Smarter Yardscapes

Save water and boost your lawn's style profile

Did you know that watering the lawn uses more water than any other activity in your home? 

Whether you’re a “twice a week with the hose” waterer, or have a more advanced irrigation or sprinkler system, your lawn is sucking up an average of 30% of your monthly summer water usage! This is because the roots of the standard grasses don’t reach very deep, so they dry out quickly. This is definitely true of Kentucky Bluegrass, the most common variety of grass planted and grown on Iowa lawns, according to the ISU Extension Center.

If you want to save money on your utility bill or reduce water usage for environmental reasons, consider replacing a portion of your lawn with a yardscape. A yardscape is landscaping within your yard. It’s a plan that doesn’t require replacing your entire lawn, but rather taking some of it and converting it to water-saving plants and flowers.  

If you aren’t ready to give up your lawn, we’ll also talk about some tips and tricks to water as effectively as possible. 

What look do you like?

Before you go ripping up your lawn, take some time to consider what you want the final product to look like. When it comes to water-saving yardscapes, there are several options.

Prairiescapes: The Iowa climate is ideal for prairie-type plants, and there are many native plants that can both help with your water conservation efforts and improve the ecosystems around you. (WEB VERSION) This list from the ISU Extension Center has lots of details about prairie plants and how to use them to your advantage. (PRINT VERSION) Head to to learn more about using prairie plants in your yardscape. 

Another benefit of designing a prairiescape? It won’t need much ongoing maintenance once you get the plants in the ground. Most prairie plants are perennials, meaning they will come back year after year without you having to replant. A little weeding is all this kind of landscaping will require.

Rockscapes: Looking for something that’s a bit more manicured, without all the maintenance that comes with traditional landscapes? Consider a rockscape! Like the name implies, rockscapes make use of different sizes and types of rocks in combination with limited live plants to create beautiful outdoor spaces. Rocks also create a barrier for weeds and prevent evaporation of water from the soil, meaning less time working in the garden overall.

Terracing: If your yard has steep sloping, it may difficult to implement either of the landscapes discussed above. You may have problems with erosion if you remove your grass, and without careful planning, some plants may end up with too much water thanks to gravity causing rain and other water to run to the lowest point of your yard. If that’s the case for you, your landscape may benefit from terracing. This is the act of cutting “steps” into your yard, and creating small retaining walls to make multiple flat areas, in which you can then create prairiescapes, rockscapes, or flower or vegetable beds. 

It’s all in the planning

There are some things about your landscaping that can’t be changed. The location of your driveway, large trees, water features (ponds, pools, etc), and sun exposure are all pretty set in stone - sometimes literally! If you’ve decided that you’re ready to convert some or all of your lawn, start by drawing up a plan that takes your existing yard features into account.

Take measurements of the area you want to convert, and put pen to paper mapping it out. Add in the fixed features, and mark any areas you won’t be changing. Then, start thinking about what you want to see. Is a nice sitting area in the cards, or maybe some new flower beds? 

PRO TIP: We recommend using graph paper for this step, so you can make your design to scale. Doing so means you can easily see where you still have space and which areas are already filled in.

Once you’ve got a rough plan in place, you can dive into the nitty gritty: what plants are you going to add to the space? Do you want to focus on having more trees, shrubs, flowers, or a combination? Do you want to turn part of the yard into a vegetable garden? Add these details into your plan as well. 

Finally, don’t forget to plan walkways through your new yardscape! For bonus points, remove the grass from your walkways and put down stone or gravel instead. This will further reduce the amount of water you need.

Use gravity to your advantage

Water will naturally flow down from the highest to the lowest point. If you’ve got any hills or grading already happening in your hard, you can use that to your advantage. When you make your yardscape plan, place your thirstier plants at the bottom, and more drought-tolerant plants at the top. When a big storm comes through, the rain will run down the hill to the plants that need it most. You can also water from the top of the hill for the same effect.

How is your soil doing?

A good yardscape starts way below the beautiful flowers you can grow - getting your soil in order can have a big impact on its water retention. There are lots of things you can add to improve not only the water retention of your soil, but the soil fertility as well. For example:

  • Moss: Moss can hold A LOT of water, and mixing it into your soil will increase the overall water retention of your soil, meaning you can water less often.
  • Hay or straw: There’s a reason farmers use straw for bedding. It’s great at soaking up heavy moisture and holding on to it. You can use straw on top of your soil to prevent evaporation.
  • Wood chips or bark pieces: Wood holds moisture really well, which makes it a great choice to mix into the soil. Like straw, wood materials are also a great choice to place on top of your soil to lock in moisture.

When adding amendments to your soil, gardening experts recommend they be mixed into the top 6-12 inches of soil. Using a rototiller is an easy way to mix the soil and amendments. If you don’t own one, they are available to rent from area building supply stores. Also check with your local hardware and equipment store.

Natural materials break down over time, leading to richer, healthier soil. Healthy soil holds moisture better, so these materials will not only help you now, but in the long term as well.

Choosing your plants

You’ve done your landscape plan. You’ve amended your soil. Now, it’s time for every gardner’s favorite part of planting -- picking your new plants! Since the whole reason you tore up your yard to begin with was to save water, you’re going to want to look for plants that don’t need a lot of it to survive. 

Iowa falls into USDA Zone 5, with the northern part of the state (including Indianola) leaning towards Zone 5a, and the southern part of the state leaning towards Zone 5b. 

Some of the most popular choices in our climate zone are: 

  • Blue Star Juniper
  • Bayberry
  • Blue Mist Shrub
  • Boxwood
  • Geranium
  • Lavender
  • Trumpet Vine

Water strategically 

Whether you decide to change up your yard this year or not, there is one thing you should be doing to conserve water: only water in the morning! Watering in the afternoon, when the sun is up overhead, means more water will evaporate rather than going to your plants. For the highest absorption rate, water before the heat of the day really sets in.

Watch how water flows in your yard. Does it all run off to one area? If so, you may be at risk of soil erosion as time goes on. To combat this, put a layer of wood chips or pebbles over areas with loose soil. This will help to hold the soil in place and prevent erosion. As an added benefit, these materials will also trap more water in the soil, decreasing the amount of watering you will need to do. 

Does this all sound like a lot? Remember that you don’t have to do everything at once. Try picking a small corner of your yard to convert to a yardscape. This will be less overwhelming (not to mention less expensive) than trying to redo your entire yard. And if you’re still in love with your lawn, that’s okay too. Just remember to water in the morning!