More than 20 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 landscapes to determine the 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, co-founder and chairman of Sterling Ranch Development Company.

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 to their own yards, too. Here, find seven tips for leveling up your lawn without wasting water.

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, senior director of builder and community standards 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 list of about 150 plants 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: native Karl Foerster and blue oat grasses, garden sage, and Rocky Mountain zinnias.

Need some native plant inspiration? Stroll through Denver Botanic Gardens, Smethills says. “Nobody knows more about [our local] climate than the scientists at the Gardens. They have several different water-sustainable gardens, and it gives you great ideas.”

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.” “We’re finding that our residents basically just want a patch of grass for Fido,” Smethills says. “Shrubs, bushes, and perennials with just a small accent strip of grass is more desirable [for residents].”

Fake It

If a lifeless, neon-green carpet comes to mind when you think of artificial turf, think again: The look and feel of turf has come a long way in the past decade, says Calme. So much so that, as of last year, Sterling Ranch now allows residents to install certain types of artificial grass in their front yards (they only allowed it in backyards previously). The permitted options “emulate and replicate natural grass,” Calme says, noting that some high-end turf types even include a layer of thatch—shorter, curlier, light-brown blades that mimic dead blades found in real grass.

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, ensure that they’re spraying the right spots and not overlapping to save countless gallons each month. If you’re waking up to pools of water on the lawn, it’s time for an adjustment.

Calme and Smethills also recommend investing in a smart watering system from Denver-based Rachio, which allows you to monitor and manage your water usage through an app. “It’s a great piece of technology that we give to all of our residents to help manage their irrigation system and understand their water use,” Calme says. “It’s been a game changer for water-smart [landscaping],” Smethills adds.

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.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Instead of reaching for the hose every time you need to water your potted plants or garden beds, why not use recycled rainwater? Coloradans who live in single-family homes or multifamily residences with four or fewer units can collect rainwater in up to two barrels with a combined storage capacity of 110 gallons or less. “You’re just retiming the use of water that hits your roof,” Smethills says.