A drought tolerant design inspired by mountain views is the 2023 winner of the San Dieguito Water District Landscape Makeover Contest. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

Mountains Inspire Winners of San Dieguito Water District 2023 Landscape Contest

Large trees were the driving force that led Encinitas homeowners to remove grass and create a vibrant, low-water use landscape. The waterwise transformation won the San Dieguito Water District 2023 Landscape Makeover Contest.

Rick and Melanie Cullen had a yard with grass with large shade trees. But the roots of their three large Liquidambar trees were damaging the driveway and the grass, which motivated the couple to remake their landscape.

Overgrown landscape trees helped inspire Melanie Cullen to change her original landscaping to a waterwise design. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

Overgrown landscape trees helped inspire a change to a waterwise landscape design. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

“San Dieguito Water District is proud to recognize customers like the Cullens, who create beautiful and resilient landscapes while making efficient use of their water,” said Isam Hireish, general manager of San Dieguito Water District.

Mountain visits inspire landcape makeover

Melanie Cullen's new design incorporates a dry riverbed. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

The makeover design incorporates a dry riverbed. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

The Cullens wanted to plant a drought-tolerant, water-wise yard that would be easy to maintain, beautiful, and hold up to their frequent travel schedule.

“My inspiration was to create a water wise, drought-tolerant front yard that also provides us a beautiful yard as if we were in the mountains,” said Melanie Cullen. It started with taking existing small landscape rocks and repurposing them into a natural dry streambed feature.

Colorful plant palette pollinators love

Plants in beautiful colors that attract pollinators highlight the plant palette. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

Plants in beautiful colors that attract pollinators highlight the plant palette. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

Plants were selected that would thrive in the coastal San Diego County environment. The invasive Liquidambar trees were replaced by Blue Ice Cypress, Forest Pansy Red Bud, and dwarf Deodar Cedar trees. Colorful drought-tolerant flowering shrubs and perennials including Coastal Woolybush, salvias, echinaceas, Texas primrose, heronsbill, columbine, Grevillea ‘Mt. Tamboritha’ and ‘Sour Grapes’ Penstemon provide habitat for pollinators.

Fragrant ground cover

Grasses including Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ and Acorus ‘Variegated Sweetflag’ add to the plant palette. Creeping Thyme and trailing Rosemary are used as colorful, fragrant ground cover.

A highlight: one dozen Azaleas create a woodland flower look. Cullen says they bloom when other plants aren’t flowering.

“One might think they are water hogs, but they get the same water as everything else and bloom quite a bit throughout the year,” said Cullen. “It was a matter of choosing the right type of Azalea (Red Bird and Alaska White).”

Drip irrigation system saves water 

Melanie Cullen installed a circular drip irrigation system. She only needs to water once every one to two weeks for 20 minutes now that the plants are established. Photo: San Dieguito Water District

A circular drip irrigation system requires watering plants only once every one-to-weeks for 20 minutes.  Photo: San Dieguito Water District

The Cullens used a drip irrigation system that encircles each plant individually to direct water to the specific plant. They already had a smart irrigation controller which is still in use. A remote moisture sensor was added allowing the homeowners to monitor the ground moisture at the plants and then adjust watering for the yard.

Three to four inches of bark mulch helps retain irrigation, which has worked “extremely well.”

Tapping rain

Melanie Cullen says the irrigation was turned off completely from January through May due to generous rainfall. “Presently, we only need to water once every one to two weeks for 20 minutes,” she said.

“I join our Board of Directors in recognizing the leadership of the Cullens and commend them for taking proactive steps to improve our community’s resilience to a changing climate,” said Isam Hireish, General Manager of San Dieguito Water District. “I encourage all customers to utilize water more efficiently and take advantage of the various water-saving incentives we offer.”

In the months since the landscape makeover, the Cullens report all their original goals were met. “We love sitting in our front now and watching the many hummingbirds that also love our yard,” said Melanie Cullen.

For rebates, classes, and water-saving tips:

(Editor’s note: The San Dieguito Water District is one of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region.)

Growers Brace to Give Up Some Colorado River Water

Across the sun-cooked flatlands of the Imperial Valley, water flows with uncanny abundance. The valley, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, is naturally a desert. Yet canals here are filled with water, lush alfalfa grows from sodden soil and rows of vegetables stretch for miles.

Within this grid of greenery, near the desert town of Brawley, Mark McBroom grows 6,000 acres of hay crops, like alfalfa, and fruit orchards, all irrigated by water imported from the Colorado River.

Tear Out Your Lawn, Save California

In case you missed the memo: Glossy green lawns fed by sprinklers arcing water into the sky just don’t work anymore in these days of lingering drought.

As the supply of water in reservoirs and wells continues to shrink around California, we need to change what and how we’re irrigating.

Public parks might arguably be good locations for large expanses of turf in Southern California’s low-rain climate, but around our houses?

‘Water Police’ Patrol Drought-Hit Los Angeles Streets

Damon Ayala patrols the streets of drought-stricken Los Angeles every day, inspecting the sidewalks. Each time he sees a puddle, he stops.

He is part of the city’s Department of Water and Power team, which looks into hundreds of community complaints filed by neighbors each week about water waste.

Desert Farmers Concerned, Prepared for Extreme Drought

Currently, no water is running through pipes and canals for some farmers in Northern California.

It’s not even June.

Farmers there have experienced this before, but the concern of that happening is starting to trickle into the Coachella Valley.

SoCal Needs to Keep Vital Trees Alive Despite Unprecedented Watering Restrictions

The lowly sidewalk tree often stands invisible. We rest in its shade, bask in the scent of springtime flowers, and we don’t notice it until it’s gone.

But the tree works hard. It captures and filters stormwater runoff and helps replenish groundwater. It cleans our air and cools our neighborhoods. It improves our mental health. It saves lives.

Marin Municipal Water District Lifts Sprinkler Ban

Most Marin County residents will once again be allowed to turn on their sprinklers following a nearly three-month ban.

The Marin Municipal Water District board voted unanimously on Tuesday to allow the district’s 191,000 residents in central and southern Marin to use outdoor sprinklers and drip irrigation two days per week. Outdoor irrigation using potable water supplies had been banned since Dec. 1 in response to the drought.

Irrigation-Conservation Corner-drought-Water Conservation

Choosing Your Best Irrigation Method: Spray or Drip

Your choices in irrigation methods come down to spray or drip systems. Spray irrigation emits water in an overlapping pattern. Drip irrigation delivers water directly to the roots of plants. This question is more important than ever during a drought cycle. How do you decide which meets the needs of your landscaping?

The case for spray irrigation

Ensuring that spray heads are properly tuned and far enough away from buildings or impermeable surfaces helps maximize your water efficiency. Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Ensuring that spray heads are properly tuned and far enough away from buildings or impermeable surfaces helps maximize your water efficiency. Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Spray irrigation can be an efficient way to irrigate large landscapes with groundcover or uniform plant materials like lawns or meadows.

Spray systems apply water in gallons per minute, so if you know the application rate of each spray head, the distance between the heads, and the pressure of your system, it is relatively easy to figure out how much water is applied every time you run your irrigation.

Low volume spray heads apply water at about one-third the rate of conventional spray heads. Newer spray irrigation heads have improved spray with heavier droplets more resistant to wind. Landscaping with grade changes using spray heads should have check valves installed to prevent water flowing out of the lower point heads.

Challenges of spray irrigation include narrow areas surrounded by hardscape or irregular patterns. Irregular patterns are particularly challenging because spray irrigation requires head-to-head coverage to be efficient. Odd-shaped areas may be under or overwatered. High-volume spray heads that emit water at a much higher rate than the soil can absorb should be replaced.

The case for drip irrigation

Drip systems apply water in gallons per hour, so they often need to run for longer periods of time than spray systems. But the actual run time must always account for precipitation rate and runoff.

Installation of subsurface systems (under at least two inches of mulch) is the most efficient way to irrigate nearly every type of garden area. Since the tubing is flexible, it can accommodate a variety of irregularly shaped areas or rectangular areas when laid in a grid pattern, and in rings you can easily expand as trees or shrubs grow.

Challenges of drip irrigation include the application of water too quickly for your soil to absorb. This needs to be considered when dripline grids are installed. Drip irrigation operates the most efficiently at low pressure (between 15 and 30 PSI). To achieve optimal performance, pressure regulation either at the valve or at the point of connection of the dripline to the buried lateral lines must be used. It is also essential to install some type of filtering system to keep the emitters from getting clogged.

This article is part of a year-long series inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at