Water as a scarce resource isn’t news, but we’re hearing about it more often and in more places. Going forward, how to be smart about water will be one of the big questions for 2015 and beyond. While regions differ (here in Colorado, we’ve had our wettest year in 10 while California, New Mexico, and Texas are still sitting in drought), water conservation has big implications for the design of outdoor spaces all across the country. 

Xeriscaping has been an uphill battle. Drought-tolerant landscape programs have an unfair rap as ugly, dry, hard, hot, and drab. That’s because bad examples abound: Spread a bunch of gravel in the front yard in place of a lawn, add two boulders and a large cactus, and you’re done. That’s not pretty and it’s no improvement (plus, using cactus in areas where it doesn’t grow naturally looks kind of silly).  

When people hear the words “drought tolerant,” they assume they’ll have to give up soft, green outdoor space. But water-smart landscaping can be lush and colorful—it all depends on plant selection, soil, and design. With those, you can do landscaping that’s as beautiful as it is water wise, and that won’t take three years to grow in. A project we recently completed shows what we’re talking about, and these tips will help clue you in.

Direct the Water 
Management regulations differ from place to place. In some areas, standing water in the form of a cistern isn’t to code; in other places, it’s OK. One way to get around this is to divert rainwater into a planting area so it comes off your house in the form of berming and coursing. Rain chains, of course, are a heck of a lot prettier than an 8-foot gutter extension. 

Lose the Lawn (Mostly) 
A lawn is a huge water-suck. See it as the accent rug, not the wall-to-wall carpet. You’ll get more bang for the buck in visual effect, and you’ll use a fraction of the water. Select grass types require less watering, too. Understand that, within a lot, homeowners who have a little bit of lawn are going to use it. Luckily, varieties that are drought-tolerant can handle traffic. For a side or front yard that doesn’t see as much action, consider cool season, hybrid, and no-mow grasses that are hardy, don’t need irrigating—and, yes, are green.

Think Big Picture 
As a developer, here’s where you need to put your attention. The problem is that engineers have had to design neighborhoods and subdivisions based on regional flows and pre-determined methods of conveyance. If water can’t be stored on site, it needs to be dispersed. Most of those solutions have been done underground, with expensive pipes. We’ve found ways to handle water on or near the surface so it can benefit planting and landscaping, and even become an amenity (instead of underground, invisible, and expensive). It’s the way to get the most use out of every drop of water you have. 

Williamson Images
Project Canyon Casitas Enclave
Location Western Colorado
Specifics Arid climate with low water use requirements

Site 4.8 acres

A/ Separate trees, lawn, and plantings into separate irrigation zones. This will allow for supplemental watering in dry times, while still permitting reduced irrigation for drought-loving plants.
B/ Fast-growing ornamental grasses that need little water can be used as accents against walls and architecture. The grasses respond to the wind and catch light in ways that other plants don’t. 
C/ Use hardscape elements to add visual accents in the garden. To create a natural feel, position them next to key plants. 
D/ Shrubby perennials such as penstemon and hummingbird mint grow quickly, adding color and texture right away. These water-wise perennials attract butterflies and hummingbirds, too—another plus.