’s throat but about making wise decisions. “We’re not asking people to be ascetics or something. We want to create the experience they’re looking for without wasting water.”

Suitable plants

Choosing an appropriate plant palette is essential, says Downey. In her area, that might mean opting for all California natives or bending the rules and going for other Mediterranean-climate plants. For her, widespread use of tropical or rain-forest type plants just doesn’t make sense.

Appealing Gardens Landscape, Dallas, Texas, is a sustainabilityfocused landscape design and installation firm that relies heavily on native plantings. Natives generally use less water because they’ve adapted over many years to the rainfall patterns of a particular geography.

“Choosing the plant is the biggest part of it,” says Keith Pulliam, owner. “I try to use plants that are actually indigenous to the Texas Blackland Prairie.”

Pulliam says he used to take a more traditional approach. “I’d buy plants at the local nursery and design and build what customers wanted. What they wanted was what their neighbors had. Now I cater to my clients but I educate them as well.”

After installing some native landscapes for another designer, Pulliam decided sustainable landscaping was more in keeping with his own land ethic. In this era where green is the new gold, this change has been good for business. “It’s surprising; I tell people what I do and they say, ‘That’s just what I want.’” While some of his clients actively pursue drought-tolerant landscaping, others simply want a good looking yard. “With a sustainable landscape you can accomplish that and still save water,” says Pulliam.

Re-thinking lawns

While there’s still a place for that stretch of emerald green on many American properties, a growing number of homeowners are widening their definition of yard to include a combination of grass, hardscapes, paths, mulches, dry river beds, and low-water-use groundcover.

“We take out a lot more lawn than we put in,” says Downey. A landscape that integrates diverse materials uses less water and also adds visual interest and functionality. With good design, an inviting series of outdoor rooms and paths accented by plantings will often see more use than an endless expanse of green.

“Make sure your hardscape areas are sized appropriately for the number of people,” cautions Downey.

“The more hardscape you have, the less you have to water, but don’t overdo it. I like to put in plenty of plants because they can reduce the heat-island effect.”

Unterberger points out that in some cases property owners can actually conserve water by replacing lawn area with an efficient water feature. “Many of the landscapes out here (in Colorado) are very eastern, with a lot of bluegrass and big trees for shade. I try to get people to use a recycling water feature in place of a lot of that grass. In the same given space, a water feature will use 30 to 50 percent of the water it takes to irrigate bluegrass.”

He likes to replace the area around the water feature with a xeric landscape. Clients are open to this because they no longer need the cool, lushness of grass. That need has been satisfied with the water feature.

Talking dirt

Downey points out that proper soil preparation is also a must for a

water-efficient landscape. Soil with good structure absorbs and holds water more effectively.

“In our area, we have either heavy clay or sand,” says Downey. “The solution to both problems is to mix organic matter into the soil and mulch on top. Soils develop an oily surface after a time and don’t absorb water well. Mulch absorbs the moisture and then releases it into the soil.”

Making the most of technology

When landscapes do require supplemental watering, today’s smart irrigation tools can make a well-designed landscape even more efficient. Smart controllers, soil moisture sensors, drip irrigation and low precipitation sprinklers are just a few of the tools contractors can use to build water conscious landscapes.

Adding a rain sensor is one of the easiest ways to streamline a system. These economical devices simply interrupt the irrigation schedule when they detect adequate rainfall. While it may seem like a no-brainer, many systems don’t include them. The sight of a sprinkler watering the lawn on a rainy day makes neighbors (and responsible irrigation professionals) cringe.

“Some people in our area simply turn their systems off during the rainy season,” says Catanese. “But rain sensors are especially helpful when people are away from home during the transition times between seasons.”

He cautions that they only help if they’re placed in an appropriate location. “I’ve seen some pretty dumb installations. If they’re under an overhang or a tree, that’s not going to work.”

Smart controllers go further. These use external weather and other data to estimate the moisture available to plants. They then “decide” whether to water based on this information. Some gather data from onsite weather stations to determine evapo-transpiration rates; some use data gathered remotely from nearby weather stations; others rely on historical data. All are designed to reduce water consumption by basing irrigation on actual plant needs versus simple timing.

But as with other technology, smart controllers are only as smart as the people installing, using or maintaining them. Some require programming with site conditions and other data. “They won’t be smart if you don’t ‘teach’ them correctly,” says Catanese. “As they say, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’” Putting a smart controller on a problematic irrigation system won’t automatically make it more efficient. In fact, in some cases it can make it worse.

“I’ve seen too many people who think an ET controller makes them water conservationists,” says Peter Hingle, irrigation consultant and owner of Remote Pigtails, a Texas-based company offering pigtails for irrigation remotes. “It is really the last element to consider and sometimes increases the waste on an existing system. In a system with low head drainage problems, the multi-cycling of an ET controller can create a lot of runoff.”

Soil moisture sensors are becoming more widely available for use in landscape irrigation. These are designed to determine actual moisture levels in the soil and feed that information to the controller. They interrupt irrigation when moisture levels are adequate and allow watering when moisture levels are low.

While this technology is relatively new in residential and small commercial applications, its use is growing. “Soil sensors get to the whole issue of irrigation,” says Hingle. “What is the soil moisture and do I need to add water?” Thoughtful placement of moisture sensors is important. In properties where soil moisture content typically varies from one spot to another, multiple sensors are sometimes used. After installation, troubleshooting and follow up by a knowledgeable professional helps ensure the sensor is placed appropriately and is functioning as intended.

Improving the way water is delivered is another strategy. Drip systems can dramatically improve efficiency in planting beds and in some subsurface turf applications. High-efficiency nozzles are improving overhead watering as well.

“Lower precipitation nozzles are really proving themselves,” says Catanese. These products use less water than conventional spray heads and deliver water more evenly. Water is applied at a rate that plants and turf can absorb to reduce runoff. They are less affected by wind and can reduce water lost to misting.

Catanese points out that even minor improvements can make a big difference. “Using check valves to eliminate low-head drainage can save a substantial amount of water, especially on commercial sites. Pressure regulation is something that gets overlooked a lot. Heads need to be operating at the correct pressure to get the right-sized droplets or you lose water to misting.”

In addition to improved irrigation, some water conscious contractors are adding rainwater harvesting systems to their list of services. Some, like Downey, contour the yard to direct rainfall to trees and plants or add rain gardens to capture rainwater and keep it onsite.

Stay tuned up and tuned in

A poorly maintained system can quickly undermine conservation efforts. “Monitoring, maintenance and repairs are crucial for water conservation,” says Catanese. “A system could be well designed and installed, but if it’s not maintained and repaired properly it won’t save.”

Many smart controllers and other water-saving devices require extra monitoring and adjustment, especially early on. “The smarter a system gets, the more time you need to fine-tune it,” says Unterberger.

This means you and your employees need to stay educated on the latest advances in irrigation technology. Professional organizations, trade shows, training seminars, conferences and trade periodicals can all help. Businesses that take full advantage of training opportunities will continue to lead the way in creating sensible, sustainable landscapes.