How to Design and Plant Water-Conscious Gardens

Having your own yard and garden is satisfying for a lot of reasons. But one of our favorites is being able to call the shots and control your impact on the environment. Regardless of your yard or garden size, your choices can help leave the Earth better off than it was before you came along. Water-conscious gardening is one way to make a difference — whether you live where water is plentiful or where drought and gardening go hand in hand.

  • Benefits of Water-Conscious Gardens
  • Drought-Tolerant Gardens to Conserve Water
  • Rain Gardens to Recharge Aquifers and Reduce Runoff
  • Ways to Harvest and Conserve Rainwater

Benefits of Water-Conscious Gardens

Water-conscious gardening aims to minimize supplemental watering by matching plants to normal rainfall where you live. That balance between plant needs and natural precipitation helps your garden look and feel its best, under any conditions. Make no mistake: Water-conscious gardens are just as gorgeous as traditional gardens. Some would argue (us included) that caring for the Earth intensifies their beauty even more.

For garden lovers around the world, climate change has altered the way they think about gardens and the choices they make. Depending on where they live and what nature has handed them, water-conscious gardeners can face very different choices.

If you live where there's limited water and irrigation bans, your garden needs drought-tolerant plants that thrive in dry, arid conditions. But drought isn't the only water-related issue affecting plants. Some folks have the opposite challenge: excessive rainfall. In their yard, plants that like arid climates drown and rot. Plus, extreme weather leads to problems with stormwater runoff and pollution.

By planning your garden with water in mind, you can help protect the Earth and make the most of every drop of water you do — or don't — use. With a little creativity and commitment, you can enjoy the benefits of water-conscious gardening wherever you live.

Lavender with a blue rectangular pot in the backgroundWater-wise herbs like lavender add color and fragrance to drought-tolerant gardens.

Drought-Tolerant Gardens to Conserve Water

Gardens designed to withstand drought take plant-water balance to the next level and consciously plan for a water shortage. Different plants respond to drought in different ways. Some tender plants shrivel, droop or turn brown at the first hint of dryness, but others excel during extended droughts. Plants that have built-in mechanisms to handle low water are the backbone of drought-minded gardens.

From cool-climate sedums to heat-loving echeverias to the snake plant and ZZ houseplant in your living room, succulents rule the plant world when it comes to drought. These water-wise plants plan ahead and store water in their fleshy roots, stems and leaves. Then they draw on that internal supply when times are tough and droughts hit. But succulents aren't your only low-water plant choice.

Many Mediterranean herbs, including culinary herb garden favorites like sage, lavender and rosemary, flourish in low-water plantings. Low-maintenance annual sunflowers and zinnias add splashes of color along with drought tolerance. You can even kick things up with drought-tolerant hot peppers and turn your garden into a drought-tolerant edible landscape.

Using a mulch to cover the soil between plants can help conserve existing soil moisture and retain added rain. A 3-inch layer of organic compost makes an excellent mulch. If decorative pebbles or pea gravel are your thing, those work great, too.

The overriding rule in drought-tolerant garden design is that there are no rules you can't break. Drought-tolerant plants come in all sizes, textures and colors, just like plants that don't tolerate drought. Just stay conscious of water and the needs of your plants and your slice of earth. Unless you plan to replant every year, choose plants that can tolerate your winter temperatures as well as they tolerate drought.

Monarch butterfly resting on a black-eyed susanDeep-rooted wildflowers like black-eyed susans can manage water and keep pollinators happy.

Rain Gardens to Recharge Aquifers and Reduce Runoff

In some regions, heavy rainfall is the norm and extreme weather events are on the rise. Water-conscious gardeners focus on managing excess precipitation so that it benefits the environment instead of hurting it. Otherwise, heavy rainfall means heavy runoff. Water meant to soak into the earth and recharge aquifers gets routed down street gutters and stormwater systems into lakes and streams — taking chemicals from roads, sidewalks and overfertilized, mismanaged lawns with it.

Rain gardens do the opposite. They're designed to collect rainfall and direct it where nature needs it to go. Low-lying lawn areas, drainage ditches and the buffer zone between your yard and your street are perfect spots for rain garden designs. Don't have any of those? Create your own rain garden space and make a shallow depression where rainwater can collect in your yard.

Unlike drought-tolerant gardens matched to low-water plants, rain gardens call for plants that can tolerate standing water temporarily while rainwater infiltrates the soil. Then they still look great when the water's gone and normal precipitation returns.

Deep-rooted native plants are rain garden faves. Their extensive roots offset standing water and help filter contaminants away as water soaks in and recharges the aquifer below. Ornamental grasses, like switch grass and big bluestem, and pollinator-friendly flowers, including monardas, black-eyed susans and coneflowers, handle rainwater with cheery wildflower blooms.

Terracotta rain barrel catching water during a stormRain barrels help capture and keep rainwater for later use.

Ways to Harvest and Conserve Rainwater

Soil quality is crucial to capturing the rainwater that nature provides. When soil is hard and compacted — or depleted of life and nutrients — drought-tolerant and rain garden plants suffer. Before you plant, take time to improve your native soil's health and structure so that available water and nutrients get used like you intend.

Incorporated into your garden, our Pennington Rejuvenate Natural & Organic Garden Soil Mix revitalizes native soil and helps create a living ecosystem that sets your water-conscious garden up for success. Nourish your plants from the inside out when you plant with our Pennington Rejuvenate Plant Food All-Purpose 4-4-4. Its blend of natural and organic ingredients includes essential plant nutrients plus earthworm castings, humic acids and beneficial microorganisms that help strengthen plants against stress and drought.

Lawns and other yard areas aren't excluded from water-conscious gardening. Our water-conserving Pennington Smart Seed grasses use 30% less water than ordinary grass seed. Sustainable lawn alternatives, like our fast-rooting, self-fertilizing Pennington Smart Seed Clover + Grass Mix, can help you limit lawn fertilizer, conserve water and reduce runoff from your yard — even on hills and slopes. (Plus, you'll love the way it feels on bare feet.)

Unlike concrete patios and walkways, permeable pavers or natural stones let rainwater flow through them and into the soil. Garden accessories like rain barrels and rain chains (think of them as downspouts with style) help you capture and save water that comes your way. Then when rain falls short, you can make like a succulent and draw on your reserves.

By keeping water front and center when you design and plan your garden, you can make water-conscious, sustainable gardening a natural part of your garden life. At Pennington, we think gardens are meant to work with nature, not against it. And we're here to help yours succeed. Have a question or a comment? We'd love to hear it and stay in touch. Let us help you nurture your roots.

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