LIMIT TURF. Turf grass needs more water than just about any other plant in our gardens. But none grows here ― just flowering ground covers such as Santa Barbara daisies.
GROUP PLANTS WITH SIMILAR WATER NEEDS. From an irrigation standpoint, this approach makes perfect sense. If plants that need to be watered at the same frequency and for the same length of time are all in one place, you can dedicate a separate line or valve to them, delivering exactly the amount of water the plants need and no more. Plants like gaillardia, Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', and penstemons, which have adapted to rain-sparse Mediterranean climates, do best when they receive slow, deep, and not-too-frequent soaks.
IRRIGATE EFFICIENTLY. Drip-irrigation systems get all the press, but they're not the best solution in every instance. Match the system to the situation, the soil, and the plants. There are many factors to consider: drip-irrigation or underground systems, rotary or spray heads, output rates, and emitter sizes. Make your decisions based on research. Take advantage of the watering classes offered by your area water district. Talk to irrigation specialists, neighbors, and gardeners. Two booklets by Sunset can help. Water-Wise Gardening for California (16 pages) includes planting plans and plant lists. How to Water Your Garden (16 pages) explains options in watering systems and devices. To order, send $3.50 per copy to Sunset Water Booklets, 80 Willow Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025.
PLANT TREES. Plants under trees need less water because the shade lowers air and soil temperatures, reducing moisture loss. People are also cooler under those leafy canopies. Properly placed trees can reduce air-conditioning costs up to 40 percent, according to Southern California Edison. Yet, surprisingly, shade-tree planting is one of the most neglected water-conservation techniques.
IMPROVE SOIL AND ADD MULCH. Adding organic amendments to the soil improves its texture, enabling it to make better use of water: Sandy soils hold more water, and clay soils drain better. Giving soil a 3- to 5-inch layer of mulch helps conserve water by reducing water evaporation.