Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

May 30
5 min read
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What is water-wise gardening?

It is the practice of gardening with materials that can handle increasing temperatures and lower water requirements in response to the continuing strain on water availability. However, water-wise gardening is not the replacement of plants. Many people hear this term and immediately think of rock-covered landscapes that are very hot, sunny, and uncomfortable to spend large amounts of time in. These landscapes are lacking one of the best tools for conserving water… plants.

Plants Reduce Water Loss

In addition to their beauty, plants play a big role in reducing water loss and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Throughout the changing seasons, plants are able to help retain, support and stabilize the movement of water around us. However, that stabilization can’t take place if there aren’t plants growing that are appropriate to your environment.


During the winter months, plants may not appear to be doing much, but they are actually supporting the land where water is gathering in the form of snow and rain. Without stabilization, heavy snowpacks can create a danger of mudslides and erosion. This risk is decreased as strong plant roots move throughout the soil and hold the land in place.

soil stabilization
spring runoff


In the spring, erosion control becomes increasingly important as rivers and lakes begin to fill. Plus, the roots of both large and small plants encourage water to be soaked into the soil rather than allowing it to only glide over the surface. This is important as much of the water we use every day comes from groundwater reserves. As moving water is slowed by the plant material, it is allowed to make its way throughout the soil pore space. As it moves through the ground, the water is also cleansed of pollutants before ending up in important groundwater pools. Excess moving water continues into creeks, rivers, reservoirs, and lakes before eventually reaching the ocean if not already used or stored.


Throughout the summer, plants also help us reduce water loss by cooling the area. Without anything to cover the ground, water is continually evaporated, leaving the ground hard, hot, and barren. When covered with plant material, soil temperatures stay cooler and allow for microbes and other life to thrive underground. The plants help monitor the water cycle and slow the transition between phases. With plants, there is more moisture in the soil, air, and waterways, where we are able to benefit from and use it. Plus, the transpiration that takes place as water moves from the plants to the atmosphere acts as a driver for rain events to take place throughout the growing season. Without this happening, the growing season is more likely to be hot and dry.

desert tree and xeriscape plants

water cycle

fall trees


When fall comes around, deciduous foliage drops, and plants die back in anticipation of winter's approach. The plants soak up less water as they have less material to support through the cool season. You see, if a plant holds onto too much water through cold winter temperatures, it is in danger of rupturing vital vesicles where water and nutrients flow during the growing season. Where most plants don’t maintain foliage through the winter season, there is a much lower demand for water and nutrients to be stored inside the plant itself. Holding onto less water within the plant protects the vesicles from acting like a frozen can of soda that is left in a car during the winter. As the water inside the freezing plant expands, the vesicles are in danger of rupturing. With cool temperatures soil moisture does not evaporate and instead is used by the roots as needed to keep woody trees, bushes, and other perennials alive until the arrival of spring.

Reduce Water Needs

In order to accomplish these goals in each season, it is important to select plants that can grow without excessive water needs in hot and drought-prone regions. In addition to selecting plants, how you irrigate should be reviewed. Water-wise landscapes should only use the amount of water needed for healthy plant growth. This means your growing practices should encourage deep root growth to better utilize water stored throughout the soil, not just the surface level.

Consider reducing lawn space and instead adding a variety of plants, including native species that are adapted to growing in your local climate. Wildflowers are a great option to accomplish this while supporting local pollinators like bees and butterflies. Water these trees, shrubs, and plants by utilizing drip irrigation during the evening and night hours to reduce water lost to evaporation. Drip systems are able to deliver water directly to the ground, reducing immediate evaporation due to warmer air temperatures. Plus, it encourages healthier plant growth by reducing instances of disease encouraged by wet foliage.

Water-Wise Plants

Contact your extension office for a list of plants ideal for your local growing location. To get started, here are a few water-wise plant ideas.

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