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Ice plants are a colorful, low-water ground cover option recommended by the Denver Botanic Gardens and Sterling Ranch for Colorado gardens. Photo by calwhiz / Flickr via Creative Commons

5 Tips for a Water-Wise Landscape Design

Spruce up your yard—and lower your water bill—with these pro tips from the Denver Botanic Gardens and water-conscious Colorado community Sterling Ranch.

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More than 15 years ago, Sterling Ranch, a master-planned community in Douglas County—not far from Roxborough Park—partnered with the Denver Botanic Gardens to develop sustainable, water-wise landscaping guidelines for its home-builders and residents.

Determined to address water consumption before breaking ground on a single lawn, Sterling Ranch collaborated with the Gardens to design 15 different demonstration gardens with the aim of determining ideal combinations of plants, grasses, and trees. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we create a beautiful community that doesn’t need a lot of water?’” says Harold Smethills, founder and managing director of Sterling Ranch.

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The partnership yielded key takeaways, including exacting soil standards for lawns and new legislation that allows Sterling Ranch to harvest rainwater to irrigate community parks, gardens, and greenways. Homeowners across the Denver metro area can apply these lessons learned to their own yards, too. Here, find five tips for landscaping with water conservation in mind.

Consider the Big Picture

Rather than tackling your landscaping in stages (which many of us do), take a holistic approach. Even if you’re not going to plant everything this spring, Heather Calme, architectural and community standards director at Sterling Ranch, advises drawing up the entire landscape plan before digging a single hole.

During the design process, consider your water usage when planning grass coverage and choosing tree and plant species. “If you know you want a vegetable garden that takes a fair amount of water, maybe go with low-water trees or less grass,” Calme suggests. Not sure what your water usage is going to look like? Calme advises calling in a pro to help with your wish list.

Plant Smart

Not all plants are created equal when it comes to water requirements, which is why Sterling Ranch provides its homeowners with a recommended plant list organized by water needs. On that list: low-water trees, including varieties of juniper, pine, and locust, rather than high-water species like the flowering Spring Snow crabapple. Other top picks: low-water ice plants, garden sage, and Rocky Mountain zinnias.

Try Growing Grass “Rugs”

“Grass is a real water hog,” Smethills says. Challenge the full-lawn status quo (i.e. wall-to-wall carpeting) by finding ways to incorporate smaller patches of grass, which can make a big impact—and even help delineate outdoor living areas—when they function as “rugs.”

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Update Your Irrigation System

If you haven’t replaced your sprinkler system during the past decade, it may be time for an upgrade. Gardens, plants, and shrubs can benefit from targeted drip lines that slowly water the plants. “Drip lines are fantastic: All the water goes into the root system and you don’t lose anything to evaporation,” Calme says. If you have directional sprinkler heads, ensuring that they’re spraying the right spots and not overlapping can save countless gallons each month. If you’re waking up to pools of water on the lawn, it’s time for an adjustment.

Go Organic

Choosing an organic fertilizer instead of a chemical variety is healthier for you and the environment, and, it turns out, more water-efficient. “We found that if we combine organic fertilizer with rototilling a good six inches of soil, [a plant’s] root system becomes healthier and will take less water,” Calme says. Simply reach for products labeled “organic” and your lawn (and the birds) will thank you.

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