UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County
University of California
UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County

Gardening with Limited Water

Water-efficient plants. Click to enlarge.
Water-efficient plants. Click to enlarge.
Most of the water used at home is used outdoors, so even small steps to save water can yield big savings.  Little things like fixing a broken sprinkler or making sure that you are running them in the cool of the early morning rather than the afternoon can save lots of water.  You can conserve even more by shrinking the amount of lawn you have, planting water-efficient plants, installing a drip irrigation system or adding a weather-based smart controller.  

Saving water is not hard.  We simply need to be smart about using what we have. Low water use landscapes can be beautiful while using minimal amounts of water. 

10 Tips for Saving Water in the Home Landscape

  1. Prioritize your plants  Determine which plants are most susceptible to water stress. High on the list should be plants that are valuable in terms of replacement cost, prominence in the landscape and enjoyment.

    High Priority - trees and shrubs (especially those that are young and planted in an exposed site). Large, mature shade trees and shrubs can be left alone unless the drought is severe and the trees begin to wilt, or the root systems have been recently disturbed.

    Medium to High Priority - perennials, fruit and nut trees, small fruits and vegetables; turf that is less than one year old.

    Low Priority - annual flowers and herbs, ornamental grasses, established turf. These are usually less expensive and more easily replaced.

  2. Irrigate early Less water loss occurs from evaporation and wind drift in the early morning hours because temperatures are cooler and there is less wind early in the day.

  3. Know your soil  The type of soil in your landscape largely determines how often you should water. Clay soils hold more water than sandier ones they can go longer between waterings than sandy soils.

  4. Mulch  Apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch around plants to keep weeds down, conserve soil moisture and moderate soil temperatures. Mulching minimizes water evaporation from the soil surface, reducing the need to irrigate. Keep mulch 3 to 4 inches away from the trunk or stem of the plant to prevent rot. 

  5. Control weeds  Weeds can out-compete cultivated garden plants for water and nutrients.

  6. Add organic matter  When possible, add organic matter (compost) to your soil. This will improve the water-holding capacity during dry weather and promote good drainage during wet weather.

  7. Don't fertilize  Or if you do, apply a low-nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilizing stimulates growth which increases water needs.

  8. Avoid runoff and puddling by cycling irrigations. Let sprinklers run for 10 minutes then shut them off for 10 minutes, allowing the ground to absorb the water.

  9. Use a broom to clean driveways, sidewalks and steps. Using a hose to clean can waste hundreds of gallons of water.

  10. Select water-efficient plants  When buying new plants, use some of the resources below to choose low water users adapted to our climate. Keep in mind that all plants require regular watering to become established, including California natives.


The resources below provide more information about how to create a water-efficient landscape and how to deal with drought conditions in your garden.

Note: PDF files open in a new window/tab.


Water-efficient plants

  • A seven-page document, the WEL garden plant list (PDF 106kb), lists the plants growing in the Water-Efficient Landscape demonstration garden areas at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.

  • This is a list of the California native plants (PDF 120kb) growing in the Water-Efficient Landscape at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.  With minimal supplemental water these plants can be kept attractive all year.

  • The Arboretum All-Stars are 100 easy to grow, water-efficient plants selected by the UC Davis Arboretum horticultural staff and tested in our region.

  • UC Davis horticulturists have been evaluating landscape plants with the potential to be good performers in low-water use gardens since 2005.  See the results of these landscape plant irrigation field trials.

Vegetable gardens

  • Suggestions for home vegetable garden management (PDF 20kb) during a drought include valuable information on critical watering periods for numerous vegetable crops. 

  • Some vegetables require less water (PDF 8kb) than others; this article describes which ones to consider for your vegetable garden when water use is limited.




  • Irrigation scheduling information for turfgrass from the UC Guide to Healthy Lawns tells how to determine the amount of water and how long to irrigate a lawn.  

  • UC Guide to Healthy Lawns guide to irrigating established lawns describes how to ensure that your lawn will thrive.

  • Plan your irrigation system from UC IPM Online describes things consider when planning a watering scheme.  

Helpful websites

  • UC Guide to Healthy Lawns provides extensive information about growing a healthy lawn. From UC IPM Online, the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.

  • The Sacramento Tree Foundation offers excellent in-depth tree planting and watering guidance for our area.

  • River-Friendly Landscape Guidelines (PDF).  RFL practices conserve water, reduce yard waste, and prevent pollution of air and local rivers.  Use the River Friendly benefits calculator to see how much water, time and money can be saved by creating a river-friendly landscape.

  • Water-Wise Gardening in the Gold Country Region from the Regional Water Authority offers extensive information about garden design, plant selection, watering tips, and tours of gardens in the Sacramento area, including the Water-Efficient Landscape gardens at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.
  • WUCOLS IV (Water Use Classification of Landscape Species, 4th Edition) provides guidance in the selection and care of landscape plants relative to their water needs.  Search for different types of plants appropriate for your specific region of California.

4145 Branch Center Road, Sacramento, CA 95827       Master Gardener Phone:  916.876.5338       Fax:  916.875.6233

Webmaster Email: mgsacramento@ucanr.edu