Water-conserving landscaping is no longer reserved for dusty front yards in Southwestern states, where sparse rainfall undermines even the most determined gardeners’ efforts to coax lush, green lawns from the thirsty loam.

As more developers and landscape architects foresee water shortages for even historically rain-rich regions, they’re designing private lawns and common spaces with deep-rooted native plants that thrive with minimal watering. And they’re investing in computer-regulated irrigation devices that deliver the precise amount of moisture needed to sustain each plant—and not a drop more.

Nancy Somerville, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects, notes that Atlanta came within about 90 days of running out of water in summer 2007, and in Boston, the foundations of some older buildings are threatened as more groundwater is removed to hydrate a growing population.

“Certainly, there was a wake-up call last year in the Southeast, which hadn’t been used to dealing with water shortages,” says Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News and president of Building Green.

“In Houston, water is not an issue in its availability,” says Michael Strong, vice president of Houston-based GreenHaus Builders. “Water’s cheap in Houston; we get a ton of rain. The big deal is it’s not going to be that way for long.”

Smart Growth

Water-conscious builders—and many green building certification programs—rank landscaping practices that minimize the need for outdoor watering at least as high as “smart” irrigation controllers, water-permeable paving products, and systems that capture rainwater or recycle greywater from a home’s showers and sink drains. But a true water-conscious plan includes elements of each strategy.

“Limiting the need for irrigation should be the first concern,” says Matthew Nielsen, development manager for Windermere on the Lake, Connecticut’s first planned community of LEED-rated luxury homes.

First on a landscape designer’s plan, then, should be drought-tolerant native plants, which thrive with whatever rain falls in a local area, and as little thirsty, shallow-rooted turf as the homeowner can tolerate.

“We encourage people to rethink what’s beautiful,” notes Maureen Mahle, program manager of LEED for Homes at Steven Winter Associates, a building systems consulting firm. “Homeowners are more open to [less turf and more native plants] than builders tend to recognize.”

“Minimizing the lawn is a big part of this,” agrees Somerville. “The least lawn space, the better.”