Salt Lake City may border the Great Salt Lake, but that doesn’t mean we have an unlimited water supply. Choosing a drought-resistant landscape is an eco-friendly, money-saving solution to water shortages in the Crossroads of the West.
In summer, our snowy ski town transforms into a hot desert, and water supply problems have swelled in recent years. Salt Lake County and townships across the state have experienced extreme drought, and water reservoirs have depleted to dangerously low levels.
So, how do you do your part to save water? Jump aboard the water-wise express! A drought-friendly landscape protects the water supply and gives your home more curb appeal. Let’s walk through nine drought-resistant landscaping ideas for Salt Lake City.
- What is a drought-resistant landscape?
- 9 drought-resistant landscaping ideas
- Why choose a drought-resistant landscape
- FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping in Salt Lake City
- Go drought-resistant with a pro
What is a drought-resistant landscape?
A drought-resistant landscape is designed to thrive with little or no supplemental water. It consists of rocks, hardscapes, native plants, and other low-maintenance features that can withstand dry periods without withering and dying.
In Utah, about 60% of residential water use is used for outdoor irrigation. That means you use more water for your grass than you do showering, washing clothes, drinking, and using the dishwasher combined!
Drought-resistant landscaping doesn’t mean ripping out all your turfgrass, but it does mean rethinking where it’s necessary and where it can be replaced by low-water features.
Designing a drought-resistant landscape is all about conserving water while transforming your lawn into a sustainable showstopper.
9 drought-resistant landscaping ideas
A xeriscape is a water-wise landscaping solution that turns your thirsty turfgrass lawn into a colorful paradise. Xeriscaping is all about designing a sustainable space that can thrive on local rainfall levels. For us, that’s about 11.4 inches of rain each year.
In Utah, our xeriscapes often include native plants like Utah serviceberry, bitterroot, crimson columbine, and prairie sagewort.
- Drought-resistant and drought-tolerant native plants
- Cacti, succulents, and ground covers
- Rocks, gravel, and pebbles
- Hardscape features, like footpaths, pavers, patios, and fire pits
Cost: The price of a xeriscape depends on the size of your yard and what features you use in your landscape design. On average, a professionally designed and installed xeriscape costs between $3,600 and $22,349, but you could pay less than that. Utah Water Savers offers rebates through the Localscapes program, which offers $2,000 for the average quarter-acre lawn.
2. Native plants
What makes native Utah plants so special? Well, they’re specifically adapted to our climate, so they’re experts at handling our hot, dry summers and snowy winters. While non-native plants shrivel up and die in summer or demand more and more water and fertilizer to survive, native plants don’t need any water or fertilizer once established.
Native plants are tough locals with deep roots, strong disease resistance, and a high tolerance for drought and heat. Plus, colorful native flowers attract pollinators like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
Popular native plant selection for SLC:
- Great Basin sagebrush (AKA big sagebrush)
- Utah mountain lilac
- Silvery lupine
- Firecracker penstemon
- Purple threeawn
- Sand verbena
- Orange agoseris
- Bristly fiddleneck
- Fremont’s chaffbush
Cost: Native plant prices vary by size, shape, and species. Expect to pay $5 to $10 per small native flower, $20 to $100 per native shrub, and $60 to $800 per native tree. Looking to replace the grass on the strip between your sidewalk and the road with native perennials? The Flip Your Strip program offers homeowners up to $1.25 per square foot of converted lawn, so if your strip is 200 square feet, you can expect to receive at least $200.
3. Rain barrel
“Utah is a desert. How much rain could a rain barrel possibly collect?” Actually, a whole lot. Scientists estimate that one 50-gallon rain barrel can capture up to 73% of the total yearly runoff from a 1,000-square-foot roof. Even in SLC’s scorching July, a single rain barrel can capture 262 gallons of water. That’s enough water to fill more than six bathtubs!
While a rain barrel won’t supply enough water for traditional turfgrass, it can give hardier plants exactly what they need during a dry spell.
If every house in a typical SLC neighborhood installed one 50-gallon rain barrel, stormwater runoff could be reduced by 12%. That’s 12% of outdoor water costs back in homeowners’ (your) pockets.
A rain barrel is an excellent way to quench your yard’s thirst, and it’s an easy DIY project. The Utah State University Extension offers a handy video on how to build your own rain barrel.
Tips for rain barrel success:
- Make sure your barrel has a large, removable access point for easy cleaning.
- Empty and rinse out your rain barrel at least every year to remove algae, debris, and stagnant water.
- Cover your barrel with a lid to prevent mosquitoes and algae buildup.
- Place your rain barrel on a sturdy surface that can support its full weight.
- To prevent water damage to your basement, route the overflow away from your home to a rain garden, rock embankment, or other unpaved surface.
- Register with the Utah Division of Water Rights if you are using more than two rain barrels or one of your rain barrels stores more than 100 gallons of water.
- Don’t want your rain barrel to stand out on your lawn? Some well-placed rocks and shrubs will make it blend right into your drought-friendly yard.
Cost: You can purchase a 60-gallon rain barrel for about $70 through Salt Lake City’s rain barrel initiative. If you prefer a different design or material, expect to pay $100 to $140. The materials for a DIY rain barrel total about $100.
Want to save water and keep plants healthy? Spreading mulch around your plants prevents water from evaporating so your soil stays moist and roots grow strong.
Mulch is vital to successful xeriscaping. To qualify for Utah’s Localscapes program, you must cover planting beds with 3 to 4 inches of mulch.
What is mulch? Mulch is an organic or inorganic material — from leaves and wood chips to rubber and landscape fabric — that is spread over your soil, and it offers a host of yard benefits.
- Reduces erosion
- Retains soil moisture
- Insulates soil from temperature shifts
- Prevents weeds
- Keeps soil loose and oxygen-rich
- Protects plants from soil-borne diseases
- Adds visual appeal
Cost: Mulch typically costs $15.30 to $74.80 per cubic yard or $1.80 to $6.05 per 2-cubic-foot bag, depending on the quality and material. You can often get fresh wood mulch for free from local arborists and tree recycling centers.
5. Rock garden
A rock garden is the perfect place to relax in nature after a long day at work. A serene space filled with local stones, beautiful boulders, native plants, and perhaps a garden bench is guaranteed to beat turfgrass every time, both in looks and water savings.
When it comes to slashing your water bill and cutting down on lawn maintenance, rocks are an excellent lawn addition. They don’t require any water, trimming, or weeding, and they give your yard a stylish flair.
Install your favorite rocks and boulders — smooth or bumpy, round or rectangular (and anything in between!) — to add color and texture to your lawn. Accentuate rocks with pretty succulents, ornamental grasses, mulch, and perennial flowers.
Cost: Expect to pay between $400 and $1,000 for professional installation, depending on the size of your rock garden and the materials you use. Lower the cost by using your own stones or buying boulders from your local quarry.
Like rock gardens, hardscapes don’t need a drop of water. Hardscapes are non-living yard features (like stone patios, gravel paths, and wood decks) that save you the sweat of weeding and trimming, all while expanding your living space. Who doesn’t want to have friends over for a backyard barbeque or spend an evening cozied up at the fire pit?
More hardscaping means less turfgrass. And less turfgrass means less watering, mowing, pesticide applications, and fertilizing. Plus, hardscape features add to your home’s curb appeal and increase your property value.
Lawn hardscapes include:
- Outdoor kitchens
- Stone benches
- Paved pathways
- Fire pits
Pro Tip: Impermeable hardscape surfaces do not allow water to penetrate, which can force stormwater runoff. Choose an eco-friendly hardscape option like permeable pavers to protect aquatic ecosystems from stormwater pollution.
Cost: Hardscape prices range based on the scope of the project, what type of hardscape you are installing, and what materials you’re using. Pathways typically cost between $7 and $24 per square foot (a 100-square-foot paver path usually costs between $1,000 and $1,800). Patios range from $576 to $8,000 and a deck ranges from $4,000 to $11,000.
7. Rain garden
Salt Lake City is no Seattle when it comes to yearly rainfall, so when the skies finally open, our landscapes need to absorb every precious droplet. But during storms, water often rushes right across our lawns into storm drains, which means we lose water and local waterways get polluted.
A rain garden acts like a bathtub, stopping and holding rainwater so it has time to absorb into the soil. Rain gardens are basins filled with permeable soil, rocks, and deep-rooted native plants. They keep your soil moist and reduce runoff so you don’t have to use as much water from your hose.
What makes rain gardens special? Rain gardens …
- Filter water to remove harsh chemicals and sediment.
- Recharge groundwater to keep SLC sustainable.
- Protect aquatic ecosystems from pollutants and thermal shock.
- Reduce erosion so nutrient-rich topsoil stays in place.
- Attract pollinators and increase biodiversity.
- Add a splash of color with gorgeous native flowers.
- Raise your property value.
- Won’t require watering or fertilizer once established.
Fun fact: The average home rain garden filters 30,000 gallons of water per year. That’s enough to fill two large swimming pools!
Cost: A DIY rain garden costs between $3 and $5 per square foot. A typical rain garden is 150 to 400 square feet, so expect to pay between $450 and $2,000. The cost of professional installation ranges from $10 and $15 per square foot.
8. Drip irrigation
Ready to seriously reduce your outdoor water use? Say “so long” to your sprinklers and install a drip irrigation system in its place. Sprinklers are only 50% to 70% efficient, whereas drip irrigation is 90% efficient. With drip irrigation, you can keep your lawn nourished without wasting water.
Drip irrigation is a system of plastic tubing installed at ground level or beneath the soil surface. These tubes contain emitters that deliver water directly to plant roots, so water doesn’t have a chance to evaporate before it’s absorbed.
The problem with sprinklers: A large amount of water that sprinklers use never gets delivered to plant roots. Instead, it’s lost to evaporation before it reaches the ground. Watering with sprinklers or a garden hose also causes erosion, which diminishes soil quality and plant health.
The drip irrigation solution: When you use a drip irrigation system, water is immediately absorbed by plant roots instead of evaporating. Drip irrigation is also gentler on your soil than sprinklers and garden hoses, so you don’t have to worry about erosion.
Cost: Professional installation costs about $1.50 to $4.50 per square foot, or you can DIY a drip irrigation system for $20 to $200, depending on the size of your area.
9. Artificial grass
Can’t bear to part with the green grass look? Artificial grass (AKA artificial turf) will keep your lawn evergreen without the maintenance of living grass, so you can ditch the fertilizer and pesticides and toss the mower out the window (well, figuratively!).
Artificial grass is made of heat-resistant plastic and comes in a variety of shades, textures, and lengths, so you can choose the best look for your lawn. After it’s installed, you’ll just have to give it an occasional rinse to keep it clean. Artificial grass gives you the turfgrass look without the constant watering and weeding.
Cost: Professional installation of artificial grass costs between $4.95 and $20.60 per square foot.
Why choose a drought-resistant landscape
There’s a wealth of financial and environmental benefits to being water-wise. Here’s why Salt Lake City homeowners are opting for drought-resistant lawns.
- Protect our access to drinking water. Utah experiences frequent droughts that stress the water supply. Drought-resistant landscaping keeps drinking water available now and in the future, so our community stays healthy.
- Reduce energy consumption. Every time you use water, you’re also using energy to pump it from your pipes into your hose or sprinklers. The water that flows off of your lawn must be treated at a sanitation plant before it can be used again, which requires even more energy. By reducing your water consumption, you save money on your energy bill and reduce pollution.
- Prevent water shutoffs. State officials have warned that rationing water may be in our immediate future, and, according to Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Steed, “The first thing that will be asked to be cut will be outdoor water.”
- Lower your water bill. Drought-friendly landscaping can lower your water bill by up to 80%, and simply converting the park strip (the area between the sidewalk and the street) can save 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of water per year. That’s enough water to fill 150 bathtubs!
- Are perfect for Salt Lake City’s climate. Our hot, dry summers make drought-tolerant native plants, rock gardens, and other drought-resistant landscapes a natural choice.
- Get rid of unwanted grass. Hot Utah summers can be tough on even the hardiest grass, and many homeowners are tired of trying to resuscitate their dried-up lawn. A drought-friendly landscape gives your yard natural beauty without the incessant watering.
- Rebates are available. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District offers two cash-back programs for homeowners who convert their grass to a drought-friendly xeriscape: The Flip Your Strip program and the Localscapes program. Flip Your Strip gives homeowners up to $1.25 per square foot of converted area between your sidewalk and the street, and Localscapes typically rewards $2,000 for a quarter-acre yard.
- Keeps our community safe. Conserving water protects health care institutions and local businesses. Firefighters, hospitals, and restaurants all need clean water to serve the SLC community.
FAQ about drought-resistant landscaping in Salt Lake City
No, that’s a myth! Rain barrels are completely legal in Utah now. On May 11, 2010, Senate Bill 322 went into effect, which allowed for the legal harvesting of rainwater all across the state.
Check out the U.S. Drought Monitor to stay up-to-date about Utah’s drought status. This helpful website shows Utah’s drought conditions from 1895 to today. Scroll over the map to see drought levels across the state, from abnormally dry conditions (D0) to exceptional drought (D4).
Choosing a mulch depends on your lawn priorities and aesthetic preferences. If you primarily want to protect roots and improve your soil, go with organic mulch (like wood chips or compost). If you want to prevent weeds and give your lawn a sleek design, inorganic mulches (like river rocks and gravel) are ideal.
Check out our “Types of Mulch” article to learn more about which mulch is best for your lawn and how to apply it.
Drought-resistant plants are hardier than drought-tolerant plants. Drought-resistant plants can survive without water for long dry spells, whereas drought-tolerant plants can survive on minimal water for shorter periods.
If you’re a busy bee in the Beehive State and don’t have time for weekly lawn care, a drought-resistant landscape is an excellent choice. Water-wise landscapes require much less maintenance than turfgrass.
Here’s how to care for your drought-friendly landscape:
—Weed, prune, and trim as needed.
—Keep your landscape healthy with yearly mulching.
—Water new plants until they are established.
—Aerate your soil yearly and dethatch grass as needed.
—Test your soil every three to five years.
Go drought-resistant with a pro
A drought-resistant landscape saves money, water, and energy, all while keeping our community and climate healthy. And who knows? Your beautiful xeriscape or rain garden may inspire your neighbors to hop aboard the water-wise train, too.
If spending the weekend spreading mulch or installing drip irrigation makes you want to head for the hills (or the Wasatch Mountains), call in the pros. You can cheer on the Utah Jazz as they sweat it out on the court and leave the yard sweat to a team of Salt Lake City lawn care experts.