In life, big problems generally require big changes and change isn’t something our species tends to embrace easily. But life’s problems often generate an exciting array of solutions that take us in an entirely new direction, one that we end up liking much better than what we started with.

This is definitely the case with the problem of water usage in the landscape. In the face of water shortages, the tremendous use of water for lawn and landscape care has become a big problem. But the creative solutions this problem has generated are literally changing the way America does landscaping, and changing it for the better.

The water conservation issue has brought new styles and variety in landscape design along with new products that do amazing things with very little water. Many would say the pressure to conserve water is also bringing us healthier landscapes that offer more time to enjoy them and require less time to maintain them. Landscape professionals who know how to conserve water play a pivotal role in this transformation.

A Growing Awareness
The interest in water conservation in the landscape has increased significantly in recent years in part due to government involvement. “You’re seeing more and more mandates and or incentive programs to conserve water,” says Dean Parrish, product manager for Agrifim Irrigation based in Fresno, California.

“Landscape ordinances are on the rise and are becoming mandatory in many areas around the nation,” agrees Jennifer Waxman-Loyd, marketing analyst for Antelco Corporation, based in Longwood, Florida. “With water shortages, water conservation initiatives are at the forefront for many policy makers.”

As landscape customers experience financial pressure and incentives, a growing number are asking their landscape and irrigation professionals to design with water conservation in mind.

“We are definitely seeing an increased interest in water conservation,” says Marne Wasko, of CoCal Landscape, a large commercial landscaping firm serving Denver, Longmont, Colorado Springs, and Ft. Collins, Colorado. “With the drought three or four summers ago, there has been an increased awareness among customers due to restrictions and service charges from Denver Water. Yes, people want green grass, but at what expense?”

This growing awareness has spawned a major push on the part of water districts, extension agencies, and professional associations for more education on the water conservation issue. It has also spurred manufacturers to develop an exciting array of new products. The result is an abundance of information and resources to help design water conscious landscapes that look as great as they perform.

Beautiful Xeriscapes start with great design
The relatively new term “Xeriscape” is quickly becoming a household word among landscape professionals and customers – especially those who have experienced water shortages. Xeriscape refers to landscaping concepts that reduce water requirements. These concepts cover many different aspects of landscaping from how you prepare your site to what you plant to how and when you water.

Proper selection of plant material that is adapted to the existing climate and environment is a key consideration. “Use as many native plants as possible,” says Janet Reilly, landscape drip marketing manager for Rain Bird, based in Glendora, California. “Choose plants that can survive with less water.”

“It’s very important for contractors to know their plant materials and their requirements,” says Wasco. “The customer is usually going to them for guidance. When you’re choosing plants, you also need to be aware of the various microclimates on your property. For example, a north-facing area takes a lot longer to thaw than a south-facing one and will have more moisture available. You can choose plants that require more water for these areas.”

Photo courtesy: Jeff and Chelsea Prekker

Keep in mind that human development often creates several distinctive microclimates within one area. Development can create desert-like environments, wet boggy areas, and woodland environments all within just a few feet of each other. Carefully matching plants to the site characteristics can help ensure that they stay healthy without a great deal of extra water.

Another concept that is becoming more popular is that of designing turf areas to fit the specific needs at the property, instead of automatically planting large expanses of turf. Many communities are encouraging, sometimes even requiring, property owners to limit turf in favor of ornamental grasses, ground covers that are well-suited to local conditions, or shrub and flower beds that require less water or that can use efficient watering methods.

When a property does call for extensive turf, there are still several things that can be done to minimize water use while keeping greens green. “Soil amendment is huge,” says Wasco. “If an area has a healthy soil to begin with it’s going to require less water. It’s all about the roots being able to get the water they need. Compost will help. We till it in on new or renovated properties. We also aerate to keep turf healthy on less water”

Zoning is also important. Low-water plants are grouped together away from high-water plants and turf so that irrigation systems can be efficiently designed around these zones. An ample layer of mulch wherever appropriate will conserve water by minimizing evaporation.

Efficient Irrigation
After designing a water wise landscape to begin with, water conscious contractors need to design a water wise irrigation system. Fortunately, they have a whole host of efficient irrigation products to choose from and new ones are being introduced all the time.

One example is the new line of MP Rotator sprinklers recently introduced by the Walla Walla Sprinkler Company, a division of Nelson Irrigation Corporation in Walla Walla, Washington. “The MP Rotator provides high uniformity, very even distribution of water and a very low application rate,” says Mike Baron, MP Rotator manager. “Water is applied to the landscape at a much slower rate. This results in an elimination of runoff and a total reduction in the amount of water needed to maintain a healthy landscape.”

Baron points out that the new line is especially effective in problem areas like hillsides. “With development now carving more and more into hillsides, water conservation is becoming more of an issue. Hillsides are particularly troublesome to conventional sprinkler systems due to run-off. This new technology greatly reduces runoff even in this situation.”

Photo courtesy: Maxijet

While the MP Rotator is a new addition to sprinkler technology, low volume irrigation systems like drip and micro sprays have been around for awhile and are becoming a staple in the water conservation arena. These systems are designed to deliver a small volume of water at a slow rate directly to where plants need it, at their root zone. Micro-sprays, or micro-jets, like their name implies spray a small amount of water close to the ground so it can be directed to the plants that need it with little lost to evaporation. Drip systems bring water through spaghetti tubing where it’s delivered directly to plants though in-line drip tubing or a wide variety of emission devices.

“Low volume irrigation plays a very big role in overall water conservation in the landscape because it is the most efficient means of watering,” says Reilly. “Increased development is putting more and more pressure on the water supply. Here in Southern California for example, we have a growing number of developments in this very arid environment. Even if you do nothing else but replace all of your sparse planting areas with drip irrigation you would save a tremendous amount of water.”

“Landscape and irrigation contractors are becoming more involved in the low-volume market due to both pressures from ordinances and from a customer service perspective,” says Waxman-Loyd. “Low volume irrigation saves their clients money and promotes healthy and prosperous plants.”

“The demand for these systems has grown more and more in recent years,” agrees Susan Thayer, president of Maxijet, Inc., in Dundee, Florida. “We’re seeing it in the growing number of programs we’re doing with universities and extension agencies. Sometimes we feel more like school teachers than manufacturers.”

The reasons for this increased demand are clear and it doesn’t stop with water conservation. “The first benefit the average homeowner sees is in their water bill,” says Thayer. They see that right way.”
But as Thayer and others point out, water conservation is only one of many benefits of low volume irrigation. “More and more people are seeing the added benefits of drip,” says Parrish of Agrifim. “We’re growing a much healthier plant by applying water directly to the root zone. We’re not promoting weed growth so herbicide costs go down. We have the ability to fertilize directly through the drip tubing. And it’s especially easy to modify a system.”

“We’ve been installing drip systems for more than fifteen years,” says John Nordyke Irrigation Design and Estimator for Stutzman Services, Inc. in Albany, Oregon. “We started installing drip when we had low yielding wells. This allowed us to water larger shrub areas without adding more valves and we realized the benefits that drip provides our customers in cost and water conservation.”

Most property owner have a tendency to over-water. Properly adjsuted sprinklers can help conserve water.
Photo courtesy: Weathermatic

Ryan Jardine, owner of Quality Irrigation in Omaha, Nebraska, has been installing drip since he started his business four years ago. “In the Midwest, interest has been driven more by the irrigation and landscaping professionals than the homeowners,” says Jardine. “People here tend to have a mentality that there’s plenty of water to go around.” But Jardine has found that homeowners and professionals like drip for a variety of reasons in addition to water savings.

"Homeowners like drip irrigation systems because they more accurately direct water to the correct locations in the landscape,” says Jardine. “Homeowners also like these systems because they’re subsurface and do not negatively affect the look of their yard. Also, we've found them to be nearly maintenance free. As plant material grows, it can interfere with the water flow through traditional spray heads. This won’t happen with a drip system.” He also notes that drip irrigation leads to healthier plantings. "Watering roots rather than leaves will reduce the disease rates of plants."

Because of these added benefits, Jardine avidly recommends drip irrigation to his customers. “We used to install drip systems only when they were requested,” he says. “As we’ve gained more knowledge and experience, we’ve gained confidence to recommend it to more clients.”

Ease of installation has clearly been one of the biggest advantages for contractors and homeowners. “We learned design and installation through training from Rain Bird and by trying different techniques,” says Nordyke. “They have made the design part of drip pretty easy.”

“These systems are also much cheaper to install,” adds Thayer. “They’re economical during installation and economical when it comes to the water bill.”

Manufacturers are making it easier to convert existing irrigation systems to low flow ones. “With our pop-up adapters that you can use with traditional pop-ups, you can turn a one hundred gallon per hour sprinkler down to a ten gallon per hour micro spray,” says Thayer.

In today’s water conscious environment, it’s important for contractors to understand efficient watering both to promote the public good and maintain their own image. “I think the Irrigation Association has done a very good job of communicating the importance of water conservation,” says Baron. “Our business is very visible. When people start seeing water flowing out onto the street from a landscape or being wasted in other ways, that visibility is like a noose around the industry’s neck because it screams inefficiency.”

To learn about drip irrigation, contact a supplier in your area or check into workshops offered by the Irrigation Association or product manufacturers. “There are some really good classes on micro-irrigation,” says Jardine. “Make sure to bring your employees, so they’re educated as well. Classes are usually offered during the off season. Take advantage of this time to learn something new."

Contractors have a role in educating themselves and educating their clients in water conservation techniques. As professionals continue to expand their knowledge and versatility in this area, the landscape irrigation industry will continue to thrive no matter what nature throws our way.