STEP 1—Pick drought-tolerant plants.
Plants adapted to our climate of hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters will outperform plants from wetter, milder regions. Growing plants that are well-adapted to the extremes of our climate makes the best use of our water, time, and money. Visit local demonstration gardens to view beautiful examples and mature sizes of drought-tolerant plants adapted to our climate. Ask your local nursery which water-wise plants are available for your area, or check our new online “Plant Search” to find climate-adapted plants that will thrive in your area. Consider planting some native shrubs, trees, perennials and grasses that have evolved impressive water-saving strategies on their own (visit the Power of Plants California Natives for High-Desert Yards for lists of star-performing native plants and how to grow them). Another “desert-wise” option is to select star-performing plants from other dry regions like the Mediterranean, Australia, and South Africa.
STEP 2—Plant in Fall, if possible, or early Spring.
Planting is best done from fall through early spring (from mid-October to early March). Avoid summer planting. During the fall, trees, shrubs, and perennials have very active root growth. In fact, up to 80% of the yearly root growth of these plants occurs in the fall, triggered by shorter daylight hours and cooler air temperatures while soils are still warm. Planting in fall saves water for many seasons to come. Roots that become well-established from fall through spring are already better prepared to withstand their first hot summer without frequent watering. A plant with an established root system resulting from a fall planting is ready and able to grow vigorously and flower heavily the following spring and summer. Plants need at least 6-8 weeks to re-establish their roots before the extreme heat of summer.
STEP 3—Group plants according to similar water needs.
Keeping plants together that need the same amount of water promotes healthy growth and strong root systems, and reduces the risk of over- or under-watering. Grouping plants into water-use zones allows you to focus water use where it is most beneficial to the beauty of your yard, and also greatly simplifies your irrigation. Keep plants that use the most water close to your house where they are most visible, and plants that use the least water around the outermost areas of your property. Examples of plants that make good water-use companions together are: Very low water use plants – Gopher Plant, Blackfoot Daisy, Palmer’s Penstemon, Damianita, Apache Plume, and Toyon; Low water use plants– Strawberry Tree, Rock Rose, Sandpaper Verbena, Autumn Sage, Artemisia, and French Lavender.
STEP 4—Train plants to grow deep roots with infrequent, deep soakings.
The deeper you encourage your plants’ roots to grow, the less often you need to water. If plants are irrigated often with only shallow water penetration into the soil, you train roots to stay close to the surface, where soils heat up daily and dry out quickly. Deep, infrequent watering trains roots to seek deeper soil depths for moisture, and allows you to water much less frequently. For even more water efficiency, install deep water sleeves of perforated PVC pipe into the soil at the drip line of your plants to water with your hose or irrigation emitters below the soil surface to reduce evaporation.
STEP 5—Install a drip irrigation system.
Tiny emitters attached to flexible tubing can direct water flow exactly where it’s needed—directly over the root-ball where your plants can absorb it. Water-saving devices can be very easy to install, and your water savings can start immediately. Home-improvement stores or your local nursery can help you get started.
STEP 6—Install a smart controller that monitors your local weather conditions and adjusts water schedules to match your soil texture and individual plant needs.
If you don’t have a smart controller, make sure to turn off or reset your timers manually to respond to rain or drought periods. Check the soil moisture around the root ball of your plants to determine when to irrigate again after rain.
STEP 7—Let nature help you save water with mulch and rainwater harvesting.
By adding a generous layer of mulch several inches thick around the base of plants, you can help cool the soil, reduce evaporation, and also deter weed growth A layer of gravel can also help retain moisture and reduce erosion. Keep as much rain on your property as possible by creating features to capture and direct water to your plants, instead of losing it down the driveway. Dry creek beds, earthen dams, and swales contain rainwater that can soak in and replenish soil moisture for your plants. Moisture that percolates deep into soil is a long-lasting treasure that your plants can tap into for months to come. You can also collect rainwater from downspouts in covered cisterns, especially ones with spigots to attach a hose for easy watering. It’s a great feeling to harvest today’s rain for tomorrow’s use.