Everything Calgarians need to know about landscaping during a drought

Landscapers list a bevvy of options to maintain your backyard on a water budget, like xeriscaping, switching to drought-friendly vegetation and frugal irrigation system practices

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As summer slowly draws to a close in Alberta, there is no end in sight for the water restrictions placed in Calgary and surrounding areas to mitigate prolonged drought conditions.

Calgary is currently in its third week of Stage 1 water restrictions, implemented in mid-August. City officials say staggering water use and restricting certain activities can cut down on demand for the municipal water supply to compensate for historically low levels of water in the river watersheds that supply the city.

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Under Stage 1, Calgarians are restricted from using water for outdoor activities like washing cars, pavements or exterior building features. Residents can only water their lawn one day a week during set times for two hours and are allowed to use sprinkler and irrigation systems during those times. Calgarians can use water to water new sod or lawn seed and can water their shrubs, trees and gardens with a hose that shuts off or a water canister at any time.

The restrictions, landscapers say, limit what Calgarians can do to keep their backyards looking pretty and maintained during an exceptionally dry summer.

Photo of a backyard by Kath Smyth
This backyard uses water drained from the hill side. Photo by Courtesy of Kath Smyth

“When you have water restrictions, it’s really hard to keep up your nice-looking property,” Calgary-based landscaper Alex Johnson said. “It’s mainly just trying to abide by the rules that have been set out by the city and then water as much as you can within your allotted time slots, but there’s not much else you can do.”

Local landscapers suggest shifting to judiciously designed irrigation systems, opting for vegetation that is less water-dependent, or redesigning your landscaping to maintain your backyard with less water. Here’s everything you need to know about maintaining your backyard in the middle of a drought.

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Should I change the grass in my backyard?

Not necessarily, experts say.

The grass seed mix sold nowadays is a blend of three species adapted to save some water, according to Chris Jenson, owner of Calgary Landscaping. Manufacturers of the mix, he added, claim the blend saves about 30 per cent of water usage.

It also depends on personal preferences and how the backyard is used, said Kath Smyth, horticulturist with the Calgary Horticultural Society. For those who use the yard for physical play, it may make sense to have some grass, she said, although residents could opt for grass patches instead of lining the full yard, using species like Kentucky Bluegrass, Micro clover — Smyth’s personal favourite — or other species native to the Prairies.

“It’s just a question of picking and choosing what you want,” she said.

Smyth on the other hand opted for mulch to maintain moisture levels in the lawn she shares with her neighbour. “It holds the moisture in the ground and shades the ground and it’ll help hold moisture if you’ve got bigger trees or trees growing their root system,” she said.

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Which plants should I grow?

If you’re looking for low-maintenance vegetation with little water demand, drought-friendly trees and shrubs are probably your best bet, experts say. Highbush Cranberry, Saskatoon serviceberries and junipers are great ground-covering plants that hug the soil, holding the moisture within, Smyth says. She and her neighbour added some lilacs to their front lane for texture.

Calgarians looking to switch to shrubs need to do their homework, she cautioned, since some shrubs require more work than others. “I’m talking about shrubs that you don’t have to go out and prune back all the time,” she said. “I’m a little careful about recommending some of the flowering shrubs.”

A lawn with reed seed grass planted.
A lawn with reed seed grass planted. Photo by Courtesy of Kath Smyth

Many residents have already started to switch to plants for an arid climate, Jenson found, with some changing their roses over for drier grasses and shrubs.

The tricky bit lies in adequately watering plants that have been newly transplanted. New transplants often require more water in the first few weeks to help them adapt to the soil and find their roots, mitigating the shock of being in a new environment. Drip irrigation and soaker hose systems, Jenson said, can help support new transplants while adhering to water restrictions.

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“My biggest fear is that we start to shift everything over to more arid climates and more arid plants that grow in a more arid way,” he cautioned. “And then we’re turning our environment back over into more of a desert environment rather than maintaining the prairie type vegetation … that we have here.”

What else can I do to maintain my backyard?

Xeriscaping is in fashion right now, landscapers say, with many opting for rock designs, mulches and synthetic grass over greenery to adorn their lawns and backyards. It can “eliminate a lot of water use,” Jenson said, but comes with a cost.

“You’re probably spending another 10 to 15 per cent to go with gravel instead of mulches (for example),” Jenson explained. “It’s probably almost four times the cost if you’re going to switch your grass from traditional to synthetic. So there’s a big heavy game packed financially in that regard.”

Johnson agrees, citing properties in Las Vegas and California that have made the move to xeriscaping — a type of landscaping that aims to reduce or eliminate altogether the need for water — to adjust to the drier climate. “It’s not an inexpensive task to take on,” he said, when taking into account the industry price increases across the board, cost of materials or labour. “But going down the road, xeriscaping is definitely an easy way to go.”

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That seems expensive. Are there any budget-friendly alternatives?

Investing in irrigation systems frugal with their use of water means putting down some money at the start, but in the long run, is a thrifty solution to keeping your lawns healthy with minimal water use, Jenson said.

“Rainwater harvesting has become a thing in Calgary anyways,” he said, and residents can even rent rain barrels from the city to use for the spring and summer seasons.

Switching to a wifi-controlled irrigation system that monitors the weather carefully and disseminates water only when it’s needed is a “small investment” that could pay off in the long run, he added. Without the use of automatic irrigation systems, sticking to traditional watering practices like watering in the early mornings when temperatures are low, avoiding watering in the middle of the day when temperatures are high to avoid burning your plants, and being judicious about the amount of fertilizer used can be helpful to mitigate the drought on a budget.

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