Water Wise

 Virtual Water-Wise Gardens

   Waterwise -border 

The Society's YardSmart message includes water-wise gardening education.

Waterwise methods include using drought tolerant plants, campanion planting, mulching, and so much more.  As part of this program design modules are used to illustrate how to incorportate water-wise beds into your exisitng garden or to use when you are planning a new garden.

Protecting our rivers means limiting the use of our storm water management system.  Creating a water wise garden supports water conservation and saves you money on your water bill!

Thank you to Society volunteers, Gay Graham and Marion Harrison for supporting our program by creating design modules, along with plant cards that will make your garden planning easy. 

Module #1

Module #2

Module #3

Module #4

Module #5




Blue Fescue

Sea Holly

Foxtail Lily

Globe Thistle

Veronica Red Fox

Russian Sage


Water-Wise Gardening




The objective of water-wise gardening is to reduce treated water usage. Water-efficient landscaping involves selecting plants that are more drought tolerant, and also planning the placement of less drought tolerant plants in places where they can grow and thrive with little or no extra water.




How to Create a Water Wise Garden

A plan will assist in identifying the type and amount of materials needed, create a timeline to organize materials and labour, and outline a budget for your water wise garden.  There are many sources of landscape information including books and the internet that will help you make decisions, draw your detailed plan, select your plants and outline a budget.

The following tips will help you with your design.

-Draw the layout of your property paying attention to:

  • Property orientation (north, east, south, west) and wind direction
  • The amount of sun exposure (sun, part sun and shade) and the influences of neighbouring buildings and/or trees
  • Existing buildings/hardscape
  • Your activities (play area, gardening, compost, storage)
  • Microclimates

-Decide what level of maintenance you are willing to provide as that will affect the amount of planted, mulched, grassed and hardscaped areas.

-Draw the layout of your future design also considering:

  • The style you prefer. Styles vary anywhere from a minimalistic, arid look to a lush, continually flowering look
  • Water use and collection
  • Placing new and existing plants in the best water use zone for each plant and grouping plantings with similar water needs together
  • Taking into consideration possible topographic alterations including new hardscape, modifying a poorly draining low spot, terracing slopes
  • Building/hardscape/soil alterations

Soil - descriptions and identifying soil types

Creating a Garden from a Grassed Area - different methods 

Simple Smother Method - using common materials to cover sod

Sheet or 'Lasagna Gardening' Method - layering materials to create better soil

Raised Beds - how to create raised beds  



The underlying success to any garden is its soil.  The ideal soil structure balances drainage, aeration and its water holding capacity, which supports plant root development.   Most soils are deficient in organic matter. 

The chemical properties of soil play a big part in supporting the nutritional needs of the plants. Although plants do have preferred water requirements, if planted in the proper soil their need for water is generally reduced.  


Your Existing Soil - Loam, Sand and Clay

The best soil with the proper structure and chemistry for growing plants is dark loam. Dark loam soil structure is fairly easy to work with and has a good combination of water retention and drainage properties, allowing enough aeration to hold moisture and nutrients long enough to support most annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. 


Soil that is too sandy is unable to retain enough moisture to supply the plant between waterings. Clay soil can inhibit drainage when wet, resulting in drowned plants. Dry clay can become very hard and impervious, starving the plant and causing runoff problems, leaving the plant roots dry after a rain and washing away the topsoil.  

The three general types of soil from left to right: sand, loam, clay 

Quick Do it Yourself Soil Test

For a quick test to easily determine the structure of your soil, dig up a handful of soil, wet it slightly and make a ball-shape in your hand. 


  • If you have trouble forming a ball, your soil has sand as a major component
  • If it readily forms into a ball and you can squeeze it between your thumb and fingers to form a "soil ribbon" that easily breaks off, your soil has a good combination of sand/silt/clay or loam. 
  • If the soil sample easily forms into a ball when damp and you can squeeze it between your thumb and fingers forming a "soil ribbon" that does not easily break off, your soil is mainly clay.  


Soil Amendments

Both sandy and clay soils can be helped with the addition of organic matter. It acts like a sponge to hold water and supplies an environment for beneficial microorganisms. It also creates space between tightly packed clay soil particles allowing excess water to drain. 


Top-dress or work organic matter (such as compost, well decomposed manure, purchased loam, or various combinations of organic matter) into the top 3 - 5 cm (1" - 2") of soil.  Even loam needs a boost every year to maintain and support plant health as organic matter continually breaks down and decomposes.  Digging in too deep will disturb the structure of the soil and can damage very useful worms who do a great job of mixing the organic matter into the lower levels and aerating the soil. 


Clay soils can be improved by adding round landscape sand (not sharp as it will interlock with the clay particles forming a consistency of concrete, nor builder's sand as it has lime in it and will turn the soil into cement). Products that help to break up clay soils include zeolite and gypsum.


Soil pH 



pH levels allow the plant roots to absorb necessary nutrients and minerals from the soil. Most plants grow well with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 (detailed values and ranges for individual plant preferences can be found in gardening books). pH levels allow the plant roots to absorb necessary nutrients and minerals from the soil. Various materials can raise the pH of the soil (crushed egg, clam or oyster shells, wood ashes, calcitic lime) and other materials can lower the soil pH (sawdust, wood chips, peat moss).



Generally, Calgary has a soil pH registering between 6.0 -7.0.  Soil pH kits can be found at garden centers, or have your soil professionally tested to find out its nutrient and mineral content. 

It just might be that the simple addition of a good top-dressing of loam or organic matter is what your plants need to be healthy.


Creating a Garden from a Grassed Area

Reasons for removing a traditional lawn could include specific new purposes for the area (like a vegetable garden) or the desire to be more environmentally conscious by using ornamental grasses, perennials and/or groundcovers that require less water and maintenance.   A layout plan should include:

  • hardscape requirements (dimensions, creation of focal points)
  • aesthetics
  • list of materials
  • improvements required (fixing drainage problems, soil amelioration, problem tree removal, etc.)
  • costs
  • selection of vegetation (trees/shrubs/perennials/vegetables/annuals)
  • type of soil preparation needed.



A common method of laying out the area of a proposed new bed is to use a garden hose. Outline the area that is going to be smothered with the hose to easily see the proportions of the bed and adjust as necessary.  

Edging is a necessary component when→ creating an island of perennials in a sea of grass, as it minimizes the growth of invasive grass creeping back into the new bed. Edging materials can include lawn edging, trenches, rocks or landscape blocks. 

The following are different methods of turning that expanse of green into a bed of your favourite perennials, vegetables and herbs or a mixture of all three.  So far we only have the smother method information.

Simple Smother Method

Grass will smother relatively easily, so creating those new beds can be accomplished with a minimum of cost, effort and simple preparation without sacrificing valuable organic matter. 


  • Before covering the grass, cut it as short as possible, leaving the cuttings on the lawn. This allows the nutrients from the grass clippings to become available to the soil. 
  • Lay down five to eight sheets of newspaper making sure to overlap the pages so that all the grass is covered. 

Note: using too many sheets of newspaper can serve as a barrier to plant roots, restricting root formation to the soil above the paper.   A deep root system gives the plants access to deeper soil moisture reserves enhancing the plants' ability to survive periods of limited precipitation without extra watering. 

  • Wetting down the newspaper as you proceed or pre-soaking them in a large tub of water is recommended as a time saver to prevent them from scurrying across the yard. 
  • Cardboard can also be used in the place of newspaper and its weight makes it easier to place and harder for the wind to displace. 
  • The last step in this process is to stake or weigh down impermeable tarps over the whole area. The tarps will keep your paper in place, keep the light out, retain moisture from the dying grass and keeps the area looking neat until you are ready to continue. 
  • If your soil is good and you want to plant directly into the dead sod, cover the area with mulch 7 - 10 cm (3"- 4") to hold the newspaper down. When it's time to plant, move the mulch out of the way to make holes for your plants, then, after the plant is secure, replace the mulch around the plant.
  • If hardscapes such as walkways or patios are to be added, five to eight sheets of newspaper under a good foundation of sand and screenings are all that is needed to kill the grass and keep it from growing back. 
  • A black tarp or light-blocking plastic sheet placed early in June will usually result in enough heat build-up and lack of light and moisture to supress all the vegetation under it in about three to four weeks
  • After the tarp has done its job, it is the ideal time to boost the quality of your soil. Topdressing with compost or a soil/compost combination 7 - 10 cm (3"- 4") to help with the decay of the dead grass will go a long way in helping your plants flourish. The microorganisms in the new compost and/or soil will also make nutrients available to the plants and further develop a good soil structure. 





Wet cardboard and newspapers smother the grass; the heavy black pond liner is used as a base for a dry/wet rock streambed and directs rainwater to the lower part of the garden.

This photo demonstrates how the use of a heavy black tarp (the newspaper was removed to see the dead grass) over a period of four weeks kills the grass and leaves dandelion re-growth weak and white.


Newspapers are the easiest material to use around existing plants and trees to smother the grass.



The green grass is gone and is replaced by hardscaping, plantings and mulch. 

  • As with any new planting, monitoring the moisture content of the soil is necessary. Depending on the timing and plant selection, the new bed will need extra water for at least two growing seasons or until the root systems of the plants have established themselves.   Using soaker hoses with a thick layer of mulch 7- 10 cm (3"-4") over the completed bed helps to retain soil moisture, prevents the soil from being blown away and contributes to creating the optimum environment for beneficial organisms.  


Getting Started

The first step to a water-wise garden is to determine what style you prefer. You can choose styles anywhere from a minimalistic, arid look to a lush continually flowering look.

  • Draw the dimensions of your property with all its buldings, hardscape, trees, perennial beds, grass area, drainage patterns, views.
  • Note the property orientation (north, east, south, west) wind direction, influences of neighbouring buildings and/or trees plus sun, part sun and shade areas.
  • Decide what level of maintenance you are willing to provide, as that will affect the plant selections, number of plants, amount of hardscape, type of mulch, amount of grass, etc.
  • Develop your future garden layout paying attention to the following:
  • Your activities (play area, gardening, compost, storage, etc.)
  • The best water-use zone for each plant both new and existing.
  • Possible topographic alterations including new hardscape, modifying a poorly draining spot, terracing slopes.
  • Microclimates (see below)


The Layout Plan

In planning your garden, there are many sources of information including books and the internet that will help you draw out your detailed plan, select your plants and outline a budget. A plan will save time and money by decreasing the number of errors made. The following tips will help you with your design.



Grouping Plants


  • Group plants together with similar soil,    
  • exposure and water requirements so that all
  • the plants' needs can be achieved easily; for example, you could group native plants
  • that require only natural rainfall.


Researching the needs of plants that are available in the  garden centers and grouping them in a similar manner can give you a water wise result with the flower and foliage colours and textures that you desire.


Take advantage of micro-climates formed by buildings/structures, trees/shrubs, soil types and water availability. For example:

  • plant less drought tolerant species that you love in moister areas
  • use reflective light to help a plant in a shadier location flower more abundantly
  • grow a plant outside its comfort zone in a protected location.


You can create a micro-climate by:

  • Using trees, shrubs, tall perennials or a fence as a windbreak, which reduces evaporation and creates shade.
  • Make a depressed area (rain garden) to collect more moisture for plants; add a liner and create a bog or pond.
  • Adding organic or inorganic mulch which helps prevent water evaporation from the soil and reduces competition with weeds, moderates soil temperature and protects plants against the hardships of winter.


Water Conservation Methods 


  • The easiest way to harvest rainwater is to place rain barrels near downspouts to collect run off.
  • Rainwater can also be diverted to underground tanks for later use in drought conditions.


  • Grow less drought tolerant plants near downspouts (or the overflow hoses of collection barrels), where snow melts and where run off flows from hardscapes/decks.


  • Limit large areas of hardscape that direct rain/irrigation water to the sewer rather than your soil.
  • Consider irrigation, soaker hoses, water bags/bottles.
  • Watering in the mornings is best because more water is available to the plant (cooler temperatures mean less evaporation) and there is less chance of disease from water remaining on plant leaves for long periods (powdery mildew).


Selecting Plants 

Consider aesthetics in plant selection for accents, backgrounds, colour interest, textural interest, seasonal interest, etc.


Use turf grasses that suit the site, as in play areas. Low, clumping grasses or other groundcover could be used; they look interesting and act as a mulch to limit water evaporation.


Consider grouping plants with different root types to take advantage of water availability at different depths, and plants with varying dominance in the landscape throughout the season to give each plant the maximum amount of water when it needs it the most (eg: tulip, daylily, blanket flower, false sunflower).


Consider buying plants in various sizes. This helps reduce the work of dividing all the plants when they mature at the same time and the variety of plant sizes creates more visual interest. The larger plants shade smaller plants, which reduces water stress on their smaller, less well developed root systems.



Besides weeding and watering the beds, most plants require maintenance in the form of pest control, pruning, deadheading, dividing and fertilizing. There is also the task of renewing/cleaning mulch and aerating, mowing, weeding and fertilizing the grass. Your choices in these areas will determine how much time will be spent on maintenance.


Reduce pruning maintenance by selecting/placing plants in relationship to their mature size. Placing plants too close together increases the chance of disease or pest damage and creates more maintenance. In this case, transplanting (despite the stress to the plant) is necessary as it will reduce the competition for nutrients and water, allowing the plants to become vigorous once more.


When taking stock of what is already present on your property, you may be surprised at how many of your plants may already be drought tolerant. A bit of re-organization could be all that is needed to have everything work for you.


The project may also seem overwhelming, but you do not need to do your entire yard all at once...  you can start with one small bed at a time.


Our Virtual Water-Wise Garden can help you make that start!