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Worried about watering? Consider conservation during drought

Julie Orr/Special to the Town Crier
A homeowner transformed this former pool into a native garden paradise with a boulder water feature.

Given the lack of rainfall, Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a drought state of emergency, asking residents to conserve water in any way possible. One of the easiest ways to protect the precious water supply we have in reserve is to use less in our landscapes.

When clients ask me to help them become more water-wise, we review two main things: reducing irrigation by using drought-tolerant plants to create beautiful landscapes, and reusing water creatively in the home and the garden.

If a homeowner has a lawn that is too big, underused or in poor condition, an easy fix is a lawn reduction or complete removal. Replacing a lawn with either site-appropriate plants like California natives or Mediterranean plants – or a combination – not only looks great, but is also more interesting than a boring monoculture of lawn.

Where lawns are necessary because they are used as play surfaces for children, consider low-water native sod blends that, once established, could survive drought conditions.

As an incentive, some water districts offer rebates of up to $1,000 for residential lawn removal. For more information on the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency’s Lawn Be Gone program, visit

Another great way to conserve water is to reuse it by installing a greywater system. Greywater is water that is used once in the home and then a second time in the landscape. These systems are often connected to a washing machine (for simple systems) or shower, bathtub or faucet (larger systems).

Greywater is preferable to rainwater harvesting for garden irrigation simply because it is a year-round water source that doesn’t require large storage capacity.

For clients with higher budgets, a closed-loop system is a great choice. Rainwater is used to supply water to the home’s toilet, laundry and showers in conjunction with greywater, which sends that same water (not toilet water – that’s considered blackwater) back into the garden. Therefore, the municipal water gets used as a backup source only.

Greywater is best for irrigating trees (including fruit), shrubs and perennials. Because greywater tends to run alkaline, it is perfectly suited to neutral soils or alkaline plants such as natives. I don’t recommend it for any root crop vegetables (like carrots, whose roots have direct contact with soil) due to the slight chance of human contaminants getting onto your edibles.

After you install a greywater system, you’ll need to use greywater-safe household products like salt-free detergents and bathing products. Also, local code requires that your irrigation be on a drip line buried 2 inches deep by either soil or mulch to avoid airborne pathogens.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a greywater lecture hosted by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. John Russell from WaterSprout stated: “A family of four can save about 38,000 gallons of water per year with a greywater system, and I’ve never been turned down when requesting a permit from the city.”

WaterSprout promotes five greywater systems from the simple to the complex. Pricing varies because each project comes with its own unique site requirements and challenges, but there are solutions for every budget. For a wealth of information including diagrams, visit Russell’s website at

If you are concerned about saving water, have a conversation with a professional landscape designer who has experience in sustainable solutions and water-wise designs. Landscape designers often have the resources and knowledge to help you build the right team for your project.

Julie Orr is a landscape designer and member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. For more information, call 468-8020 or visit

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