Gardening tips for wise use of your water resources

Implementing environmentally friendly gardening practices can avoid waste and help protect water quality.

Home garden and lawn care practices can have important positive or negative effects on the health of our rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers. You don’t even have to live on the water to make a big difference. Rain that falls on our gardens, lawns, driveways, roads and parking lots can wash into waterways and storm drains or leaches into ground water, carrying pollutant, including fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, soil and petroleum products.

Whether starting a new landscape or maintaining a well-established one, implementing the following key environmentally friendly gardening practices will help you do your part to protect our natural resources. Plus, your garden and yard will demand less time and be healthier, attractive and more productive!

Right plant, right site

  • Assess your site conditions for sun and shade, dry and wet areas, soil type, exposure to wind and winter hardiness.
  • Evaluate plant characteristics such as size, shape, texture, root mass, rate of growth and susceptibility to diseases and insects.
  • Make sure you put the right plant in the right place, matching the plant to the site conditions.

Efficient water use

  • Design your landscape so it thrives predominantly on rainfall.
  • Focus irrigation efforts on new plant establishment and drought periods. As a rule of thumb, lawns and gardens need on average 1 inch of water each week.
  • Irrigate during early morning hours when wind is calm and temperature is the coolest. This ensures that most of the water reaches the intended plants and is not being wasted.
  • Use a rain sensor with in-ground irrigation systems to reduce water usage from 20 to 40 percent a year.
  • Design and install irrigation systems so sprinklers do not water sidewalks, streets, buildings and patios.
  • Install a hose bib automatic timer to control when and how long the water runs from your hose.
  • Set up different zones and different sprinkler heads for lawns and garden areas; water requirements are different between plant types.
  • Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses in vegetable, shrub and flower beds. This type of irrigation is 20 to 40 percent more water efficient than sprinklers.

Fertilize appropriately

  • Don’t guess – soil test. A soil analysis will tell you the amount of fertilizer needed for healthy plant growth in your landscape. One option is MSU Extension’s $20 Soil Test Kit which contains everything you need to mail in the soil sample and includes the cost of the testing.
  • Consider plant type, age and years of establishment. Young and new landscape plants require more fertilizer, while established and mature landscape plants may require little to no fertilizer.
  • Use slow-release fertilizers. Nutrients in this form are available to plants over a longer period of time and fewer nutrients are wasted or lost as pollutants.
  • Remember that more is not better. Excessive fertilizers may aggravate insect and disease problems and force undesired growth, which must be mowed or pruned.
  • Under fertilizing is not the best option, either; it can lead to thin grass, allowing weeds to allow soil to erode.


  • Use mulch to shade the soil and reduce evaporation. A layer of mulch also minimizes water needs for established plants.
  • Add mulch to landscape beds to buffer soil temperature, keeping soils warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Over time, organic mulches improve soil aeration and structure, helping to improve water infiltration and reduce storm water runoff.
  • Use organic mulch material to improve soil fertility.
  • Place mulch around shrubs and trees to ease maintenance and reduce potential for trunk damage by string trimmers.
  • Apply mulch to suppress weed seed germination and growth.

Manage yard pests responsibly

  • Use plant material that has few pest problems and adapted to Michigan.
  • Grow diverse plant species to minimize impact of pest problems and increase food for beneficial organisms.
  • Identify the cause of the problems. Know good organisms from the bad. There are many good organisms that help our yards.
  • Be tolerant! Low pest populations will do minimal damage to plants; plus, many are a source of food for beneficial organisms helping to keep pests under natural control.
  • Manage gardens and landscapes by using cultural and mechanical methods that enhance natural enemy effectiveness.
  • Irrigate between midnight and 6:00 a.m. to help reduce disease problems since it lessens the time plant foliage remains moist during the overnight period. In contrast, irrigating during early evening hours is one of the worst times to irrigate since foliage remains moist longer and may increase disease activity.
  • During high summer temperatures, apply light irrigation to lawns in the early afternoon. This cools turf, alleviating necrotic ring spot symptoms as well as reducing European chafer grubs survival in June and July.
  • When pests reach damaging levels, first try non-chemical approaches, such as handpicking insects, pruning out affected plant parts or a forceful water spray.
  • When pesticides are necessary, choose the least toxic pesticides such as insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils and microbials (spinosad, Neem, Bacillus thuringiensis).
  • Spot treat affected areas with pesticides. Avoid spraying the complete lawn or landscape unless necessary.


  • Return grass clippings to your lawn. Clippings contain nutrients for your lawn and can supply up to 25 percent of your lawn's total fertilizer needs.
  • Chip or grind leaves and yard trimmings and return them to your lawn and landscape.
  • Start a compost pile and turn plant trimmings and kitchen scraps into rich soil for your indoor and outdoor plants.

Reduce storm water runoff

  • Keep rain and sprinkler water on yards and out of storm drains. Because water picks up contaminates and flows, storm water can carry pesticides, fertilizers and animal wastes from yards to rivers, lakes and bays.
  • Install rain gardens (water retention areas) to slow water movement and encourage on-site water infiltration rather than relying on storm water collection and removal from the site.
  • Use pervious surfaces for patios, walkways and driveways to improve water infiltration.
  • Attach a rain barrel or cistern to your downspout to collect roof water for use during a dry spell.
  • Prevent erosion, such as sediment runoff, with well-developed plant cover and by using appropriate sediment-control practices during site construction.
  • Minimize fertilizer and pesticide use on your property.

Protect the water front

  • Leave a 15-foot buffer zone where no fertilizer or pesticides are applied.
  • Keep grass clippings from blowing onto water surface.
  • Use no-phosphorus fertilizers unless a soil test indicates a need.
  • Plant native shoreline plants to intercept potential pollutants before they reach surface water.

For additional gardening information, call the MSU Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-MSUE-4MI (1-888-678-3464). You can also visit

Related resources on water use or drought:

Did you find this article useful?