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While compost and mulch may seem interchangeable, they have distinctly different uses in your sustainable landscaping. Photo: Water Authority Compost vs. Mulch

Using Compost and Mulch to Build Healthy Soil

When undertaking a WaterSmart landscape renovation, strive to continuously feed as much organic matter as possible to the landscape soil to keep it healthy. Start first with compost and mulch to jump-start the process. Eventually, your plants will feed themselves with their own leaf litter.

Organic matter feeds microbes living in the soil that make soil fluffy. It’s similar to bread rising because of yeast.

Learn more about healthy soil in this instructional video

Compost and mulch – what’s the difference?

Compost is a soil amendment. It looks like soil and it’s hard to tell what it once was. That is because it is food scraps, landscape debris and/or manure from livestock, or biosolids (human manure) and other organic matter that already has been partially consumed and mostly decomposed by micro-organisms. Good compost brings oxygen, water, and life in one package.

Compost can be store-bought or made at home. The compost-making process, or composting, involves creating optimal conditions for the microbes to do their transformative work. When compost looks like soil, it can be worked directly into the soil. The more coarse or visible the bits of the compost are, the more likely it is to be used as mulch on top of the soil rather than as an incorporated amendment.

Compost works in several ways. First, the compost itself contains particles improving soil structure. Next, as compost decomposes in soil it encourages the formation of soil macroaggregates. The resulting macroaggregates are composed of existing soil particles and decomposed organic matter, which combine to create a more stable and better functioning soil structure.

Mulch builds soil structure over time and holds in moisture. Photo: Monsterkoi/Pixabay compost

Mulch builds soil structure over time and holds in moisture. Photo: Monsterkoi/Pixabay

Mulch is a soil topping. Mulch may be organic or inorganic material covering soil. It’s made of larger particles and looks like recycled debris. Mulch can be made from organic matter such as grass clippings, leaf litter, and shredded wood trimmings, or inorganic materials such as gravel or decomposed granite.

The microbes in healthy, biologically diverse mulch bind the organic matter together, forming a thick blanket. This cover protects soil and plant roots from temperature change, keeps moisture in by slowing evaporation from the surface of the soil, and keeps weeds from sprouting by reducing sunlight penetration to the soil surface.

Mulch always stays on top of the soil. Unlike compost, it is never worked in. Recycled organic debris is the most effective type of mulch because it builds soil structure over time and provides a durable, protective surface barrier. The smaller the debris and the more mixed leaves with wood chips, the faster it decomposes. When building soil, small and mixed is best.

Composted material, especially coarse composts, also can be used as mulch. Artificial and inorganic mulches (decomposed granite, gravel, rubber chips, and other rubble) are primarily decorative since they do not contribute to soil life or plant health. They may be used in limited applications such as pathways.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart choices are a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)

High quality soil will support your WaterSmart landscape design. Photo: Lisa Fotios/Pexels healthy soil

Building Healthy Soil: Give It Some Space

Healthy soil consists of elements we don’t typically think of as soil at all. In fact, one of the most critical aspects of soil is the space between the particles.

Soil space results from a process called aggregation. Solid matter will aggregate under the right conditions, forming space between the masses. This allows air and water to fill this area. Rain or irrigation water percolates through the soil, and aggregate spaces hold it like a storage tank. You can store more water and irrigate less frequently when you have more space.

Common Soil Problems Can Be Corrected

Set yourself up for landscaping success by building the best foundation in your soil structure. Photo: walkersalmanac/Pixabay healthy soil

Set yourself up for landscaping success by building the best foundation in your soil structure. Photo: Walkers Almanac/Pixabay

Check your soil aggregation by looking at the soil you dig out during a drainage test. Does it have nice clumps, or is it condensed and compacted?

Compaction is a common problem, especially in areas where grading has been done, foot traffic is heavy, or years of chemical use have killed the soil microbes. Compaction occurs when soil particles are pressed together, reducing pore space. Reduced pore space keeps air away from plant roots and stops water from infiltrating and draining.

Here’s how to tell if your soil is compacted. Take a turning fork and plunge it slowly but firmly into the ground. If your garden has a foot or more of penetrable soil, your compaction is minimal. New roots will grow easily, and water will effectively penetrate and drain. Anything less, and you probably have some soil compaction.

Using a turning fork, an aerator, or a tilling machine, you can create gaps in the soil to loosen compaction. Because it breaks up the fungal connections, it should only be done once to prepare your planting beds.

Follow all of these activities with a layer of compost to feed the soil food web to help build the aggregate spaces. Mulch can also feed healthy soil and help loosen compaction over time.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart choices are a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)

Soil-WaterSmartSD-Drought, Landscape makeover

Get to Know Your Soil Conditions

Every individual landscape sits in one of San Diego County’s 16 watersheds. The watershed approach to landscaping considers every garden its own mini-watershed, holding onto or cleaning the water falling on it and nurturing a diverse habitat of plants and insects.

Each mini-watershed can be controlled by the people who steward it. Individual landscaping choices add up to collective community action. As a result, these collective actions have the ability to restore the county’s greater watersheds.

Every landscape has unique opportunities and constraints. A thorough evaluation helps to identify them and inform the planting and design choices. Spend time in your yard, observe and take notes about it. Identifying multiple site elements will help you make decisions as you start the design process.

Notes should include the home’s architectural style and materials, good and bad views, slopes, and plants and trees you want to protect. Locate utilities and major irrigation items such as your water meter, controller, and valves.

Start With Healthy Soil

There’s so much more to soil than most people new to landscaping projects realize. Soil is the growing medium for plants. Its nutrients support healthy plant growth. Knowing and working with existing soil conditions and composition is a powerful strategy to maximize water efficiency.

Healthy soil controls the behavior of water: how it moves through the soil and how long it holds on to it. Healthy soil is essential to irrigation efficiency and plant health. It’s possible to build better soil even if existing soil conditions aren’t optimal.

See a demonstration about soil conditions in this video.

First, you must figure out what kind of soil you’re working with. There are three basic soil types: clay, silt, and sand. Clay soil is made of the smallest particles.  Sandy soil is composed of the largest particles. Loam, an equal blend of sand, silt, and clay, is considered the ideal. In general, sandy soil drains faster than clay soils.

Soil structure is also vitally important. Hard, compacted sandy soil will not absorb water. Healthy clay soil can behave more like a sponge, holding and releasing water when necessary.

San Diego County residents must often deal with clay soils and work to improve them to provide the best growing conditions and watershed.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart choices are a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.) 

Jeff Moore rakes the zen garden included in his back yard landscape plot plan. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Plan For Success: Create A Plot Plan

Any WaterSmart landscape makeover starts with observing and recording your property as it exists today. Think of it as a bird’s eye view or satellite map showing your property’s boundaries and physical features. This becomes the basis of all your planning.

You need a few basic tools to draw your own plot plan. They include a tape measure for accurate measurements, a ruler to measure and draw straight lines, a clipboard, a pencil, and paper, preferably one-quarter inch grid graph paper.

Steps to create a basic plot plan

Even if you don’t plan to install the whole project at one time, you should create a complete master plan for your landscape so the outcome is unified, including a WaterSmart planting and irrigation design. Graphic: San Diego County Water Authority Six Steps to WaterSmart

Even if you don’t plan to install the whole project at once, you should create a complete master plan for your landscape, so the outcome is unified, including a WaterSmart planting and irrigation design. Graphic: San Diego County Water Authority

  1. Start at the corner of your property.
  2. Measure across to the edge of your drive or sidewalk to your property line. Say, for example, the distance from the corner of your lot to the driveway is 28 feet 8 inches. Using the scale one-quarter inch = one foot, you would use 28 and a half squares for the space on your graph paper.
  3. Next, measure the depth of your property to the sidewalk or curb. Use this approach to locate property lines, walkways, trees, driveways, easements, and your home.
  4. Measure and mark any existing hardscape or landscape you want to save, such as walkways, mature trees, and shrubs.
  5. Use a ruler to draw your shapes and keep your scale accurate.
  6. Take note of natural drainage features. Preserving these and limiting the use of impermeable surfaces in your landscape will minimize runoff and maximize site water infiltration.
  7. Add compass directions to understand the sun’s shade effects as it moves across your yard. South-facing exposures are sunny and hot, while north-facing exposures can be cool and shady.
  8. Locate views that should be preserved and areas you want hidden from view, like your neighbor’s garbage cans.
  9. Locate features on your house such as windows, doors, and other openings. Indicate their height off the ground.
  10. Locate utilities like the water meter, electrical boxes, and overhead power lines.
  11. Note any existing irrigation heads. You’ll need to know where these are later when designing your new irrigation plan.

Now you have a road map of your landscape. Your future landscaping plans start with this baseline document.

Walk in the sun

As a part of creating a plan, take time to walk around your property during different times of day. Note areas that are sunny or shady in the morning and areas that are sunny or shady in the afternoon. When you start choosing your plants, make sure to select those appropriate to your garden’s sunlight patterns.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart choices are a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)

Before you get started on your WaterSmart landscaping makeover, there are significant decisions to make about plant and irrigation choices. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Identify Your Landscape Target Goals

Before starting your WaterSmart landscaping makeover, there are significant decisions to make about improving your water efficiency, including plant and irrigation choices. First, determine what type of landscape will meet your needs and maximize your water savings potential.

This instructional video will help you consider your options

What to Know About Plant Choices

Why is turf the main target for saving water? Grass requires more water to keep it green than most other plants. Turf needs four times the amount of rain our region gets annually.

But saving water isn’t the only reason to get rid of your lawn. If you aren’t using your lawn as outdoor living space or a safe place for your children and animals, it’s going to waste. Consider instead an attractive type of substitute such as groundcovers or more interesting plant groups along pathways. There are many alternate choices – including limited turf.

Low to moderate water use plants

A low to moderate water use garden has some moderate water use accent plants and up to 10% high water use plants.

  • 45% low water use
  • 45% moderate water use
  • 10% high water use

Low water use plants

A low water use garden has no more than 10% high water use plants.

  • 90% low water use
  • 10% high water use

Very low water use plants

A very low water use garden has a mix of very low and low water use plants.

  • 50% very low water use
  • 50% low water use

What to Know About Irrigation Choices

Take time to learn about your possible irrigation choices. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority landscape target goals

Take time to learn about your possible irrigation choices. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Low-efficiency irrigation

This is not a WaterSmart method.

  • Conventional spray irrigation: Conventional spray heads apply water faster than most soils can absorb it, and they produce smaller water droplets that are susceptible to wind.
  • Impact rotors: Impact rotors are one of the least efficient methods of irrigation. They are quickly being replaced by higher efficiency options.

Moderate efficiency irrigation

  • Rotating nozzles: Best suited for spaces 15 to 70 feet wide.
  • Low precipitation sprays: Best suited for areas 5 to 30 feet wide.

High-efficiency irrigation

  • Drip emitters and inline emitters: Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water perennials, shrubs, trees, and new turf. Drip systems apply water slowly so runoff is not an issue. You can leave the water on long enough to reach the deep roots of shrubs and trees.
  • Pressure-compensating inline drip: Best for low-maintenance.
  • Pressure-compensating point source drip: efficient distribution when properly maintained.
  • Bubblers: Best suited for trees and large shrubs.
  • Micro-spray: Best suited for tree and shrub areas of smaller size.

Whether you want to create space for entertaining, limit landscape maintenance or maintain some turf for children and pets, you can reach your water-saving goals and create an outdoor space to live in.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart Living is a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)

Making a plan of your existing landscape and evaluating site elements is key to helping you make design decisions as you start the design process. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority Six Steps to WaterSmart

Six Steps to WaterSmart Landscape Success

Every WaterSmart landscape added by a homeowner becomes a key part of the San Diego region’s water efficiency goals. By converting a turf-focused yard to a WaterSmart landscape, you have the potential to beautify your property, save money, and reduce maintenance. You also play a critical role in protecting and improving the health of our natural environment by cultivating native plants, retaining and minimizing stormwater runoff, and conserving water.

Why is turf the target? Our video explains the multiple reasons why

As outlined in the video, there are six distinct steps to successfully create a WaterSmart landscape.

Step 1. Identify your landscape target. What types of plants do you want to use? Which irrigation types suit those plants? These answers will help guide you through the design process.

Step 2. Create a basic plot plan. Making a plan of your existing landscape will help you visualize and reimagine your future landscape.

Step 3. Evaluate your site. Evaluate site elements such as soil, drainage, sun exposure, and views to identify opportunities and constraints. This knowledge is key to helping you make design decisions as you start the design process. It’s essential at this stage to pay special attention to methods of retaining stormwater.

Even if you don’t plan to install the whole project at one time, you should create a complete master plan for your landscape so the outcome is unified, including a WaterSmart planting and irrigation design. Graphic: San Diego County Water Authority Six Steps to WaterSmart

Even if you don’t plan to install the whole project at once, you should create a complete master plan for your landscape, so the outcome is unified, including a WaterSmart planting and irrigation design. Graphic: San Diego County Water Authority

Step 4. Design your WaterSmart landscape.  Even if you don’t plan to install the whole project at one time, you should create a complete master plan for your landscape, so the outcome is unified, including a WaterSmart planting and irrigation design. Verify your planned water use before starting construction and adjust if it doesn’t meet your original landscape target.

Step 5. Implement your plan. As you execute your plan step by step, take your time. Hire a professional if needed. Getting it done right is far preferable to rushing or tackling tasks too difficult or complex for you to complete properly.

Step 6. Care for your WaterSmart landscape. Learn the best practices for maintaining your landscape. Consider creating a maintenance schedule to help you keep on track. You can even use these maintenance techniques to help you save money in existing landscape areas that have not been upgraded.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart Living is a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)

WaterSmart landscapes are attractive and in balance with the regional environment and climate - and beautiful, too. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority step-by-step process

A Step-by-Step Process to a WaterSmart Landscape 

Using water efficiently is a way of life and an important responsibility in San Diego County’s beautiful Mediterranean climate. WaterSmart landscaping rethinks the way limited water resources can be used by making smart choices to reduce outdoor water use. But saving water is just one benefit of low-water-use landscaping.

WaterSmart landscapes are attractive and in balance with the regional environment and climate. They incorporate elements of sustainable landscaping such as healthy, living soils, climate-appropriate plants, and high-efficiency irrigation. They generate many environmental and community benefits.

Beautify Your Property: A well-designed WaterSmart landscape enhances the appearance and value of your property.

Protect Natural Resources and the Environment: WaterSmart landscapes generate many environmental and community benefits including lowering water use, reducing green waste, and preventing stormwater runoff and pollution.

Reduce Costs: WaterSmart landscaping uses less water than traditional landscaping, which can save you money on your water bill.

Reduce Maintenance: Well-designed irrigation systems and plants appropriate to San Diego County’s climate often require less-frequent care and maintenance.

Learn more about the reasons WaterSmart landscaping is vital in San Diego County.

Adding outdoor living space adds value

Consider the value of having a garden to live in as well as look at by creating outdoor rooms for your favorite activities. Adding outdoor living space makes even the smallest home feel open.

Homeowners can explore many options for showstopping front yards. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Homeowners can explore many options for show-stopping front yards. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

The front yard is making a comeback across the country in developments focused on sustainable living. Most San Diego County homes have a garage out front, but we can redesign our front yards to be the new American front porch, where we connect with neighbors and create the kind of street we always wanted to live on.

Restoring regional authenticity is a significant design trend. Authentic also means sustainable. Plants native to Mediterranean climate zones thrive and preserve biodiversity while reducing costly and time-consuming maintenance.

The WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program is an award-winning educational program developed in 2012 by the San Diego County Water Authority, its member agencies, and local community college experts. The program’s step-by-step process empowers homeowners with the skills and knowledge necessary to convert a turf area into a WaterSmart landscape.

Gardening is an activity, like painting, cooking or golf, where you never stop learning. Take a trial-and-error approach and learn what works for you.

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WaterSmart Living-Logo-San Diego County Water Authority

(Editor’s Note: The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies offer programs, resources, and incentives to improve water-use efficiency for residential, commercial, and agricultural users. WaterSmart Living is a way of life in the region. Stay WaterSmart San Diego! For more water-use efficiency resources, go to WaterSmart.SD.org.)