Creating a Water-Smart Landscape: How to Choose the Right Plants for Your Local Climate

Learn how to create a water-smart landscape by choosing appropriate plants for your local climate! Find out how rain gardens can help reduce stormwater runoff & more.

Creating a Water-Smart Landscape: How to Choose the Right Plants for Your Local Climate

Are you interested in developing a water-smart landscape for your home or property? The WaterSense Guide to Smart Landscapes from a Water Perspective can help you get started. Choosing the right plants, supporting soil health and proper maintenance are key to making landscapes water smart. When planning your landscape design, in addition to the main use, also consider factors such as the local climate, locations with sun and shade, and the maintenance schedule. This plays an important role in how often your garden gets rain and whether your plants should be prepared for hot or cold weather.

Although the choice of plant will depend on the region, you can still have an attractive and functional landscape with plants that save water. If you're designing a new landscape or rethinking your current one, WaterSense's water budgeting tool can help you plan your landscape for water efficiency and tell you if you've designed a landscape that will use an adequate amount of water for your climate. The WaterSense What to Plant page can help you find the right plants based on your state. Also, as you look at your landscape, consider if a rain garden would be a good fit. Water that runs from the garden and roof can be converted into stormwater runoff, which can damage local waterways, as it picks up pollutants in its path.

Rain gardens help retain water in your garden, helping you reduce stormwater runoff and the need for supplemental irrigation. The New England EPA's Soak Up the Rain program has information on rain gardens. The Rain Garden app, developed by Connecticut's NEMO (Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials) program, can teach you how to build a garden and also has information for 23 states about appropriate plants to include in a garden. Healthy soils effectively recycle nutrients, minimize runoff, retain water, and absorb excess nutrients, sediments and pollutants. Have your soil tested for nutrient content, pH, soil composition and organic matter content.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Office or state universities for a soil testing kit or soil testing services. Very sandy soil, heavy clay, compacted soil, or extreme soil pH can affect the right plants for your garden. In these cases, seek advice from a nursery, horticulturist, Cooperative Extension, or other expert. In addition to making landscapes attractive, mulch adds an extra layer between plant roots and air, helping to protect plants in a variety of ways. Mulch helps reduce evaporation, which allows the soil to retain water longer and means that plants require less frequent watering.

Mulch also helps plants thrive by inhibiting weed growth, preventing soil erosion, and moderating soil temperature. Different plants require different soil conditions, so it's best to choose a type of mulch based on plant varieties and their soil needs. Organic mulch, such as hardwood chips, straw, leaves, pine needles, or grass clippings, will help improve soil condition by adding nutrients as it decomposes. Inorganic mulches, such as rocks, pebbles, or gravel, can help eliminate weeds. Avoid using rock mulches in sunny areas or around plants with a non-arid climate, as they radiate large amounts of heat and promote water loss that can cause burns. Mulching at a depth of three to four inches provides adequate coverage for most plants; excessive amounts of mulch can restrict water flow to plant roots.

Leave a few inches of space between organic mulches and the base of trees or other woody plants to prevent decay. Don't forget to pull out the weeds before covering them with mulch and spread them evenly to avoid thin areas where the mulch can't do its job. The Extension program (which is part of the Cooperative Extension System) has additional information on water and mulch conservation. Soil amendments can be organic or inorganic. They mix with the soil and can provide short- and long-term water-saving benefits.

Plants need soil water to grow healthy, and soil amendments help the soil retain moisture so you don't have to water as often. Once established, these plants require little water beyond normal rainfall. In addition, because native plants adapt to local soils and climate conditions, they rarely require the addition of fertilizers and are more resistant to pests and diseases than other species. Be careful when selecting exotic species, as some may be invasive which may require more water and displace native plants.

Plant Something's state affiliates can point you to the address of your state's nurseries that can help you select plants and provide other advice. The areas of the same site can vary significantly in terms of soil type or exposure to sun and wind as well as in evaporation rates and moisture levels. Placing plants that prefer shade in the open sun will affect their ability to thrive. Consider the site's exposure to the elements and choose plants that thrive in site conditions.

When trees and shrubs are planted they will normally require irrigation during the establishment period. Once the plants have taken root watering can be reduced or eliminated. It is also common to surround the plant with a berm that retains water at the base of the plant preventing it from escaping. Grass plugs or twigs are mature plants that are planted directly into the landscape and are quickly established.

The quick establishment period is an advantage of using turf although the cost of installation may be higher than that of using seeds. Planting the landscape has a lower cost but it could take longer to establish. Additional turfs-related considerations can be found on the page on grass and water efficiency. Make sure to maintain your garden regularly.

Replace mulch around shrubs and garden plants to help them retain moisture. Remove weeds and straw as needed so they don't compete with the desired plants for water. Fertilizer encourages new thirsty growth making your garden require additional water. Minimize or eliminate the use of fertilizers whenever possible if you need fertilizer look for a product that contains natural organic or slow-release.

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