Smart Landscaping

Erin Alvarez is a landscape instructor at the University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department. Her teaching program is based in landscape management, which also includes public gardens management and a focus on landscape management issues.

In this interview, Alvarez talks about the common mistakes some homeowners make when it comes to plant selection and irrigation systems.

Erin Alvarez: Landscape Instructor

A beautiful, water-efficient landscape doesn’t require a huge investment, lots of water and constant maintenance as homeowners might assume. Erin Alvarez, landscape instructor at UF Environmental Horticulture Department, says knowledge about what kinds of plants to install in your backyard and up-to-date irrigation systems is by far the best way to avoid water waste.

“A lot of people typically think they know what plant to put in,” Alvarez says, “but they don’t necessarily pick the right plants for the right place, and that results in water management issues.”

Plant selection should be the first priority when it comes to a homeowner’s property. St. Augustine grass tends to have the reputation of being the most water-consuming, but Alvarez says research shows that any type of grass would be better than bare soil. St. Augustine grass is available in several varieties, and some are more drought resistant than others.

But Zoysia and Bahia grasses use less when it comes to water consumption.

“Turf grasses, like Zoysia grass, are being marketed as being more drought tolerant than St. Augustine grass right now,” Alvarez says. “And that’s kind of a mixed message because it does tend to turn brown faster if it’s exposed to drought, but it survives the drought better than St. Augustine grass.”

She always warns homeowners to beware of neighbors’ landscape advice. Even some landscape companies do not have the proper education or training, which could lead to problems if people spend a lot of money and time investing in a landscape unfit for the area. It is a smarter move to ask your county extension office, or better yet, the university’s horticultural department if you are in doubt.

When it comes to watering your lawns, an irrigation system should be in sync with the weather as well.

“It’s never a good idea for a homeowner to set their irrigation system to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and leave it alone. It should always be connected to what’s going on in the weather,” Alvares says.

Nowadays, technology makes management easier with systems that are connected to weather stations, have soil moisture sensors and evoratranspiration readers. According to Alvarez, these readers are becoming common and available for homeowners, where they measure weather data and determine an irrigation schedule based on rainfall, temperature and humidity.

However, even with the latest high-tech irrigation system and ideal plant selection, water conservation truly comes down to a person’s awareness.

“A lot of evidence has shown that if someone wastes water inside, they are going to waste water outside,” Alvarez says.

Other Resources

Find Your Local County Extension Offices

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape

Sign up for “The Neighborhood Gardener,” a monthly e-newsletter from UF Master Gardener and the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program.

Water Efficient Irrigation

Joe Floyd is one of four co-owners of Abundant Edible Landscapes. From fruit trees to rainwater collection systems, the company provides several services to homeowners who would like to develop their landscape with environmentally conscious features.

In this interview, Floyd talks what irrigations systems could cut down your water bill in the long run, why you should stay away from imported plants, and how growing your own produce cannot only save you water, but also gas and money.

Alternative North Central Florida Lawns

One Floridian uses the same amount of water in one day, as an average person living in Mozambique, Africa, would in 88 days: 176 gallons, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The St. Johns River Water Management District reports that 58 percent of that water goes to outdoor needs – the worst offender being irrigation.

While some homeowner associations may not permit it, there are other ways to create a lush, beautiful lawn that will not only be visually appealing but also save money and water.

The most common turfgrass for residential areas in north central Florida is St. Augustine grass; however, it can come at a cost with higher fertilizing and watering demands than other types of turfgrass, Floyd Gainey of Soil-Enrichment Products said. Gainey recommends Centipede grass instead of St. Augustine grass.

Most common in the Florida panhandle, Centipedegrass doesn’t grow quickly, requiring less mowing, and is drought and shade tolerant. This grass variety also does well in acidic or infertile soils, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences extension.

Gainey stresses amending your soil before planting any type of plant. Amending includes anything that adds nutrients to the soil and locks in moisture. Not amending soil before planting is like “buying a steak and throwing it in the refrigerator and never cooking it,” Gainey said.

Using organic matter from composting also provides a more nutrient rich soil that will help reduce irrigation needs, because the organic matter holds more moisture than soil lacking either nutrients or organic matter, Joe Floyd of Abundant Edible Landscapes said.

Florida Friendly Landscaping strives to help create residential and business landscaping behaviors and techniques that instill the use of low-maintenance plants and sustainable living.

A typical yard in the program minimizes the use of potable water for irrigation, avoids runoff of excess fertilizers and pesticides from the yard and provides habitat for wildlife. There are nine principles of FFL. The eighth principle—reduce storm water runoff—includes using rain gardens instead of turfgrass, another method to creating alternative lawns.

Rain gardens are shallow areas that have grasses (not turfgrass) and plants that catch rain, allowing it to sink into the ground to replenish the Floridan Aquifer, Florida’s main water source. Mulch or stones are used as groundcover, but any porous surface can be used to allow rainwater to seep into the ground, instead of storm water drains. FFL recommends the use of bricks, gravel, turf block, mulch, pervious concrete or other porous surface when possible to allow water to drain into the ground.

The number one principle of FFL is “right plant, right place.” This principle constitutes acknowledging what areas in your yard are adequate or lacking elements such as soil type, watering needs, shade or sun, and acidity. This principle is best put into practice by carefully planning a landscape. More information on how to pick the right plant for the right place can be found on the FFL website.

Saving water IN and OUT of your home

Spring and summer seasons for Floridians are characterized by recreational activities involving water sources that are especially unique to us like springs and beaches. While we use these resources almost all year around, it can be difficult to notice that these water sources, once plentiful, are now gradually being depleted by wasteful behavior and old technology.

The average gallons per day for a person in Mozambique (Africa) is 2 gallons, Germany, 72 gallons, Canada, 114 gallons, the United States, 150 gallons and Florida, 176 gallons, according to  statistics from the St. Johns River Water Management District. The St. Johns district statistics show that about 58 percent of water use goes to outdoor uses – the worst offender being irrigation.

Other uses include about 10 percent for the toilet, about 8 percent for washing machines, about 7 percent for the shower, about 6 percent for faucets and about 5 percent goes to any kind of leak. Cutting down usage of all of these appliances could make a dent in water usage, considering they account for about 36 percent of water usage per person.

There are numerous excuses for not cutting back on water: not enough money, time or lack of knowledge. But whether you don’t have money or you don’t have time, water saving behaviors or upgrades are still in reach.


By just changing behaviors or making upgrades outside the home, 40 gallons or more of water can be saved per day. Behaviors that can easily be changed to reduce water usage are:

  • Water plants and grass only when needed.
    Tip: Step on the grass – if it springs back then it doesn’t need water
  • Set the lawn mower blades one notch higher.
    Tip: Never cut more than the top third of grass to decrease evaporation. Longer grass means less evaporation.
  • Don’t water on windy days
  • Only water before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Watering midday can waste up to 65 percent of water to evaporation.
  • Don’t let the hose run while washing your car, instead use buckets to hold water and soap
  • Group plants according to their watering needs
  • Water less in the winter.
  • Use a broom instead of hose to clean driveways
  • Adjust sprinklers to reduce spraying on sidewalks and driveways
  • Repair leaky hoses or sprinklers

Ready to take the next step?

There are nontraditional upgrades that can be made to the outside of the home. Some of them, like rain barrels and cisterns, that seem foreign to some, but they can stop wasteful watering easily. Upgrades to the outside of the home are:

  • Water-efficient drip irrigation for trees, shrubs and flowers
  • Install a rain shut-off device on automatic sprinklers
  • Put mulch around trees, shrubs and flowers to lessen evaporation
  • Use rain barrels or cisterns to collect rain run-off
  • Replace turf grass with native drought-tolerant vegetation
  • Make a compost pile
  • Replace traditional St. Augustine grass (high water use) to a lower water use grass
  • Install a smart irrigation controller that adjusts watering for temperature and rain
  • Install a pool cover to reduce evaporation
    Also: Be careful with small children around these.

Inside the Home

Even though most of the water usage is accounted for outside of the home, 41% of water use comes from uses inside the home. By changing behaviors and making a few upgrades, water can be saved and used efficiently, saving anywhere up to 30 gallons per person, per day.

Water saving tips involving behavioral change are:

  • Shower in 5 minutes or less
    Tip: Don’t think you can shower in just 5 minutes? Try just cutting back your shower by 2 minutes to save 5 gallons per day)
  • Run only full loads in the clothes washer
  • Don’t leave water running while washing the dishes
  • Run the dishwasher only when full
  • Turn off water while brushing your teeth
  • Fill the bath tub only halfway
  • Don’t use the toilet as a waste basket

Still not enough?

You can upgrade appliances and plumbing in the home to further water saving. Some of these upgrades cost $1 while some cost hundreds of dollars.

Upgrades to save water in the home are:

  • Fix leaky faucets and toilets
    Tip: Put a few drops of food coloring in your toilet tank, wait 15 minutes, and if bowl water is colored then you have a leaky flapper that should be replaced.
  • Install a shower head with a maximum flow rate of 2 gallons per minute
  • Install low flow shower head (2 gallon/min)
  • Purchase efficient clothes washer (Energy Star)
  • Purchase an efficient dishwasher (Energy Star)
  • Install toilets with 1.28 gallons per flush
    Tip: If you can’t afford a new toilet, try this to reduce the amount of water it uses – fill half way a half-gallon jug with pebbles, gravel, sand or water, and put it in the toilet tank.
    **Also: If one flush doesn’t clean out the toilet, then remove the jug.
  • Install sink aerators with maximum flow rates of 1.5 gallons per minute

Information was provided by Stacie Greco of the Alachua County of Environmental Protection Department. More resources on saving water include Gainesville Regional Utilities, St. Johns River Water Management District, South West Florida Water Management District and the Suwannee River Water Management District. GRU also provides free home surveys where their trained professionals can point out how to save water and energy in the home.