9 Benefits of Hydrozoning

groupings of plants in a lush landscape

Hydrozoning is like giving your lawn a rejuvenating hydromassage. Just as a hydromassage delivers the right amount of water to each of your muscles, hydrozoning gives the ideal amount of water to each of your landscape plants. The result? A water-wise landscape that benefits your plants and the planet. 

If you’re ready to reduce your water use and keep your plants perfectly hydrated, this article will walk you through the nine reasons to transition to a hydrozoned lawn. 

What is hydrozoning? 

Hydrozoning is the landscape practice of clustering plants with similar water, sun, and soil requirements to conserve water, improve plant health, and protect the environment.

When done correctly, a hydrozoned lawn can reduce your water use by 20% to 50%. How? By grouping plants with similar irrigation needs into zones (“hydrozones”), you give each plant the perfect amount of water on the right schedule without overwatering and underwatering. Your yard stays healthy without wasting water. 

Hydrozoning is one of the fundamental principles of xeriscaping (creating a low-water landscape). It means you can focus on watering certain areas of your lawn and rest easy knowing that the other zones will thrive without the extra water. 

9 benefits of hydrozoning

1. Lower maintenance than a full turfgrass lawn

Hydrozoning confines your turfgrass to one zone so you can add more native plants, shrubs, succulents, and wildflowers to the rest of your yard. This means you’ll have less mowing, fertilizing, and watering to do, so you can sit back and enjoy your weekend. 

Pro Tip: While you don’t have to plant native plants in your hydrozoned lawn, they’ll make your yard work a lot easier. They naturally thrive in your region’s climate and soil type, so they won’t require the fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and frequent waterings that non-native species often need. 

2. Streamlines your yard

Hydrozoning limits turfgrass without making you go grassless or compromising your lawn’s appearance. You can keep a nice swath of green grass in your backyard and border it with a beautiful rock garden, flower beds, or fruit trees. Colorful plants with different textures and heights can give your yard a “wow” factor. 

3. Water-efficient

By giving each zone the perfect amount of water (not too little and not too much), hydrozoning reduces landscape water use by as much as 50%. And if you hydrozone as part of a larger xeriscaping project, you can cut your water bill by as much as 80%

4. Saves money

Hydrozoning will substantially cut your water bill, but you’ll also save money by reducing: 

  • Fertilizer applications
  • The need for pesticides and herbicides
  • Gas for your lawn mower
  • Plant replacement costs

Remember, native plants don’t need fertilizer or other harsh chemicals, and the more garden plants, ground covers, and shrubs you have, the less mowing you’ll need to do. 

Plants that are neither waterlogged nor thirsty are less susceptible to diseases, so hydrozoning means you won’t have a bunch of dead plants that need to be replaced halfway through the growing season. 

5. Rebates are available

If you hydrozone as part of a broader xeriscaping project, you may be eligible for rebates or bill reductions from your local government. Southwestern cities and towns, including Las Vegas, NV; Aurora, CO; and Los Angeles, CA offer rebates (“cash for grass” programs) for homeowners who replace their grass lawns with low-water landscapes.

If you don’t live in the Southwest, your township may still provide financial incentives to replace your grass lawn with a xeriscape. Check your local government’s website to see if you could qualify for a rebate.

6. Reduces runoff

The deep roots of drought-tolerant shrubs and native perennials reduce erosion and stormwater runoff.

What’s the problem with runoff? Fast-flowing stormwater is filled with fertilizer, pesticides, and sediment that damage aquatic ecosystems. These contaminants cause harmful algal blooms and dead zones (low-oxygen areas where plants die and aquatic animals either die or lose their habitat), which degrade the environment and can contaminate drinking water

With the right plants, a hydrozoned landscape protects the planet and human health.

7. Reduces air pollution

Treating and pumping water requires a boatload of energy, and most water treatment plants are powered by fossil fuels. When you use less water, you reduce the strain on treatment facilities, which reduces air pollution from burning fossil fuels.

8. Uses fewer chemicals

Native plants require no fertilization or pesticide because they’re specifically adapted to your region. Likewise, healthy non-native plants and grasses don’t need as many chemical treatments as those weakened by overwatering or underwatering. 

This means you won’t have to pay for as much fertilizer or pesticides, and you’ll keep harmful chemicals out of your local ecosystem.

9. Conserves drinking water

As the human population increases, the demand for water is skyrocketing. The UN projects that water demand will increase by 20% to 30% by 2050. That demand puts a strain on our water supply and infrastructure. It’s important to save water now to ensure high-quality drinking water in the future.

How to hydrozone

Hydrozoning takes careful planning (and a bit of doodling!), but the water-wise results are worth the time and scratch paper. 

Here are the five steps to plan your hydrozoned lawn: 

Draw a bubble map

Make a map of your lawn showing where you want grass, a flower or veggie garden, a rock garden, and any other major yard element. Design your drawing based on your yard’s natural features: Shady corners are perfect for a shade garden, and sunny open spaces work well for turfgrass or a wildflower garden.

Divide your lawn into irrigation zones

Divide your lawn into four irrigation (watering) zones based on how much sunlight, water, and human use each portion of your yard receives.

The four irrigation zones

Routine irrigation zone: Gets the most use and requires the most frequent watering (twice a week or more). 

  • Includes thirsty turfgrass (like Kentucky bluegrass), water-loving shrubs and trees, and small fruits and vegetables

Reduced irrigation zone: The part of your lawn that gets a lot of visual attention (like the flower beds and shrubs outside your front door) and needs watering about once a week. 

  • Includes flower beds, eye-catching shrubs, and fruit trees

Limited irrigation zone: The corners and edges of your lawn that get little human use and contain hardy plants that only need watering during dry spells. 

  • Contains native plants, ground covers, drought-tolerant grass (like tall fescue), and some flowers and shrubs

Nonirrigated zone: Requires zero supplemental watering. It includes the spots around utilities, mulched areas, and natural vegetation.

  • Includes native plants and buffalograss

Refine your design

Now that you know how much water each part of your yard receives, amend your lawn design so that more of your yard needs less water. If you planned for turfgrass to take up your backyard, consider replacing a chunk of it with a beautiful flower bed or rock garden that will serve as a limited irrigation zone. 

Plan your irrigation system

You can hydrozone no matter what type of watering system you have, whether you water by hand, have sprinklers, or use a drip or bubbler system. 

What matters here is placement: Each hydrozone must be on a separate irrigation valve so you can customize the watering schedule and depth based on different plant requirements. If thirsty turfgrass and drought-resistant cacti are on the same irrigation valve, it defeats the purpose of hydrozoning. 

Pro Tip: Trees have deeper roots than grass and small plants, so they should always be on a separate irrigation valve.

Pick your plants

Here comes the fun part! Take a trip to your local nursery and choose plants with similar water, soil, and sun requirements for each hydrozone. Your cooperative extension office is a great resource for information on the right plants for dry, wet, sunny, and shady areas. Plus, you can learn about the best drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly native plants.

Remember, hydrozoning is all about clustering plants with similar water needs, so make sure plants are compatible before you give them a permanent home. 

Once you’ve designed your new hydrozoned lawn, begin the turf removal process and get your plants growing!

Cons of hydrozoning

Hydrozoning is a money-saving, sustainable landscaping option, but before you grab a pencil and start drawing your bubbles, consider the drawbacks of hydrozoning. 

Hydrozoning … 

Reduces your turfgrass area. 

Converting some of your turfgrass to a more water-wise landscape means your kids and pets will have less space to play. You don’t have to scrap your hydrozoning plans if you use your backyard for sports and parties, but you’ll probably need a larger routine irrigation zone.

Takes about two years to establish. 

Young drought-tolerant plants need water. You’ll have to water your hydrozoned yard regularly (even the plants that will eventually be water-free) for two years before you transition to low- or no-watering. 

Turfgrass removal can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. 

You’ll need to remove at least a portion of your turfgrass lawn — by digging up your grass, applying herbicide, cutting sod, or sheet mulching — to begin hydrozoning. 

Requires careful planning and potential irrigation changes. 

If you aren’t hand-watering, you’ll have to plan carefully around your sprinkler system and you may need to add onto an existing irrigation line or replace sprinkler heads with a drip irrigation system.

Can be expensive to install. 

Hydrozoning will quickly slash your water bill and cut chemical costs, but if you’re renting a sod cutter, purchasing lots of native plants, and adding rocks or other hardscape features, your upfront costs will be higher than sticking with your green grass. 

Decreases your lawn’s noise-reducing and cooling effects. 

Turfgrass absorbs street noise and cools your air by 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. With less grass, you may hear more traffic and your air conditioning costs may rise. 

FAQ about hydrozoning

1. Do I have to live in a specific area of the country to hydrozone? 

Not at all! No matter where you live, hydrozoning your lawn or a portion of it will reduce your water waste and benefit your local ecosystem. 

You may want to hydrozone as part of a broader xeriscaping effort, especially if you live in the Southwest or California. Remember that removing sod and switching to a xeriscape may make you eligible for a rebate. 

2. What time of day should I water my plants? 

Water your plants in the morning before 10 a.m. to avoid evaporation from the midday sun. Watering at night can cause diseases and fungus. 

3. How can I make a xeriscape? 

A fully xeriscaped lawn will save even more water than a hydrozoned one. To start xeriscaping: 

Plan out hydrozones
Limit the amount of grass with high water requirements
Choose low-water native plants
Use an efficient irrigation system (like drip irrigation or a soaker hose)
Make soil improvements
Add mulch
Maintain with weeding, pruning, aeration, and soil testing

Read our “What is Xeriscaping?” article for an overview of how to make your lawn drought-friendly.

4. Where should I drip irrigate and where should I use sprinklers? 

In general, drip irrigation is the more eco-friendly watering option, but choosing between the two depends on which plants you’re watering.

A drip irrigation system is perfect for smaller areas with mixed flower and shrub beds, perennials, small fruits, and vegetables. Tubes deliver water directly to plant roots, so you minimize water loss from evaporation.

Sprinklers are best for mature trees and large swaths of turfgrass. They’re more practical for larger areas that require even watering. Your hydrozoned lawn can include both drip irrigation and sprinklers.

Get hydro-happy

Hydrozoning gives your plants just the right treatment to keep them healthy, hydrated, and ready to grow. If you’re ready to give your landscape what it’s been craving, start a DIY project with a pencil and paper, and keep an open mind about adjusting your design. 

If you’d rather leave the deluxe treatment to a pro, call a local lawn care team to get your lawn hydrated and water-wise. While they pamper your lawn, you can have your own relaxing spa day.

Main Photo Credit: Forest and Kim Starr | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.