9 Money-Saving Tips to Stop Wasting Water This Summer (Experts Swear by Them!)

published Jun 3, 2024
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collage with person watering plants and spot illustrations around it
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Illustrations: Isabela Humphrey; Design: Apartment Therapy

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When you’ve spent countless hours and hard-earned money turning your yard into an outdoor oasis, you want to keep it that way. But caring for your lawn, flowers, and landscaping is no simple task. Learning how to properly water your plants and grass is probably the most challenging part about keeping your yard looking great. You don’t want to overwater your plants, but cutting back too much could mean dead grass by August. 

It’s also possible you’re using an inefficient watering method. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “A household with an automatic landscape irrigation system that isn’t properly maintained and operated can waste up to 25,000 gallons of water annually.” 

So, to help you cut back on water (and possibly bring down the cost of your water bill) without killing your plants, three water conservation and lawn care experts share their best tips to water smarter and still keep your yard looking great.

Watering Tips for Your Lawn

More water isn’t always the answer when your lawn looks a little sad, which means your extra sprinkler sessions might not be doing anything but wasting water. See what else might be causing you trouble and what you can do to bring back your healthy green lawn. 

1. Check (and repair) your sprinkler system.

It seems obvious, but you should always check your sprinkler system at the start of each irrigation season, says Kelly Kopp, Ph.D., M.S., professor and extension specialist in water conservation and turfgrass at the Plants, Soils & Climate Department at Utah State University.

“[Look for] any obvious leaks [and] whether a sprinkler might be misaligned and spraying onto a sidewalk or a driveway as opposed to the landscape,” Kopp says. She says common indicators of leaks include puddles of water, bubbles forming under the sod, and if your water meter indicates it’s still running when you know everything is turned off. Andrew Mink, owner and operator of Mink Lawn Care LLC in Clearwater, Florida, adds that if your sprinklers have lower-than-usual water pressure, that could also be a sign of a leak.

Fixing even the most seemingly benign issues, like unlevel sprinkler heads, can save a lot of wasted water, Kopp says. Look for problems like overspray (when water hits your sidewalk or driveway) and sprinkler heads that have sunken into the ground rather than stayed even with the soil’s surface. Mink says you can easily replace sunken or misaligned sprinkler heads with taller sprinkler heads, and over-spraying sprinklers may need a new head or a minor adjustment you can make by gently rotating the head with your hand. 

If you can’t detect the source of the leak or easily replace a sprinkler head on your own, you should call a professional to address the issue.

Credit: Lazhko Svetlana / Shutterstock

2. Space out watering days for your lawn.

“Sometimes people think, ‘Oh gosh, if I don’t water every three days, I’m going to have a burnt-up lawn,’” says Katie Durham, general manager of Western Kansas Groundwater Management District #1. “Depending on the soil structure, [the lawn] might be maintaining a lot of water capacity in that soil that is protecting and giving nutrient water to the roots efficiently,” she says.

Kopp adds that turfgrass will be “absolutely fine” without daily watering. “Established grasses are extremely tough and resilient and require much less water than people think,” she says, adding that you should check your local county Extension office for irrigation recommendations.

“During drought and regular use, it is recommended to water three times per week,” Mink says. “If local ordinances are in place, water once per week at the maximum amount of time per zone,” he says.

To go even longer between watering days, Kopp suggests sowing low-water-use varieties of many grass species. Kentucky Bluegrass, she says, has “literally hundreds of varieties,” and there are dozens of lower-water-use varieties. According to Kopp, these more resilient grasses need between 30% and 50% less water. Durham also suggests Buffalo or Bermuda grass for turf replacements, and Mink recommends clover or artificial turf for grass swaps to save water.

3. You can water earlier in the day than you might expect.

You likely know not to water your lawn in the heat of the day, but you might not know you can start before the sun is even up! Mink suggests watering your lawn between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. or between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. “[This] will ensure water reaches the root system of your lawn, yet does not soak the root system, causing fungus or diseases to enter,” he says. “My water schedule has each sprinkler setting at 15 to 20 minutes per zone set to 4 a.m.”

Mink says to avoid watering between 11 a.m. and just before 5 p.m., when water evaporates quickly, possibly damaging your lawn, as the water won’t have enough time to reach the roots. Similarly, don’t water between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. — the roots will saturate without sunlight to dry it out a little, which could draw pests, fungi, and diseases.

And don’t forget to fertilize your lawn while keeping a consistent watering schedule to keep your grass healthy. “Appropriate fertilization means the grass is better able to withstand heat and drought stress,” says Kopp, adding that you can use leftover grass clippings from mowing or edging to “provide nutrients to the system.” She suggests fertilizing in spring, early summer, late summer, and late fall. 

Watering Tips for Your Landscaping and Plants

Your landscape is an essential part of your curb appeal or backyard aesthetic. Depending on the plants, shrubs, and trees you have, it’ll likely require more water than your lawn — but you don’t want to overdo it.

1. Water your plants on days you don’t water your lawn (if they need it).

When you skip watering your grass for a few days, you can delegate water to other plants that need it. But don’t feel like you need to water at least something in your yard daily. “Just watering because you think you need to is usually not a good idea,” says Durham. “You need to look at the plant and what the plant is trying to tell you it needs.” 

She suggests a simple technique for checking if a plant needs water — use your finger (or a probe) to see how dry the soil is. “[A plant’s soil] might look really dry on the surface, but underneath, there might be much more moisture.” If you feel the moisture in the soil, you can skip watering that day.

To use even less water, Mink says you can swap out non-native plants for plants native to your area. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, you might opt for sagebrush and geraniums, but in the Midwest, you’ll do better to choose something like black cohosh and maidenhair ferns. 

2. Learn how to water for your soil type.

Soil types can affect a plant’s water requirements. For instance, Durham’s home soil in Western Kansas is more clay-like, which means it holds moisture well. Once her plants’ root systems are established, she only needs to water them once per week.  

Soil textures are classified broadly as sand, clay, or silt. Sandy soils don’t hold as much water as finer soils, making it difficult for plant growth, and if you have sandy soil, it requires frequent watering. Finer soils like clay and silt have a higher water-holding capacity than coarser soils, meaning you can water them less frequently — although silt has better drainage than clay. Loamy soils, which are a mix of sand, silt, and clay, offer ideal drainage. Durham adds that you’ll need more intensive irrigation in arid climates.

Kopp says to consult your local land grant university for information on how to irrigate and better care for plants according to your specific soil type. You can also consult an online web soil survey map from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Find your exact address by zooming in on the map, and clicking the area surrounding your property to see its name. For example, my home soil is Willows (clay soil). You can also try to identify your soil type by using a hand test.

Learn more about your area’s soil by contacting the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which has service centers throughout the country. 

Credit: Lea Rae / Shutterstock

3. Try rainwater barrels.

If changing your landscaping is too much, Mink is also a proponent of using rainwater barrels to collect water for your plants. “Instead of this water flowing off your home and aimlessly into areas around your home, you can use this water for gardening purposes,” he says. “The water drains off your roof, through the gutter system, and into the rain barrel.”

4. Water by hand.

Mink and Kopp say hand watering your plants is an efficient way to monitor water usage. Because you’re holding the hose or watering can, Kopp says it makes you more mindful of water usage. A head attachment for your garden hose, such as one with a shut-off valve, will help you control the output of water as you move from plant to plant. Kopp adds that sensitive annual flowers can really benefit from this method. Hand watering is also great for plants like cacti or succulents — Mink says these only need water once a week.

You can also look at hand watering as a de-stressing task and opt for a small- or medium-sized watering can over a hose. “I am a big fan of hand watering plants. It can become a fun task to do after a long work day and helps you get out in the fresh air,” Mink says.

5. Try drip irrigation.

Setting up a drip irrigation system is a doable DIY project if you’re up for a challenge, and it can help space out your water usage. “It can be extremely efficient, [providing] water to plants exactly where they need it, right at the root zone and not beyond that,” Kopp says, adding that any plant, including grass, can benefit from it. “[For] shrubs, perennials, annual flowers, vegetable gardens — drip is just a very efficient way to irrigate,” she says.

If you set up a drip irrigation system, Durham recommends covering the subsurface drip line with some bark or other insulating material to help stretch the water further. 

6. Use a water tray.

You can let plants soak up water on their own by placing a tray filled with water underneath a potted plant, such as a fiddle-leaf fig. You can’t count only on rain, though — you’ll need to add water to the tray when you notice it’s dry. “Plants are very intuitive,” Durham says. “They draw the nutrients in the water towards their root system.” She adds that it’s important to check a plant’s compatibility with this watering style. Gardening experts at Savvy Gardening mention that using a water tray (aka bottom watering) is helpful for specific plants like succulents, snake plants, herbs, pothos, and even seedlings.