Common Landscape Errors

  • In today’s post, we’re covering the most common problems or errors our team has observed this season when homeowners participate in Utah Water Savers. If you’ll be applying for landscape rebates through the Utah Water Savers program, be sure your participation will qualify for the rebate by avoiding these mistakes.

    1. Incorrect Central Open Shape

    The Central Open Shape is the key feature of a Localscape that sets it apart from all other landscape design styles. It is the organizing element around which the landscape is oriented. Using lawn in a central open shape produces a clean, crisp layout that’s easy to water efficiently and requires just a quick weekend mow and edge, conserving both water and your Saturday.

    For those opting to forgo lawn, a Central Open Shape of gravel, hardscape or groundcover provides the same design and maintenance benefits while avoiding the most common complaints we hear about waterwise landscapes—the belief that they look unkempt and disorganized.

    Why it’s a problem:

    When implemented correctly, the Central Open Shape is the focal point of any landscape. The problem is, it is often done incorrectly. The most common mistake with a Central Open Shape is making it the wrong size. Too small or too large won’t create the contrast needed and it won’t act as a planned, designed element in the yard. The Central Open Shape must be large enough to create contrast and visual open space, but not so large that it overwhelms everything else. If it’s too small it looks like an afterthought. Getting the size correct is about balance.

    What to do instead:

    Lawn: A Central Open Shape of lawn can be a little larger but should cover no more than one third of the front or backyard space, or be between 20% and 35% of the total landscaped area. Lawn areas should also follow the five “rules of lawn” to ensure that lawn areas are functional, efficient, easy to maintain and attractive.

  • Above is an example of a Central Open Shape, correctly applied. The lawn is a distinguishable shape with clean, crisp edges that divide it from the other areas of the yard. This particular lawn comprises about 30% of the total front yard landscape (some areas of the front yard are not shown in this photo).

  • Groundcover:

    When used for the Central Open Shape, the groundcover selected should be able to handle light foot traffic. It’s still best irrigated with overhead spray to ensure consistent application of water for the spreading root systems of groundcover but will require fewer waterings per week than lawn. Generally, one time per week in the heat of summer and once every two weeks in spring and fall is sufficient. A Central Open Shape of groundcover should comprise between 10% and 25% of the front or backyard area.

  • Groundcover can be used as the Central Open Shape. The above photo shows a mix of groundcover types including several varieties of Creeping Thyme, Sedum, Snow-in-Summer, Ice Plant and Utah-native plant, Pussytoes. The above example shows the higher end of the recommended range for groundcover at about 25%.

    This homeowner recommends those considering groundcover for a surface material remember that it does take a couple of seasons to fill in. She also recommends using a string trimmer to remove spent blooms once or twice per year.

  • Gravel or Hardscape:

    When using gravel or hardscape, the Central Open Shape should encompass 10%-25% of the front yard or back yard. The shape should be clearly defined with a clean, distinct edge. The surface materials should be different than the material used for mulching surrounding planting bed. This will create a beautiful contrast. Creating a defined, unplanted, Central Open Space in a lawnless landscape avoids this design problem while also reducing the square footage of the landscape requiring both supplemental water and ongoing maintenance.

  • When gravel or hardscape is used for the Central Open Shape, it should have a clearly deliniated edge. Planting bed mulch should be a contrasting material or size. The material used for this Central Open Shape is called "Chat" by local Staker Parsons Landscape Centers. Other similar materials are Flagstone Chips, Decomposed Granite and similar. The material contains both crushed stone and "fines" which enables it to compact and create a much smoother walking surface than traditional gravel.

  • If the Central Open Shape is not created correctly, the benefits to water efficiency, function and curb appeal are not realized and, for those participating in the Localscapes Rewards program through Utah Water Savers, the landscape is disqualified from the Reward (a real disappointment for everyone involved).

  • 2. Lawn areas which are less than 8 feet wide.

    Lawn isn’t bad, but we often use it badly. In our climate, lawn should be used only in places where it serves a recreational purpose. Lawn areas less than eight feet wide are too narrow for active play, so the most common activity that ends up being performed in these spaces is… maintenance.

    Why it’s a problem:

    Eight feet is the minimum size at which irrigation systems can efficiently distribute water via overhead spray, but often we see lawn strips that are much narrower than eight feet. This causes problems with overspray, which greatly reduces the overall efficiency of the system.

    What to do instead:

    A Central Open Shape must be at least 8 feet wide in any direction. If your Central Open Shape is too narrow, consider alternative materials or other ways to use the space—like the front yard seating area pictured here. Any landscape participating in Utah Water Savers programs that includes lawn areas less than 8 feet wide or in park strips of any width, will not qualify for a rebate.

  • Smaller lots lend themselves well to creating a front yard seating area with hardscape or gravel. The area available for lawn, in the above photo, is so limited that it wouldn't serve a recreational purpose. Lawn is a recreation surface, not a default groundcover. It should only be placed in areas where it can be used for activities.

    Design and Install by Earthscapes

  • 3. Incorrect fittings for drip irrigation/use of microspray fittings.

    This problem is frustrating for both homeowners and our technicians. Some irrigation suppliers and/or contractors have incorrectly advised homeowners about drip irrigation fittings and irrigation zone requirements.

    Drip irrigation is efficient because it applies water directly to the soil around the plant’s root zone, a single drop at a time, enabling the water to be applied as larger, heavier drops right at the ground surface to minimize evaporation and drifting of water. The slower application of water provides the soil the time it needs to absorb the water so it remains where it was applied and available to the plant.

    Why it’s a problem:

    Some irrigation suppliers offer “microspray” fittings that are basically tiny sprinkler heads affixed to drip irrigation lines that sprinkle a small area. These fittings are still subject to the same problems as standard sprinkler heads. As they don’t significantly improve water efficiency, microspray fittings don’t qualify for rebates through Utah Water Savers. In addition, using microspray fixtures will also cause you to miss out on one of the best benefits of switching to drip irrigation-- improved weed control.

    In addition, some have been told that it is not necessary to have a pressure regulator installed on each drip irrigation zone because a system-wide flow control fitting is sufficient. Also not true. Each drip irrigation zone should have a pressure regulator and filter fitting directly after the valve or utilize a retrofit kit that has the regulator and filter built into the new fitting. We’re working to address the incorrect information with irrigation suppliers and landscapers but it’s important for homeowners to also have the information.

    What to do instead:

    In-line or point-source drip fittings, pictured below, are recommended instead, and both fulfill the requirements of Utah Water Savers programs. In-line drip irrigation is the type we most frequently recommend as it has the fewest moveable parts and opportunities to malfunction. In-line drip is simply tubing with emitters (holes) every 12-18 inches, depending on the type you purchase. In-line drip should be set up in a grid layout through the planting bed, with uniform spacing. Homeowners with clay soil should use 18-inch emitter spacing and those with sandy soil, 12-inch emitter spacing. This type of drip irrigation works best for more densely planted areas. A single loop of in-line drip should be placed around shrubs and a double loop around trees—as shown below.

  • Line line drip irrigation, laid out as a grid, is the ideal solution for planting beds which will be more densely planted.

  • Point Source irrigation is best for lightly planted areas or areas that will be filled with fewer, larger scale plants.  The advantage of point source is that emitters are available that have a variable output, making it possible to increase or decrease output based on the individual plant needs.

  • 4. Insufficient mulch.

    Mulch does far more than just create an attractive surface on the top of the soil. Properly applied, it also insulates plant roots from the heat of the sun, holds moisture in the soil, slowly decomposes to provide nutrients to plants and at the proper depth, and shades the soil so that the weed seed already in the soil does not get the sunlight needed to germinate and grow.

    Why it’s a problem:

    When mulch is only lightly applied, it does not provide all the benefits listed above—most especially weed prevention.

    What to do instead:

    We advise people to use thick mulch in place of landscape fabric (weed barrier fabric) because it provides the same benefits without the long-term negative effects fabric creates. But this only works if there’s 3-4 inches of organic mulch (soil pep, compost, fine bark etc.). This is most impactful the first time you apply mulch to the bed. You may even need to pull the mulch back a little around the trunk of plants but the heavy coat will be worth it. In future years, you may be able to apply a lighter top dressing to maintain the thickness of the mulch so it’s only a major project the first time it’s applied. To learn more about why we don’t recommend weed barrier fabric in planting beds—read this previous post "Why Weed Barrier Fabric is a Weed." 

  • A depth of 3-4 inches doesn't sound like much but it's actually more substantial than you may think. Apply this heavy coat the first time you mulch the bed and then a more typical 1" of mulch can be added every year or two to maintain the full depth. You may also need to pull the much back slightly from the base of the plant.

  • Other less common problems include:

    • Insufficient plant coverage in park strips (the Flip Your Strip Program requires at least 50% plant coverage at maturity)
    • Projects which aren’t complete prior to scheduling the final visit for Utah Water Savers incentive programs.
    • Additionally, if overhead sprinklers for the lawn are located within the planting bed, the should be on the edge of the lawn, not farther back in the planting bed where they can also spray the plants. The fastest way to develop a weed problem is to irrigate planting beds the same way the lawn is irrigated. 

  • Making significant changes to your home landscape can feel daunting, but we’re here to support your efforts with educational classes, experts who can answer your questions, and rebates to help make projects a little more cost effective. Together, we can help you create a landscape that’s both beautiful and resilient, ready to handle all the climate challenges that Utah can dish out.

    Utah Water Savers offers rebates for Utah homeowners who are ready to make changes to their landscape. Visit Utah Water Savers see the programs offered.