Effective Water Use

The last few years of drought in Montana have made us all aware of the problem of excessive water use in the landscape. Some years, water rationing makes a water-wise landscape essential. In the 80s the word “xeriscape” was coined to mean a landscape which uses plants that have low water requirements. The word was coined to encourage homeowners to make a conscious attempt to develop plantings which are compatible with the environment.

There are many reasons to conserve water in your landscape. It makes sense not to waste a precious resource. And financially, it saves money, especially if you are paying for city water.

Some ways to save water in your landscape

  1. Reduce the size of your irrigated lawn area or plant grass which needs less water. The commonly used Kentucky bluegrass needs about 1 ½” of water a week to stay green. „Water Saver‟, a blend of tall fescue grasses, stays green with less water and still looks like a traditional lawn. Some people choose to plant native grasses which can survive with little or no irrigation after they are established; these bunch grasses do not look like a traditional bluegrass lawn.

    If water rationing or water limitations force you to water your bluegrass lawn less in the heat of the summer, the grass will not die, but will go dormant until spring or a time when it again gets enough water.

  2. Group plants with similar water requirements in beds so they can be watered together rather than scattering them. Plant those requiring the most water together near the house. Farthest from the house could be your “no water” zone. Plant natives and drought tolerant species there.
  3. Build retaining walls rather than planting on slopes where the water will run off.
  4. Improve your soil for the best water retention and plant health. Much of our soil in this area is clay. Because the small particles in clay soils hold a great deal of water, poor drainage results and the roots are deprived of oxygen. Generously incorporate organic matter (compost, well-rotted manure, or peatmoss) into your soil to improve soil consistency and drainage.
  5. Keep areas around trees and shrubs weed and grass free. Clean cultivation in a ring around trees and in shrub beds allows water to be used by the trees and shrubs, not by weeds and grass.
  6. Mulch shrub and perennial beds with 2 to 4 inches of bark chips, cedar mulch, or fine bark dust; mulch holds moisture in the ground and keeps the soil cool. Homeowners often want low-maintenance landscape fabric or underlayment to totally block weeds from growing in their mulched beds, but this can create a too-wet environment for the roots of trees and shrubs. Organic mulches without an underlayment of landscape fabric or poly let the roots breath but cut down on evaporation.
  7. Irrigate smartly. Drip systems or soaker hoses allow for less evaporation than overhead sprinklers for watering trees, shrubs, and gardens. Water deeply when you water; make sure the water soaks down to the root system. Let your hose trickle onto the roots of trees until they are deeply moistened. Apply at least ½ “ of moisture to your lawn during each sprinkling. For most people, that means longer sets for each zone of your sprinkler system, but less often. Water during the early morning when there will be less evaporation. Of course, when we do receive rain, turn your sprinkler system off until it is needed again.
  8. Choose plants which are native or which require less water. Many beautiful landscape plants are drought tolerant.


Green ash, one of the best shade trees for this area, survive with little water after they are established. The only oak known to thrive here, Burr oak, is drought tolerant. Boxelder, although not a prized landscape tree, is a good hardy shade tree for dry areas. We can‟t forget Russian Olive, an extremely drought tolerant tree with attractive gray-green leaves. And chokecherries including the decorative red leafed Canada red cherry don‟t need a lot of water either.

Other trees that survive without a lot of water once established include Ohio buckeye, amur maple, and even quaking aspen and cottonwoods.


Many of the evergreens we commonly use in our landscapes are drought tolerant. Ponderosa pines and junipers come to mind right away. But Scotch pine, Colorado spruce, Black Hills spruce, and limber pine all will grow without a lot of water.


We all know that the native potentilla, buffaloberry, yucca, and sagebrush are drought tolerant. But other attractive ornamental shrubs such as honeysuckle, sumacs, lilacs, and, of course, caragana will survive with minimum water.

Perennials and Ground Covers

Your perennial beds can also be filled with drought tolerant plants. The native yarrows flourish in low water areas. Dianthus, lamb’s ear, purple coneflower, hens and chicks, and Russian sage don’t like much water. You have probably seen blue flax blooming along the roadsides with no irrigation. And the native baby’s breath is all over vacant lots in the Butte area. Ground covers such as sedum and snow-in-summer thrive in hot, dry areas. Although some of the ornamental grasses can be planted in boggy areas, others such as blue fescue and blue oat grass are very drought tolerant. Many herbs, such as lavender, thrive in drier conditions.

Whether you plant a yard with yucca, sagebrush and native grasses, or just choose drought tolerant plants in certain areas of your yard, you can conserve water by choosing the right plant for the right place.