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Sustainable Landscaping Project Checklist for Success

When you’re beginning a sustainable landscaping project, it can be challenging to remember all the things you need to research, measure, and decide along the way. But it’s not a good idea to overlook these details. They all contribute to the success of your new sustainable landscaping project.

WaterSmart San Diego’s Sustainable Landscaping Guide has a helpful Project Checklist to help guide your effort, allows you to stay on track, and make good decisions to achieve your goals.

This beautiful landscape makeover winner from the 2021 Otay Water District content can help guide your own efforts. Photo: Otay Water District checklist for success

This beautiful landscape makeover winner from the 2021 Otay Water District content can help guide your own efforts. Photo: Otay Water District

Important considerations for a successful landscape makeover include:

Taking the steps you need to prepare your property.

Making all your plans before you start digging.

Choosing your plant palate and creating your plant design.

Beginning your project installation including your new plants.

Updating and adjusting your new irrigation system

Establishing and stewarding your new landscaping.

And most of all, taking time to admire and enjoy your new yard. You’ve worked hard to accomplish your goals and should celebrate your success.

Instructional videos on demand are available on the WaterSmartSD website. The example below explains how to shape your space.

Many home landscapers also return for refresher sessions by returning to WaterSmart Landscape Makeover classes. You can also consult local gardening organizations for help, or visit the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon for inspiration, like many of the winners in annual regional landscape makeover contests.

The Water Conservation Garden in Rancho San Diego can help provide inspiration and advice for your landscaping plans. Photo: Water Conservation Garden checklist for success

The Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon can help provide inspiration and advice for your landscaping plans. Photo: Water Conservation Garden

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 WaterSmartSD.org. 

 

WaterSmart Landscape Contest-Lauren Grey's new landscaping filled with vibrant blooming plants is the 2021 Vista Irrigation District Landscape Makeover Contest winner. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

Trio of Waterwise Landscapes Win Vista 2021 Contest

Three homeowners in the Vista Irrigation District won recognition recently from the VID board of directors in its 2021 WaterSmart Landscape Contest.

The annual contest recognizes outstanding water-wise residential landscapes based on overall attractiveness, appropriate plant selection, design, appropriate maintenance, and efficient irrigation methods.

Lauren Grey's landscaping before its winning makeover. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

Lauren Grey’s landscaping before its winning makeover. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

Winning plan solves erosion problem with beautiful blooms

The “Best in District” award went to Lauren Grey. What started as a project to halt the rush of soil down a steep front slope turned into a multi-hued garden with a view from the top. Grey renovated her front slope and landscape by installing retaining walls surrounded by beds of colorful blooms. She lined the staircase zigzagging through the hillside with a variety of potted succulents. Bright orange poppies, lush green jade, silvery Ghost Plants, and Purple Heart Tradescantia dot the slope.

Lauren Grey’s landscaping solved her problems with a troublesome slope. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

The winning result is an explosion of color. “What fun to have a beautiful garden and a sweet place to sit and contemplate it all!” said Grey.

“With rebates available for turf removal, now is a great time to replace your lawn with a beautiful WaterSmart landscape,” said Brent Reyes, VID water conservation specialist.

Drought-tolerant results receive recognition

Homeowners Deborah Brandt and Dorothy Wagemester received honorable mentions for their outstanding projects.

The "before" look at the Wagemester landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

The “before” look at the Wagemester landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

The Wagemesters wanted to conserve water and create an inviting natural haven on their property. A meandering hardscape pathway lined with a vibrant palette of drought-tolerant choices, including bougainvillea, trailing buttercups, sea lavender, and Cape plumbago replaced turf with a native garden.

The Wagemester home's attractive new waterwise landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

The Wagemester home’s attractive new waterwise landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

Magenta blooms of an Eastern Redbud tree pop against foxtail agaves and Kaleidoscope Abelia.

“While spring is our favorite season, we now have color all year long,” said Dorothy Wagemester.

Deborah Brandt's landscaping before its makeover. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

Deborah Brandt’s landscaping before its makeover. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

Brandt wanted to transform her plain backyard into a magical place. She started with river rock and added cactus and succulents in multiple shapes and sizes. Over time, she mixed in yard art and chimes, creating charming surprises. Brandt installed drip irrigation and two rain barrel water collection systems to reduce her water use.

The Brandt home with its new drought-tolerant landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District Vista 2021 Contest

The Brandt home with its new drought-tolerant landscaping. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

Brandt “gave away the lawnmower” due to the transformation into a low-maintenance, WaterSmart paradise where flowers bloom year-round.

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

Native plant-sustainability-garden-landscapetracting pollinators like hummingbirds and butterflies. Image: Water Authority plant installation

Setting Objectives for Waterwise Landscaping Success

It takes time to learn about the concepts behind the watershed approach to creating a healthy and sustainable landscape. Once you have these concepts mastered, the most important step of all comes next.  Consider the goals you want to achieve in your garden for landscaping success.

It might be difficult to know where to start. Many people accept an ocean of green but thirsty lawn and never give much thought to landscaping goals. Consider one of these worthy objectives.

Waving goodbye to grass

Most native Southern California plants do well in hotter temperatures, so summer plant care is easy with a little planning. Photo: Annie Spratt/Pixabay

Most native Southern California plants do well in hotter temperatures, so summer plant care is easy with a little planning. Photo: Annie Spratt/Pixabay

  • Removing a thirsty lawn without using any chemicals, in a way that preserves the healthy soil microbes
  • Planting local California native plants that will attract birds, butterflies, and bees for pollination
  • Creating a child or pet-friendly garden without thorns or sticky grass seed heads
  • Planting fruit trees, edible vines, and shrubs, or vegetable gardens

Using irrigation efficiently

Well designed and operated irrigation systems can reliably deliver the water your landscaping needs without waste or excess. Photo: AxxLC/Pixabay

Well designed and operated irrigation systems can reliably deliver the water your landscaping needs without waste or excess. Photo: AxxLC/Pixabay

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

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

Converting spray irrigation to micro or drip irrigation, with the intention of turning it off after establishing your waterwise landscaping

Making pathways and driveways more permeable

Making your landscaping an art project

San Marcos resident Jeff Moore's landscape makeover won recognition in the 2018 Landscape Makeover Contest. Photo: Water Authority

San Marcos resident Jeff Moore’s landscape makeover including artistic touches won recognition in the 2018 Landscape Makeover Contest. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Making room for a small patio with room for an outdoor table or seating

Adding pathways, Zen gardens, and interesting materials and patterns

Integrating 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. We can all agree on this definition of landscaping success no matter your individual goals.

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 WaterSmartSD.org.

Everett’s California Fuchhia is an example of a plant that doesn't like to have wet feet, meaning roots sitting in water. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Get Down to the Roots Of Your Landscaping

Plants don’t literally have feet to take them on a walk, but landscapers often refer to a plant’s “feet,” or their roots. Plants like – and need – water on their roots to thrive. While plants absorb water through their leaves, it’s not very efficient due to evaporation. Roots absorb the bulk of water a plant needs to thrive through small root hairs, which are thin-walled outgrowths of the plant’s epidermis. The film of water surrounding soil particles provides its irrigation supply.

Horticulturists refer to plant roots in soggy soil as “wet feet.” Plants that can thrive without too much water on their roots are said to have “dry feet.”

The same way people don’t like waterlogged, soggy feet in wet socks on a cold day, plants don’t welcome their roots sitting in standing water. Most plants don’t grow well with excessive moisture at the roots. It can cause rot and other diseases. Very few plants grow in wet areas, and while it isn’t a common problem in the arid Southwestern United States, plants might end up in standing water in poorly drained landscaping.

Five Recommended Plants That Tolerate Wet Feet

The California Native Iris (Iris douglasiaria) is a plant that doesn't mind having "wet feet," or damp roots. Photo: Wikimedia Commons wet feet

The California Native Iris (Iris douglasiaria) is a plant that doesn’t mind having “wet feet,” or damp roots. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • Coyote Mint (Mondarella villosa)
  • California Gray Rush (Junous patens)
  • Joaquin Sunflower (Bidena laevis)
  • Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
  • California Native Iris (Irish douglasiaria)

Five Recommended Plants That Prefer Wet Feet

Everett’s California Fuschia is an example of a plant that doesn't like to have wet feet, meaning roots sitting in water. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Roots

Everett’s California Fuschia is an example of a plant that doesn’t like to have wet feet, meaning roots sitting in water. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • Bluff California Lilac (Ceanothus maritmus)
  • Everett’s California Fuschia (Epilobium canum)
  • Sunset Manzanita (Arctostaphylos Sunset)
  • Hairy Awn Muhly (Muhlerbergia capillans)
  • Blonde Ambition Blue Grama (Boutelous gracilis)

Get advice from the local garden center or horticulturalists familiar with your area for other good choices. In general, native plants match well to similar nature conditions in the landscaping.

This article is part of a year-long series 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.

Love Your Lawn-Conservation Corner-Love your lawn organically

Love Your Lawn Organically

In a waterwise landscape, there’s still a place for turf. You may not need as much, and you need to create the most efficient and organic maintenance plan possible to work turf into your design. The good news: lawns maintained organically and with efficient irrigation can offer a cool, practical surface for active recreation, or just a nice place to relax with your family.

Most lawns require too much water and energy. They become pollution sources from excess fertilizers and pesticide runoff. When lawns are limited to accessible, usable, high-functioning spaces like children’s play yards, sports fields, and picnicking areas, you can prevent this.

Love your lawn organically

Reconsider the concept of lawns. They should not be passive, wall-to-wall groundcover. You don’t need to maintain so much lawn if you won’t enjoy it for the above purposes.

As you decide how much grass to keep in your plan, follow these guidelines to maintain it organically.

  • Top dress your lawn annually with one-eighth to one-quarter of compost.
  • Aerate and de-thatch your lawn annually.
  • Check and control irrigation overspray. Fix problems promptly.
  • Maintain three to four inches of height on cool season grass, and 1.5 to two inches of height on warm season grass.
  • Grass-cycle every time you mow.
  • Don’t allow seed heads to form on the grass. Remove seeds that do form.
  • Consider over-seeding with clover to help make the grass more interesting looking and more drought tolerant.
  • Eliminate the use of chemicals such as pesticides on your grass.
If you decide to keep your grass areas, follow these guidelines to maintain it organically. Photo: Alicja/Creative Commons

If you decide to keep your grass areas, follow these guidelines to maintain it organically. Photo: Alicja/Creative Commons

What’s the difference between Cool Season Grass and Warm Season Grass?

Cool Season Grass:

  • Needs more water than warm season grass and is considered a high use plant.
  • Requires watering in hot summers to prevent it from going dormant and turning brown.
  • Grows typically as bunch grasses and propagates by seed or weak stolons.
  • Cool season grass is easily smothered by sheet mulching.
  • Varieties include: Bent Grass (Agrostis), Fescue varieties (Festuca), Kentucky Bluegress (Poa pratensis), and Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne).

Warm Season Grass:

  • Uses a moderate amount of water.
  • Thrives in daytime temperatures over 80 degrees. It will go dormant (brown) in winter months when it is cooler.
  • Grows from sturdy rhizomes extending deep underground.
  • Warm season grasses require physical removal and/or extensive sheet mulching (up to 12 inches).
  • Varieties inclue: Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylan), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Buffalo Grass (Buchloe actyloides), St. Augustine Grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum), Zoysia, and Seashore Paspalum.

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 WaterSmartSD.org.

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.

Use a variety of contouring methods in your sustainable landscape design. Photo: Water Authority

Contouring Tips Help You Make The Grade  

It’s smart to use existing depressions, slopes and contours for guidance when planning your landscape grading. If your yard is perfectly flat, you’ll need to move soil and features around to create more rain-holding contour areas.  

Do a Percolation Test, and prep your soil as needed to make it as much of a water-retaining sponge as possible before getting to work on rainwater capture plans.  

NOTE: If you are working with 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  

Basins and swales 

Homeowners learn through the Water Authority's Landscape Transformation program that sustainable landscaping can be as lush as a lawn. Photo Water Authority turf

Basins and swales can take the form of dry creek beds, as in this award-winning water smart landscaping project. Photo Water Authority

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. The plants in and around the depressions capture and sink small volumes of surface water.   

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. 

Berms 

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 

Boulders can add points of interest and slow down water runoff in your landscaping. Photo: Water Authority

Boulders can add points of interest and slow down water runoff in your landscaping. Photo: Water Authority

Boulders are useful to retain small berms or the edges of swales. They also create points of interest in your landscaping.   

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.