Sustainability Archives

Sustainable home landscape design is more than just saving water by using drought tolerant plantings and employing water efficient irrigation systems. Sustainability goes beyond the limits of your own property. Here are some sustainable landscape elements that you may want to consider.

For example, water that is not otherwise used to irrigate your landscape runs off the property into drainage swales and storm drains and finds its way into streams or groundwater aquifers. Sustainability involves ecological, economical and social issues. But primarily homeowners will receive the most tangible benefits of sustainability by focusing on water conservation techniques they can apply to their  home landscape as they are the easiest to put into place.

1) Drip Irrigation – A drip system delivers water at a rate based on gallons per hour compared to gallons per minute as does a conventional spray head system. Both use the same kind of valves, but a drip system’s valves need to have a pressure reducer to bring the pressure after the valve to around 25-30 psi. Drip emitters then deliver water right to the root zone and so are therefore much more efficient than overhead spray heads.

2) Smart Controllers – A “smart” controller is a conventional automatic irrigation controller that is equipped with a computer that you can program that makes use of rainfall data in your region thus helping to improve the efficiency in delivery and conserve water by changing the settings as the level of soil moisture changes.

Hydrawise Smart Controller typical home page
This is my personal dashboard for my Hydrawise smart controller

3) Rain Sensors – when used with a Smart Controller they can overide the default settings in order to save water based on rainfall. A rain sensor can also be used in conjunction with a conventional irrigation controller and will override the controller’s settings when it senses sufficient amount of rainfall.

4) Soil Moisture Sensors – Probing the soil with either a manual rain sensor or one connected to a controller will allow you to adjust your irrigation settings for each zone you are testing. Zones are important in irrigation and planting design to provide adequate water for the plant’s requirements.

5) High Efficiency Nozzles – Spray heads that can be efficient for shrubs and lawn areas by using low precipitation rate nozzles. Make sure they are labeled as such.

6) Rainwater Harvesting – Use rain barrels or larger storage tanks so you can utilize the captured water during periods between rains. Raingardens and Bioswales use the natural runoff from a site to irrigate the plants.

7) Permeable Pavers – Capture rainwater so you can either direct it back into the soil or into a RainXchange underground storage system where the water can then be pumped to use as you wish.

8) Graywater – Water diverted from your washing machine, sinks and showers can be used for irrigation in the landscape. Local building codes vary by state. Not all states allow graywater use, but it is allowed in Arizona.

9) Food Gardens – Providing for at least some of your own food is not only healthy because of its freshness and hopefully grown organically, but is in the spirit of buy local. Not everyone can grow a majority of their own food since most of us live in urban areas, but each of us can do own part regardless how small a contribution.

10) Organic Non-Toxic Methods – Growing organically and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides or inorganic fertilizers helps our water resources to remain unpolluted.

11) Recycle, Reuse, Reduce — Composting is an essential feature for any sustainable landscape that will not only reduce burdens on landfills, but improves the soil in your food garden and other planting areas.

On the big picture level, sustainability is a global concern for the continuation of the earth’s resources to provide for the needs of our planet, both human and environmental needs. Sustainability is also a lifestyle choice that affects how we behave and our attitudes. By focusing on sustainable landscape elements, you can help the sustainability of your local region.

Rainwater harvesting in Sedona is a great way to capture and store rainwater for later use in the garden. In this case, I will show you how we recently installed a 5000 gallon rainwater catchment system in a residential landscape remodel in Sedona.

But first let me give you my perspective about rainwater collection and why rain barrels will quickly have you wondering why you didn’t opt for a much larger tank instead after it fills up in about 20 minutes during a good downpour, overflows and you watch all that “wasted” water that you could have captured.

Serious rainwater catchment systems are designed based on your needs. There are a lot of calculations involved based on how much water you will need to supply your garden, your regular landscape shrubs and trees and other uses you may have. Most professionals who deal with rainwater system design and books on the subject recommend buying a tank as large as you can feasibly locate on your property. However, many homeowners considering rainwater harvesting in Sedona think it would be nice and a “sustainable thing to do” to help save water will quickly back off a serious system after finding out the overall cost of the equipment. A 5000 gallon tank alone can cost around $2500-$3000. On top of that you have to have a pump and all the plumbing accessories not to mention the labor to install everything.

Compared to a serious rainwater catchment system, rain barrels are a popular alternative as they are easy to hook up to a single downspout and as long as the height of your rain barrel is higher than what you want to water, a garden hose pressurized by gravity will work and is affordable. But a rain barrel that only holds 50-100 gallons won’t supply the needs of a decent sized garden or trees that are not on a regular irrigation system. People realize the limitations of rain barrels but cannot justify the expense of spending several thousand dollars on a serious system.

So what are the reasons people find capturing rainwater attractive? Here are several possible reasons. Remember, people buy based on emotional reasons and only use logic to back up or to justify their decision.

  • Rainwater is pure and plants definitely respond better to rainwater than treated municipal water;
  • People are bombarded all the time with educational material from the government about the need to save water – use it wisely as it is a precious resource and thus people already do some form of water conservation inside the home and so why not do so in the landscape?
  • To reduce their overall use of water and thus reduce their water bill;
  • They are doing it because it is a lifestyle choice and it fits in with their identity as a conscious consumer who values green living, sustainability and is doing their part to save the planet.
  • Rain barrels are now stylish and they want to make a statement to their neighbors that they are good citizens that save water and recycle everything possible.

So it’s not so much (or at all ) about saving money. It’s about saving water and feeling you are part of a society that recognizes the scarcity of water, and is willing to not only conserve the use of water, but to capture and save it for later use during dry periods. People that do opt for an expensive rainwater capture system do so not to save money on their water bill as it will not pay for itself anytime time soon. It’s a lifestyle choice in order for them to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about their decision to save water – regardless of whether its on a grand scale like a 10,000 gallon storage tank or a 60 gallon rain barrel.

This thinking is very similar to why somebody will justify spending $100,000 on a Model S Tesla electric car when it may take 40 years to amortize the cost of gasoline that they are “saving”. And again, it’s not the cost of gasoline; it’s the non-reliance on fossil fuels and using free energy of the sun which is akin to the free water from the sky.

Rainwater harvesting in Sedona is just as popular as driving a Tesla, only people opt for a Toyota Prius and a rain barrel too boot. Maybe I should give away a free rain barrel with the purchase of every landscape package…hmmm… maybe there is something to that idea.

Watch us off load a 5000 gallon rainwater tank and set it into place on a recent landscape remodel job we did in Sedona:


Nativescapes – The Ultimate Green Landscape


A type of sustainable landscape design that uses mostly native plants is often called “Nativescaping”.  Sometimes it is a type of theme garden labelled as a “Native Plant Garden”.  It is  actually a more descriptive name in lieu of the term Xeriscape, which to many people, means nothing.

What is a Native Plant? A native species (also referred to as indigenous) is a plant that has evolved over many thousands of years in a particular bio-region. Throughout their evolution within a particular area, there have been challenges placed upon the survival of the plant, mainly influences of soil, hydrology, temperature extremes and degree of sunlight.  Such plants make up a part of their bio region in which they share the climatic factors with other plant species to form a plant community. A community of native plant species differentiate the habitats that animals and other creatures inhabit.

What is a Non-Native Plant? Non-native plants (also called non-indigenous plants) are plants that have been brought into an area in which they did not evolve. Introduction of non-native plants into our landscape has been both accidental and intentional. For example, Purple loosestrife, was introduced from Europe 200 hundred years ago as a medicinal herb and ornamental plant. It quickly spread and can now be found in 42 states.

Just like an exotic animal being brought into a non-native habitat, a plant can become overly aggressive and out compete other native species because it often has no competition or predators to control it. Such plant species in our natural ecosystems can be a real problem. But in our own gardens and landscapes, we tend to have virtually all non-natives comprising our plant palettes. That’s the fun of gardening – that you are not limited to native species.

However, because they are not native, such plants require much more intense care, water and energy. A green approach to landscape makes use of native because of the lower water requirements, energy expenditure and the like.

Here are some reasons why native plants can be a benefit:

  • do not need fertilizers.
  • require fewer pesticides.
  • require less water.
  • help reduce air pollution.
  • provide habitat and food for wildlife.
  • respect the natural biodiversity or our lands.
  • saves on the cost of purchasing plants.

So now, it should seem a no-brainer to have at least a part of your yard or garden full of native plants that contribute to an overall sustainable landscape.

The best way to have indigenous plants is to not remove them in the first place! If possible, don’t look at your native vegetation as an overgrowth of weeds and scrub. Natives can be pruned effectively to integrate with your introduced non-native species for a garden that is sensitive to the needs of people.

Before you buy a rain barrel or install rainwater catchment systems, consider feasibility. Is it worth it?

Is it just because you hate to see all that potentially useful water be wasted? Can you see a rainwater catchment system used to irrigate your landscape? The answer is usually yes. But the question then becomes, how much water do you need to irrigate your landscape on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?

Here are some steps to determine what kind of system you should design:

  1. Determine how many gallons of water your irrigation system needs to deliver to the landscaping

The average daily water use in the Sedona area is 360 gallons per day per person/household. Outdoor use is estimated at 30% of that, so let’s use 100 gallons per day for outdoor use, which we will allocate to landscaping.

Let’s say your landscape irrigation system is set up to water 10 trees, 100 shrubs, perhaps some pots, and a garden area. Using rough figures, that is about 700 gallons per week.

  1. Determine the catchment area based on the square footage of roof area for you house and determine how much volume could you potentially collect

Most homeowners who start out rainwater harvesting using a barrel or several soon realize they are actually losing out on capturing a large amount of water. A typical 55 gallon barrel can fill up in only one hour with a 1/8” of rain on 1000 square feet of roof area. That single rain barrel will hardly make a dent in your irrigation needs. Besides, your landscaping is being irrigated to an extent during the rainstorm and so you should look at the function of the rain barrel as a storage system to capture the water for later use during dry periods, not during the rainy periods.

A rainwater catchment system based on a couple of rain barrels may not seem to be worth it if your intention is to capture as much water as you can, store it and use it for your landscape irrigation needs.






  1. Determine the feasibility of having a single large collection tank or if several tanks would be needed because of the way the roof gutters and downspouts would have to be designed around the house and the site conditions.

The question of feasibility is both a factor of your site suitability and economics. Here are some site suitability factors:

  • Adequate roof catchment (sufficient area and fitted with gutters and downspouts)
  • Suitability of area at base of downspouts to accommodate the plumbing necessary to channel the water into barrels or a storage device
  • Number of suitable downspouts relative to required storage volume
  • Aesthetics of plumbing, tanks and trenching needs
  1. Determine cost to install the system and perform a cost-benefit analysis.

You may compare the cost of a rainwater catchment system vs. the cost savings of paying for the water and realize that water is so cheap that you will never break even. Capturing rainwater for your own use to offset the cost of paying for municipal water is not the point. Rather, it’s the green lifestyle and ecological stewardship values that drive your decisions. But it still comes down to how much is that worth? How high tech should you go with capturing rainwater?

  1. Based on cost-benefit analysis determine if you will design a low tech, limited collection system or a high tech, high volume system. This decision will be based on the costs involved for each system and how much you are willing to pay.

It may be that to provide close to 100% of your landscape irrigation needs, you would need a 5000 gallon tank or several smaller depending on the design of your roof catchment area and the ground level suitability to bury and or hide the tanks.

The cost of implementing a system that is designed to pump water out to a garden, an accessory garden hose or other high pressure use can significantly add to the cost of an otherwise passive gravity flow system. Most serious rainwater storage systems pump the water to where it is designed to be used, otherwise, you must rely on gravity flow alone and the use must therefore be downhill from the output elevation of the storage tanks.

In addition to overall cost, your particular site will dictate what kind of system is feasible. You may not have the room nor be willing to spend the added cost to bury a large tank. Remember, if your landscape irrigation needs are 700 gallons per week, you will need a lot of storage volume otherwise you will run out of water quickly. If that happens, why have a water catchment system that cannot store the maximum amount of volume to provide for your needs? It may be that is all your site can handle as well as your pocketbook.

Conclusion: After going through the process of design and feasibility analysis, you may decide that it is logical to consider reducing the amount of water that you need to capture to irrigate your landscape. Splitting up the amount of water you capture between a pressurized system for irrigation valves vs. a gravity flow system may be a good decision.

The gravity flow system can serve to irrigate native plantings and otherwise keep water on site and not runoff the property into the stormwater drainage system. Shallow retention basins can be created as well as large wells surrounding trees. There must be adequate pressure created between the points of discharge at the storage tank and the downhill elevation at the end of the hose.

Given the potential complexity of retrofitting a rainwater catchment system into an existing landscape, it would be ideal to design the landscape based on using rainwater catchment so the entire system is efficient and cost effective. Otherwise you may decide that a rainwater catchment system after the fact is not worth it.

We are constantly reminded to save water, conserve water and use it wisely. But while it so cheap at less than 3 cents per gallon, its cost is not high enough to change consumer behavior.

Some people and groups including the Sierra Club believe water is a human right and not a commodity. It is not a true commodity in terms of trading because it does not have a trading flatform. Municipalities whose mission it is to supply water to customers are always concerned about supply because of our dependence upon surface water through runoff and groundwater resources. It is their mission to deliver sufficient, clean and drinkable water to its users.

In times of drought, we are encouraged to reduce our demand. Some municipalities restrict water usage and sometimes even will ban watering lawns. Water rates are usually based on a tiered rate increase system to discourage excessive use. But if you look at how much water actually costs, does it affect our consumer habits as does the cost of gasoline? Not in my opinion. Water is so cheap that if you actually analyzed your water bill, you would agree that raising the rates would have more of an impact on conservation and demand than the government creating a crisis as to its supply.

The only way that the cost of water will increase is a shift in the way water rights and rates charged are structured by the utilities. Owners of large aquifers with water rights may be able to form private water companies and furnish a new supply to buyers willing to pay a higher price. Until that time, the focus on using less water and not being concerned with the cost is the rule of the day. Sure, utilities tell you can save water by using less, but they don’t tell you how much money you will save because its usually pennies for any one water conservation tip.

If you do intend to adopt a water conservative strategies that will help reduce outdoor consumption in the landscape, here are some ways to achieve it:

1) Properly planning and designing your garden for the local climate — Zones should be designed based on sun exposure and orientation. Group plants based on needs for full sun, shade, etc. as well as water needs. Don’t combine cactus with perennials.

2) Use Drip Irrigation – Delivering water right to the soil surface and the root zone is much more efficient than spray heads by avoiding water waste through evaporation and wind.

3) Add Soil Moisture Sensors – probing the soil with either a manual rain sensor or one connected to a controller will allow you to adjust your irrigation settings for each zone you are testing.

4) Rain Sensors – when used with a Smart Controller they can overide the default settings in order to save water based on rainfall or regional weather data.

5) Smart Controllers have a computer that you can program making a regular controller a “smart” controller, helping reduce water usage and efficiency in delivery so that you don’t have to keep turning the controller on or off yourself.

6) High Efficiency Nozzles – spray heads can be efficient for shrubs and lawn areas by using low precipitation rate nozzles. Irrigation manufacturers are really up to speed with water conserving technology these days.

7) Permeable Pavers – Hard surfaces displace the area where rainwater could otherwise percolate into the soil. By using pavers that are made to capture water, you can either direct it back into the soil or into a RainXchange underground storage system where the water can then be pumped to use as you wish.

8) Capture and Collect Rainwater – use rain barrels or larger storage tanks so you can utilize the captured water during periods between rains. Rain gardens and Bioswales use the natural runoff from a site to irrigate the plants.

9) Limit Turf Areas – Turf requires the most water of any outdoor category. If you must have a lawn area, keep it to the minimum area to reduce the amount of heads required. If possible, convert turf areas over to low water use ground covers.

10) Manage Leaks – Drip systems can hide leaks because of the underground lines. A leak can be wasting a lot of water without you even knowing about it. Periodically, turn on the system and walk around listening for leaks as well as overly wet areas and then repair them.

11) Keep Adjusting Your Automatic Irrigation Controller Settings – People tend to overwater by programming the run times for too long a period or too frequent. You need to observe the plant’s growth and adjust the watering times accordingly. Poor system design will result in you setting watering times for the highest use plants or zone while those specific high water use plants may only make up a small percentage of all the plants on that zone. That is why it’s so important to group plants in zones (or watering stations) based on similar water usage.


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