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Rocks and small boulders are both aesthetically pleasing and useful in your landscape. Photo: Otay Water District

Contour Your Landscape

When planning your landscape, look first at the terrain you’re working with. You can use the contours of your existing land – depressions and slopes – for guidance when planning your landscape grading. If your yard is flat, you’ll need to move soil and features around to create more rain-holding contour areas.

A soil percolation test can be very helpful in preparing your soil. You want to make it as much of a water-retaining sponge as possible before getting to work on rainwater capture plans.

NOTE: If you have existing hillsides, it’s best to get professional advice before grading or other significant changes. Before any digging, call Dig Alert 8-1-1 or visit digalert.org to be sure you won’t hit any underground utility lines.

Move water with gravity

Basins and swales are shallow depressions or channels no more than 24 inches deep on gently sloped or nearly flat landscapes. Basins and swales move water over short distances. With these contours, gravity will move water around to where you want it.

Small, shallow depressions work best in clay soil areas, while sandy soils may accommodate deeper depressions up to two feet. Channels can be planted or lined with rocks and small boulders to resemble natural creek beds.

Use rainwater to your advantage

By planning your landscape so that you don’t have low spots with no plants, you prevent wasting rainwater through runoff. You can also avoid fungus and rot from standing water. Plants in and around the depressions capture and sink small volumes of surface water so that all the rainwater you capture can be used.

Berms are mounds of raised soil, usually planted, that can border basins and swales or be used alone. They help contain and move water around, increasing the holding capacity of basins and swales.

Boulders can add points of interest and slow down water runoff in your landscaping. Boulders also are useful to retain small berms or the edges of swales.

The San Diego County Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Plants on the Nifty 50 list have been selected because they are attractive, available in retail nurseries, non-invasive and thrive in San Diego County. Photo: Capri23auto/Pixabay

The Nifty 50: Best Plants for WaterSmart Landscapes

Are you looking for new plants or trees to upgrade your WaterSmart landscape? Check out the Nifty 50. These 50 plants and trees thrive in San Diego County’s arid climate, and the rainy fall and winter are a perfect time to introduce them into your landscape. They are attractive, non-invasive, easy to maintain and drought-tolerant.

Timing is important

During the first 12 months in your garden, called the establishment period, new plants need extra water. Before bringing them home, make sure to check your irrigation system and water pressure.

A good resource for estimating the right amount of water for your landscape is the City of San Diego’s Landscape Watering Calculator.

The calculator is based on historical weather data for your zip code and can tell you more about water requirements for the plants, soil and sprinkler type in each of your irrigation zones. It will work for any location in San Diego County.

Map out your landscape

Once you have an efficient irrigation system set up, choose your new plants. Trees are a great way to line your property and block out the sun, noise and wind. They can help you collect rainwater and provide a beautiful backdrop for other plants.

Certain types of shrubs pair well aesthetically and attract pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. California Lilac, Manzanita, and Toyon are good examples of shrubs that will bring pollinators and other wildlife to your garden.

To add some texture and dimension to your landscape, look for colorful groundcovers like Trailing Lantana or Stonecrop.

Authentic means sustainable

Plants native to the region have adapted over thousands of years, and native animal species depend on them as well. There are thousands of ground covers, grasses, succulents, perennials, shrubs, vines and trees to choose from in addition to the Nifty 50. For more information, go to WaterSmartSD.org.

Trees can be a great natural way to slow down rainwater before it reaches your soil. Photo: Thilo Becker/Pixabay

Catching and Storing Rainwater for Your Landscape

During the rainy fall and winter seasons in Southern California, catching and storing rainwater is beneficial for cutting down on irrigation costs. It can also be stored for later use through the rest of the year.

Know the path rainwater will take

If there are rain gutters on your house, water will flow into downspouts, where it can move with great force and speed. This is especially true in a large storm. Instead of allowing downspouts to discharge directly on hard surfaces like a driveway, path, or patio, plan ways to redirect downspout water into vegetated landscape areas. This will be a more efficient use of the natural irrigation.

Replacing downspouts with “rain chains” to slow down the water is one option. This way, water can be more easily absorbed when it reaches your landscape. Add a rain barrel or cistern at the bottom of downspouts or rain chains and let it overflow into your garden.

If your house does not have rain gutters, water shears off roof surfaces and can cause erosion damage. Cover areas under the eaves in permeable ground covers such as pea gravel, mulch, or rocks. Ground covers can reduce the compacting force of water falling on bare soil. Spread fresh leaf and wood chip mulch throughout the garden to slow down water. Healthy soil can withstand even the strongest rain. Once the rainwater is absorbed into the soil, your plants’ roots will grow deeper. This will help them thrive throughout the year.

Ways to store rainfall

Rainwater can also be harvested and stored. Rain barrels and cisterns directly connected to downspouts are great storage containers. Check out your local water district or water agency to see if there are any rebates or incentives available.

Stored water can be released gradually into the landscaping between winter rainstorms. This will help build up the soil sponge and ensure that native plants get adequate water when they need it most. If you need water in the summer and capture enough of it during the winter, you may be able to use your stored water for irrigation.

Both rain barrels and above–ground cisterns can be relatively inexpensive to purchase and easy to install. Use screens to keep mosquitos out. With minimum maintenance and common sense, you can keep the water safe and clean. If you plan to store rainwater, make sure the “first flush” is diverted directly into the landscaping before capturing the rainfall that follows. This is important because the “first flush” will collect debris and contaminants that have built up on surfaces throughout the dry months.

Use your landscape to capture rain

You can design your landscape to effectively collect water. Properly placed trees are excellent landscaping features to help capture rainfall, allowing it to be released slowly over time into the soil. Taller, stronger plants placed strategically can also allow you to control the flow of water.

With a little planning, you can capture and store rainwater easily and effectively during the rainy season and use it throughout the year.

The San Diego County Water Authority, its member agencies and partners offer other water-saving resources including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Even in our arid climate, the first rainfall can add up to a lot of water runoff - save as much as possible in your landscape. Photo: Denis Doukhan/Pixabay

Prepare Your Landscape for the First Rain

After a dry spell, the first rainfall is the most important water to capture for your landscape. This is called the “first flush.”

In arid regions like San Diego County, this happens every year because there is a long stretch of dry weather in between rainy seasons.

Why is the first rainfall so important?

It washes away pollutants that have collected since the last rain. This water needs to be filtered as much as possible by landscaping before it goes anywhere else. Usually the next stop for this water is storm drains that empty into oceans. So your landscape can be a very important tool in preventing the buildup of pollutants in local water supplies.

In addition, the first rain in the fall is very important for your plants. New or established plants will want to grow deep roots in the fall and winter, and the additional water is essential. Capturing the rain with your landscape reduces the need for increasing irrigation.

How much water comes off your roof?

Measure the size of your roof to determine how much water will come off it. The shape of your roof doesn’t matter in this instance. The same amount of water falls on the roof whether it is sloped or flat. You can measure a sloped roof either using an aerial view or from the ground without worrying about the slope itself. Just measure the outside edges the same way you would if it was flat and calculate the square footage.

Flat roofs covering a building in one contiguous shape are easier to measure. Some roofs are more complicated. You can divide this type of roof into individual squares or triangles. Then, measure each one at a time and add the figures together for your total roof area.

Calculate your potential water capture

Once you know the total roof area, you can determine the amount of rainfall it generates in gallons, then use the following formula to convert square feet to gallons.

Formula: Rainfall in Inches x Total Square Feet x 0.62 = Gallons of Rainwater from the Roof

Here’s an example using a 1,000 square foot roof: 1 inch of rain x 1000 x 0.62 = 620 gallons.

Even in a dry climate, this rainfall adds up to a lot of water runoff. It’s easy to see how important it is to save as much of this water as possible in a landscape designed to be a sponge instead of a brick. Take the watershed approach to designing your landscape, and you can use the first flush of rain to your advantage.

The San Diego County Water Authority and its partners also offer other resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Butterflies and hummingbirds aren't just visually appealing; they also provide a service to your landscape by pollinating plants. Photo: GeorgeB2/Pixabay

Attract Butterflies and Hummingbirds

Witnessing the quick burst of color that often accompanies a butterfly or hummingbird’s flight is always exciting. It’s even more exciting when you see them in your own garden. Aside from being visually appealing, butterflies and hummingbirds also provide a service to your landscape by helping to pollinate plants. In doing so, they ensure seeds for future generations of plants.

How do you attract these beautiful garden pollinators?

Colorful, tube-shaped flowers located in sunny areas will attract hummingbirds in search of nectar. In Southern California, these tiny pollinators can stay year-round with a steady food supply. To provide this supply, try selecting a variety of plants that will bloom at different intervals throughout the year.

Hummingbirds also like shrubs and trees that provide shade where they can rest or find materials to build nests. Those cool areas are also where they can hunt insects. This can be helpful to your garden as they may eat insects harmful to other plants.

Similarly, butterflies also rely on flowers that provide nectar. They need host plants, which California native plants often are, where they can lay eggs. These eggs will hatch caterpillars, which will need to feed on nearby leaves. If you are concerned about leaves with lots of holes from hungry caterpillars, try strategically placing these plants behind other plants or in the back of your garden.

A good way to plan out where to put certain plants is by mirroring native plant communities.

Some native California plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds:

  • California Fuchsia
  • Manzanitas
  • Chaparral Currant
  • Narrowleaf Milkweed
  • Sticky Monkeyflower
  • Coyote Mint

By selecting the right types of native plants, your landscape will burst into color!

The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including tips for sustainable landscaping best practices at SustainableLandscapesSD.org and free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Avoiding invasive plant species, removing dead leaves and branches, and planting native plants can protect your landscape and home from wildfires. Photo: azboomer/Pixabay

Firefighting with Plants

Wildfire is a constant threat in Southern California. But there are ways you can protect your landscape and home using native, fire-resistant plants.

Plan your landscaping in three zones

Zone 1: Help your landscape resist fires by choosing smart designs and fire-resistant plants. The first zone should provide 35 feet of defensible space around structures and access areas. This maximizes fire prevention and allows fire crews to access your property if needed.

Zone 2: Your landscape should reduce the chances of airborne embers from catching fire. Thin vegetation for at least 65 additional feet in the second zone. That makes for a total of 100 feet of defensible space.

Zone 3: Many of San Diego County’s native, fire-resistant plants can survive and recover from infrequent fires. Some plants even use fire as a signal to begin growing.

However, when fires occur too frequently, survival is tough for even the most well-adapted plants. Invasive, non-native plant species make fires more frequent, longer in duration, and hotter. That’s why it’s important to remove invasive plants in fire-prone areas.

Crassula is a diverse and extensive genus of succulent plants, with about 350 species.

Crassula is a diverse and extensive genus of succulent plants, with about 350 species. Photo: Pixabay

Use fire-resistant plants

Some native plants with high salt or water content can themselves from airborne embers. For instance, agave, aloe, crassula, and other succulents store extra water in their fleshy leaves. These plants also usually have a low volatile oil content.

Five fire-resistant plant choices include:

  • Daylily hybrids
  • Coral Aloe
  • Indian Mallow
  • Bush Morning Glory
  • California Sycamore trees

Avoid plants that fuel wildfires

Messy, oily trees and shrubs, such as eucalyptus and junipers, fuel fires. They ignite quickly, burn hot and long, and release embers into the air. Because of those factors, they contribute to the spread of wildfire.

Preventative landscape maintenance includes regularly removing dry grass, thatch, brush, weeds, litter, waste, and dead and dying vegetation. Trees should be properly pruned. Similarly, shrubs should be thinned. Remove any dead branches or leaves. Leave root structures intact to avoid erosion. Dead leaves and branches are especially flammable on evergreen shrubs, so avoid planting these close to homes or structures.

This article was inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook available at SustainableLandscapesSD.org. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Sometimes improving your water efficiency is as simple as changing a few old habits. Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay

Indoor Water Efficiency at No Cost

There are many ways to use water more efficiently indoors, and a lot of these are completely free! You don’t have to go through the expense of replacing appliances or installing new ones to improve indoor water efficiency. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a few old water usage habits.

Here are some easy ways to reduce water usage inside your home:

  • Use a bowl of water to help thaw frozen food. Did you know that running the tap to thaw frozen meats and vegetables could use up to 2.5 gallons per minute? Using a bowl of room temperature water instead can greatly improve your water efficiency.
  • Scrape dirty dishes first before rinsing them. Not only will this save you time at the sink, but it will also conserve up to 2.5 gallons of water per minute.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables in a bowl of water instead of running water.
  • Run the dishwasher only when it’s full. Too often people are tempted to run the dishwasher as soon as the sink is empty, but standard dishwashers can use 2-4.5 gallons of water per load.
  • Turn off the water when brushing your teeth. This is possibly the easiest habit to change when it comes to water efficiency, and most people are already doing it.
  • Shorten showers to five minutes or less. Setting a timer on your watch or phone can help with this.
  • Use a bucket to collect water in the shower while you’re waiting for it to warm up. Then use this water to water your plants. Sometimes it can take a while for the shower to get to the right temperature before you step in. This is a perfect time to collect some clean water that can be reused around the house.
  • Wash only full loads of clothing – standard clothes washing machines can use a whopping 15-50 gallons per load. By running the washing machine only when it’s full, you can greatly improve your water efficiency.

Learn more about how to use water more efficiently indoors and outdoors this summer.

Check out WaterSmartSD.org for more resources

WaterSmartSD.org also has information about incentives for indoor and outdoor water conservation, as well as opportunities to sign up for FREE WaterSmart checkups. If you’re looking to revamp your landscaping this year, take a look at the WaterSmart landscape makeover classes for some easy ways to get started.

Planting succulents that are high in water or salt content, such as aloe, can help with fire prevention in your sustainable landscape. Photo: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

Fire Prevention Tips for Landscapes

Fire is a real and constant threat in Southern California. This is especially true in wildland interface areas. For effective fire prevention, it is important to select plants, choose landscape designs and perform consistent maintenance in accordance with fire safety guidelines.

Plan for fire safety

Landscapes should resist ignition and provide 35 ft. of actively maintained defensible space around structures and access zones. This maximizes fire prevention and also allows for access by fire crews, if necessary.

Native plants adapted for fire prevention

Many of San Diego County’s native plant communities, like chaparral, are able to survive and recover from infrequent fire. Some plants use fire to signal available space to grow and thus start the germination process. However, when fires are too frequent, event the most well-adapted plants will have trouble surviving.

Invasive species have made fires more frequent. In addition, they allow fires to burn longer and with hotter intensity. Fire prevention in landscaping means it is even more important to avoid invasive plants in fire-prone zones.

Use plants that resist ignition

Select the types of native plants that will be less likely to ignite and produce airborne plant embers. Such plants will include those with a high salt and/or water and low volatile oil content in their leaves. Succulents are a great example of these types of plants. Agaves, aloes, crassulas and other succulents store extra water in their fleshy leaves.

For fire prevention, avoid messy, oily trees and shrubs like eucalyptus, since they will ignite quickly and burn hot and long. These plants will also release embers into the air and further spread the fire.

To prevent fires, maintenance is key. Preventive maintenance includes regularly removing dry grass, thatch, brush, weeds, litter, waste and dead and dying vegetation. Dead leaves and branches are particularly flammable, especially on evergreen shrubs or vines. Pruning trees and thinning shrubs and perennials regularly will also help prevent fires.

This article was inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook available at SustainableLandscapesSD.org. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Sometimes a portion of lawn is maintained even with sustainable landscaping plans, and using the right type of grass, along with proper care, can reduce water needs. Image: Inspector/Pixabay

Tips for Responsible Lawn Maintenance

While the goal of many sustainable landscaping plans is to remove the traditional suburban lawn, sometimes a portion of lawn area is maintained.

You can ensure that your lawn stays healthy, permeable and green by using sustainable landscaping tips for lawn maintenance:

  • Grass cycling
  • Using proper mowing height and frequency
  • Eliminating chemical use
  • Monitoring watering frequency and duration
  • Using organic amendments, particularly compost

Turf should be top dressed with one-eighth to one-quarter of compost once or twice yearly. This minimizes the need for resource inputs, the ability of lawn areas to act as infiltration and filter areas, and reduces polluted runoff.

Ideal placement and grass type

Turf should ideally be used where it serves a specific purpose, like a play area. It should be avoided in inaccessible or decorative areas like parkways, median strips, islands, or front yards. Turf should be avoided on all slopes.

Sustainable landscaping for responsible lawn maintenance

Warm season grass is the best choice for most areas in San Diego County. Warm season grass prefers temperatures of 80 degrees or more, and will go dormant in the winter when it is rainy and cool. Typically these grasses grow from sturdy rhizomes that extend deep underground.

Warm season grass also uses less water than cool season grass and is a moderate water use plant. Consider overseeing your grass with clover to make it more interesting and drought-tolerant.


This article was inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook available at SustainableLandscapesSD.org. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Setting Your Landscaping Objectives for Success

When you’ve taken the time to learn about the concepts behind the watershed approach to creating a healthy and sustainable landscape, you should step back and consider the goals you want to achieve in your garden.

If you’re facing an ocean of grass lawn and you’ve never given much thought to landscaping goals, it might be difficult to know where to start. Here are a few ideas.

Saying goodbye to grass

Remove a thirsty lawn without using any chemicals, in a way that preserves the healthy soil microbes.

Plant local California native plants that will attract birds, butterflies, and bees for pollination.

Create a child or pet friendly garden without thorns or sticky grass seed heads.

Plant fruit trees, edible vines and shrubs, or vegetable gardens.

Using water efficiently

Build healthy living soil that will act like a sponge, even if it rains a lot.

Capture all the rainwater from the roof and re-routing downspouts to fill rain barrels instead of running onto hardscaping.

Convert spray irrigation to micro or drip irrigation, with the intention of turning it off after establishing low-water use landscaping.

Make pathways and driveways more permeable.

Create a garden as a personal art gallery

Make room for a small patio with room for an outdoor table or seating.

Add pathways, Zen gardens, and interesting materials and patterns.

Integrate beautiful objects such as an art piece, interesting container collection, or items like sundials.

One goal we can all support: creating a beautiful sustainable landscape that reduces your water use by 70 percent or more.


This article was inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook available at SustainableLandscapesSD.org. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.