Green landscaping ideas for the Southwestern U.S.

Amanda Maher
Amanda Maher | 5 min. read

Published on June 21, 2016

Droughts are nothing new to California, but the period between late 2011 and early 2015 was the driest in California history since record keeping began.

Municipalities were forced to enact strict water usage controls and all but the wealthiest (who willingly accepted fines and penalties) were left with bone-dry backyards.

Southern California wasn’t the only area affected. Indeed, the Southwest as a whole was affected. Whether or not they wanted to, homeowners had to start to rethink their landscape design. The drought has ushered in a whole new wave of “green” landscaping practices.

We’ve already profiled eco-friendly landscaping trends in the Northeast. Part II of this series will look at the “green” landscaping trends taking hold of the Southwest.

Drought-Resistant Lawns and Gardens

The lack of (and cost of) water has proven really eye-opening to folks in the Southwest. Homeowners have started to rethink plush, grass turf. Low-maintenance gardens and drought-tolerant plants are going in its place. In the picture to the right, a bluegrass lawn has been replaced with perennials and shrubs.

But don’t confuse low-maintenance with no-maintenance! “Drought-resistant plants need an establishing phase; there are seasonal demands, and most of all we have the mature plant size to contend with,” says Ketti Kupper, owner and principle designer of Conscious Living Landscapes in Los Angeles. “Plants are not furniture.” In other words, they still require upkeep.

Still, sustainable landscape design leads to significant economic and environmental benefits that southwestern homeowners can no longer ignore. “Sustainable residential landscape architecture, if part of a broader integrated site design, can dramatically reduce water usage and stormwater runoff over the long term while creating a healthy residential environment,” explains Nancy Somerville, executive vice president of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Water-Wise Landscaping and Irrigation

Not everyone is doing away with grass turf altogether. Those who have grass lawns know just how much water is needed to keep them alive. When water was plentiful, people would typically water lawns and gardens equally. The result is that most plants end up vastly over-watered. Instead, environmentally-conscious homeowners are redesigning their landscapes by grouping plants with similar water requirements together. For example, the lawn will be on one zone, water-guzzling plants on another and drought-resistant plants on yet another. This allows homeowners to water their lawns and gardens at different rates and with different types of irrigation systems. For instance, low-volume sprinklers are great for conserving water when watering the lawn, and drip systems in garden beds help ensure the thirsty few get the water they need without running the well dry.

There’s a growing trend to hook these irrigation systems up to mobile devices in order to control remotely. By connecting to the “Internet of Things,” these systems can communicate with weather stations directly and automatically adjust watering schedules based on the weather.

Gardening with a Purpose

To counteract the high rates of heart disease and obesity that have run rampant throughout the country, a growing number of people are paying a premium for backyards that allow them to grow organic, non-GMO foods. “The younger generation especially is interested in making a homesteader’s garden rather than a purely ornamental garden,” says Pam Penick, author of Lawn Gone! and The Water-Saving Garden.

In addition to the health benefits, more homeowners are starting to understand the environmental benefits of locally- grown food. “Interest will continue to grow in plants that attract pollinators, growing food, keeping chickens, beekeeping, vegetables, clothes-drying racks and composting,” Penick says. The recent drought is just another indication that the impacts of climate change will continue to affect people in very real ways. These green practices allow residents to do their small part to make the earth a more sustainable place for generations to come.

Incorporating Recycled Materials

Residents today place a high premium on spaces that reflect their individuality. One of the ways we’re seeing this transpire in the Southwest is through landscape design that incorporates recycled materials that would otherwise be sent to the landfill. Recycled wine bottles have been transformed into colorful garden waterfalls. Similarly, we’ve seen recycled bottles embedded into the countertops in an outdoor kitchen, or crushed to build colorful outdoor mosaics. Wood pallets are routinely repurposed into lawn furniture.

As we’ve seen now in both the Northeast and Southwest, sustainable landscaping trends are gaining momentum and can take a variety of forms. Stay tuned for Part 3 of our “green” landscaping guide which will look at the hottest trends taking over the Northwest!

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Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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