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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.

Landscape Makeover-Sweetwater Authority-Water Conservation-native plants

Contouring Tips Help You Make the Grade

Moving both irrigation and our limited natural rainfall through your yard into storage areas via the use of various landscaping features borrow Mother Nature’s engineering. This is especially important during hot, dry summer months. If your yard is perfectly flat, you must move soil and features around to create more water-retaining contour areas.

First, complete a Percolation Test. This will provide critically important information about your landscape soil’s specific capacity to drain and to absorb water. Prep your soil as needed to turn it into a water-retaining sponge as much 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 digalert.org

Adding basins and swales

Channels can be planted or lined with rocks and small boulders to resemble natural creek beds.

Channels can be planted or lined with rocks and small boulders to resemble natural creek beds. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Basins and swales are shallow depressions or channels no more than 12 to 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 the deeper depressions up to two feet. Channels can be planted or lined with rocks and small boulders to resemble natural creek beds.

Building berms

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

Placing 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: San Diego County 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 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.

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Native Plants Highlight Sweetwater Landscape Contest Winner

Chula Vista resident Paul Rodriguez gave up struggling to maintain his thirsty green lawn in favor of a new landscape design featuring California native plants and shrubs. The Sweetwater Authority Board of Directors selected Rodriguez’s makeover as its 2021 Landscape Makeover winner.

The Rodriguez home before its landscaping makeover. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

The Rodriguez home before the landscaping makeover. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

The WaterSmart Landscape Contest is an opportunity for homeowners to showcase landscape designs focusing on beautiful alternatives to traditional turf-oriented designs. Entries in the makeover competition are judged on five qualities:

  • Overall attractiveness
  • Appropriate plant selection
  • Design
  • Appropriate maintenance
  • Efficient irrigation methods

Native plants and a natural habitat

A trail lets visitors stroll through the property. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

A trail lets visitors stroll through the property. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Rodriguez and his wife participated in a free Water Authority WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series course. It provided the foundation allowing them to embrace a design replacing the lawn. They also attended several native plant workshops hosted by the San Diego Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. The family were attracted to gardening with native plants due to their low water and no fertilization needs. They also liked the added benefit of creating a natural habitat for pollinators and birds.

Winning entry a pollinator paradise

Milkweed provides food for endangered Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Milkweed provides food for endangered Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

The transformed landscape now includes several manzanitas and large Ceanothus shrubs in the back yard, which reminds Paul Rodriguez of hikes in Mission Trails Regional Park. The front yard adopted a California Coastal Sage scrub garden habitat. It only requires hand watering twice a month during the dry season.

It is a pollinator’s paradise with sages, buckwheats, and verbenas that attract birds and bees. Milkweed provides a food source for endangered Monarch butterflies. Milkweed leaves are the only food monarchs will eat. They also lay eggs on the undersides of the leaves. Striped caterpillars feed on the leaves as they develop.

The new landscaping features native plants. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

The new landscaping features native plants. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

As the winner of the 2021 WaterSmart Landscape Contest, Sweetwater Authority presented the Rodriguez family with a certificate of recognition and gift card as a thank you for setting a waterwise example for other residents.

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

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Unused Pool Transformed into Helix Water District 2021 Landscape Contest Winner

Mount Helix homeowner Rosalie Dosik turned her unused pool into a waterwise backyard oasis and the winning project in the Helix Water District 2021 WaterSmart Landscape Contest. The annual competition recognizes outstanding water-wise residential landscapes based on overall attractiveness, design, efficient irrigation, and appropriate plant selection and maintenance.

The original backyard with the unused pool. Photo: Helix Water District

The original backyard with the unused pool. Photo: Helix Water District

Dosik’s bright and textured landscape represents years of dedicated passion for gardening and water-efficient plants. The garden features an Asian-fusion theme complete with wooden structures, pathways, rock, and vibrant color. It uses many drought-tolerant plant species well adapted for the San Diego region’s semi-arid region climate.

The transformed backyard with the unused pool filled in. Photo: Helix Water District

The transformed backyard with the unused pool filled in. Photo: Helix Water District

When the Dosiks bought their house in 1997, a large pool filled the backyard. The pool evaporated quickly in the summer and overflowed towards the house during winter rains.

Rosalie Dosik wanted a landscape she could enjoy more than the rarely used pool. So in 2012, Dosik decided to have the pool demolished and filled with decomposed granite. After adding topsoil and completing her landscape design, she now enjoys it daily.

Water Conservation Garden provides inspiration

The garden includes meandering pathways, each offering different scenery and views. Photo: Helix Water District

The garden includes meandering pathways, each offering different scenery, and views. Photo: Helix Water District

Several rock streams flow down the landscape into a gravel rock pond. The gravel area creates negative space, allowing the eye to rest so visitors can better sense and appreciate the landscape. True to its Asian theme, the garden includes meandering pathways, each offering different scenery, and views.

“Now, one can meander through the garden and enjoy the scenery,” said Rosalie Dosik. “There are birds and wildlife galore. The entire backyard is cooler and more serene. I have rabbits who visit each day, and I am even seeing monarch butterflies.”

The Asian-theme garden attracts birds and butterflies. Photo: Helix Water District unused pool

The Asian-theme garden attracts birds and butterflies. Photo: Helix Water District

Rosalie Dosik volunteers as a docent at the Water Conservation Garden. She discovered the garden in 2004 after visiting the adjacent Heritage of the Americas Museum at Cuyamaca College. On Dosik’s many return visits, she wrote down the names of plants she liked and started gardening with them at home.

Efficient irrigation uses gear-driven rotors to apply water to the densely planted areas. Narrow areas and potted plants use drip irrigation. A weather-based irrigation controller automatically adjusts for rain and weather.

The Dosiks enjoy inviting guests over to enjoy their new outdoor space. Photo: Helix Water District

Dosik loves to have her friends over and entertain on the patio, where they can all enjoy the views of the garden.

“You can look left and right and just look at what is flowering,” said Dosik. “Of course, right now, everything is flowering.”

Dosik was recognized as the 2021 landscape contest winner at the Helix Water District’s virtual board meeting on June 23.

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

Microclimate Matching in Your Landscaping Plan

Earlier in our Conservation Corner series, we described how to map the different types of microclimates present in your landscaping. Using this information helps homeowners arrange plants in a new sustainable landscape. For the most efficient water use, plants should be grouped together with similar water needs according to their preferred microclimate.

In nature, plants that like lots of water are found along the banks of a stream, or grouped together at the base of a depression. Plants that need fast-draining soils so roots don’t rot might be found on hillsides. Plants that love lots of sunshine won’t grow in the shade of a tree.

Scotch broom's blooms are pretty, but it is a non-native invasive species and should be avoided. Photo: Armen Nano/Pixabay

Five Pushy Plant Pests To Avoid

San Diego County’s mild Mediterranean climate allows nearly any type of plants to flourish with adequate irrigation. But when non-native plants are planted alongside native plants, they do their best to take over.  These are plant pests. The worst of them overrun valuable native plant species. They drain limited rainfall and soil nutrients away from native plants which have developed the ability to better manage limited resources. The natives are not as aggressive and can’t compete with the non-native bullies.

Public enemies of your landscaping

Brazilian pepper trees are invasive with damaging roots. Photo: Sabine Schmidt/Pixabay

Brazilian pepper trees are invasive with damaging roots. They are non-native plants you should avoid in a watersmart landscape plan Photo: Sabine Schmidt/Pixabay

Plant pests

You may have planted a few of these common choices in your landscaping without knowing it. They are still sold commercially. These non-natives take up too much space to co-exist with native low-water use plants. If your landscaping gives pushy plant pests a home, remove them at the soonest opportunity.

  • African Fountain Grass
  • Periwinkle
  • Brazilian Pepper Tree
  • Scotch Broom
  • Mexican Feather Grass

Very few non-native specific offer any benefits to the San Diego region’s environment. Local animals and insects prefer native species for food and habitat. Invasive species should also be removed from commercial nursery stock, and shouldn’t ever be planted in the first place. You can help weed them out by removing them.

How to identify non-native plants

The California Invasive Plant Council maintains a list of invasive plants that cause problems throughout the state. This list only addresses plants that are a problem and may miss regional problems. For a list, visit the Plant Right website.

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.

Five Firefighting Plants Worth Adding to Your Landscaping

As spring temperatures rise, San Diego County residents know wildfire season is not far behind. Although wildfire is a serious threat during warm, dry summer and fall months, wildfire can strike year-round especially in wildland interface areas. Regional landscaping must follow fire safe guidelines in design, plant selection and consistent maintenance

Inspired by the San Diego County Water Authority's free landscape makeover classes, Vallecitos Water District employee Eileen Koonce transformed her own landscaping. Photo: Vallecitos Water District example watersmart landscaping

Five Firefighting Plants Worth Adding to Your Landscaping

As spring temperatures rise, San Diego County residents know wildfire season is not far behind. Although wildfire is a serious threat during warm, dry summer and fall months, wildfire can strike year-round especially in wildland interface areas. Regional landscaping must follow fire safe guidelines in design, plant selection and consistent maintenance.

Protecting your home with firefighting plants

Diagram from CAL FIRE illustrating the three zones for defensible space. Illustration: CAL FIRE

Plan your landscaping using three different zones

Zone 1: Landscapes should resist ignition and provide 35 feet of actively maintained defensible space around structures and access areas through smart design elements and plant selection. This maximizes fire prevention and allows access by fire crews to protect your property from fire if necessary.

Zone 2: Careful thinning of native vegetation for at least 65 additional feet, for a total of 100 feet of defensible space will reduce the chance of airborne embers from catching and spreading fire.

Zone 3: Some plants begin growth and start the germination process after a wildfire. Many of San Diego County’s native plant communities including chaparral can survive and recover from infrequent wildfires.

But the ability to survive is disrupted for even the most well-adapted plants when fires reoccur too frequently. Non-native, invasive plant species encourage more frequent, longer duration fires burning at a hotter intensity. It is critical to remove invasive plants in fire-prone areas.

Choose firefighting plants that resist ignition

Firesafe plants like these succulents are a smart choice for your watersmart landscape plan. Photo: City of Escondido Firefighting plants

Firesafe plants like these succulents are a smart choice for your watersmart landscape plan. Photo: City of Escondido

Some native plants can prevent airborne plant embers due to high salt or water content and low volatile oil content in their leaves. Succulents such as agaves, aloes and crassulas store extra water in their fleshy leaves guarding against drought, and they will help guard your property from wildfire.

Five exceptional firefighting plant choices include:

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

Rob wildfires of the fuel they need  

Messy, oily trees and shrubs like eucalyptus trees and junipers may flourish in Southern California, but they aren’t natives, and they provide ready fuel for wildfires. They ignite quickly, burning hot and long, releasing embers into the air which causes flames to spread.

Preventative maintenance includes removing dry grass, brush, weeds, litter, waste, and dead and dying vegetation. Trees should be regularly pruned. Shrubs should be thinned, with dead branches and leaves removed. Leave root structures intact to avoid erosion.

Dead leaves and branches are especially flammable on evergreen shrubs and vines like bougainvillea. Avoid planting these close to homes or other structures.

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.

The Nieves family of Bonita won the Sweetwater Authority's 2019 Landscape Makeover Contest for theier creative WaterSmart landscaping design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority 2021 Landscape Makeover

Enter 2021 Landscape Makeover Contest, Share Your Skills

San Diego County residents who have converted to more water-efficient landscaping can enter the 2021 WaterSmart Landscape Contest hosted by 12 regional water agencies. Entry is as simple as submitting your photos and plant information by Friday, May 14.

Eleven San Diego County Water Authority member agencies are participating, including the Helix Water District, Otay Water District, and Sweetwater Authority. See the full list on the WaterSmartSD website, along with contest rules. Winners selected by each participating agency receive a $250 grand prize to the nursery of their choice along with neighborhood bragging rights.

The coronavirus pandemic spurred interest in gardening worldwide as a safe and healthy activity, with no signs of slowing. Google Trend data shows searches for gardening rising in April 2021. A report by OnePoll in USA Today found 73% of Americans said spending more time outdoors has been therapeutic during the pandemic.

Inspire others to make watersmart changes

Lavender and daisies brighten this winning landscape design in the 2020 Landscape Contest. Photo: Helix Water District

In its 17th year, the contest highlights the benefits and beauty of water-efficient landscaping. It allows homeowners to share ideas and inspiration with other San Diego County residents.

Water-efficient landscape designs can be among the most effective ways to reduce overall water use. Fresh landscaping can also improve the appearance and the value of a home.

“If you have a new water-efficient landscape, we would love to hear your story,” said Vince Dambrose, with the Helix Water District. “The WaterSmart Landscape Contest is a great opportunity to get outside, share your landscape, and inspire others to make changes in their yards, too.”

Entries are judged for overall attractiveness, design, plant selection, efficient irrigation, and appropriate maintenance.

The beautiful, wheelchair accessible garden inspired by Patricia Wood's daughter Kimberly is the 2020 Otay Water District Landscape Contest winner. Photo: Otay Water District 2021 Landscape Makeover

The beautiful, wheelchair-accessible garden inspired by Patricia Wood’s daughter Kimberly is the 2020 Otay Water District Landscape Contest winner. Photo: Otay Water District

After a decade of struggling with a thirsty, high-maintenance lawn, Otay Water District’s 2020 Landscape Contest winner Patricia Wood of El Cajon transformed her 3,850 square foot year into a beautiful and wheelchair accessible design with her daughter Kimberly in mind. She also decreased her water use decreased by an average of 27% overall.

“We are excited to launch the WaterSmart Landscape Contest this year,” said Eileen Salmeron with the Otay Water District. “Due to the pandemic, many of our customers have spent more time than usual working on their landscapes. For this year’s competition, we especially look forward to seeing how they’ve enhanced the curb appeal of their water-efficient gardens.”

A diverse palette of colorful succulents, cacti, and California native plants add to the winning design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority 2021 Landscape Makeover

A diverse palette of colorful succulents, cacti, and California native plants add to the winning design. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

When Efren and Ily Niervas moved to their Bonita home in 2017, they realized the cost of watering their yard with a large lawn and assorted shrubs was too high. They decided to change their landscape and attended home improvement events and expos as part of their research.

The project paid off, as the Niervas won the 2019 Sweetwater Authority Landscape contest with their creative and playful xeriscape plan.

“In previous years, our customers have designed beautiful water-saving landscapes,” said Leslie Payne with the Sweetwater Authority. “We’re looking forward to seeing this year’s creative designs. As customers look for ways to save water and lower their water bill, making water-efficient improvements to their yard is a great way to do both.”

To enter the contest with your 2020-2021 pandemic era makeover, go to landscapecontest.com, select your participating water agency, and then apply. Entrants can use a smartphone to take five to 10 photos of their water-efficient landscaping, share the reason behind the makeover, list the types of plants used and some of the benefits as a result. Water agencies encourage homeowners to submit before and after photos. The 2021 Landscape Makeover Contest deadline is Friday, May 14.

Know Your Plant Factor Water Requirements

Landscaping plants have different water needs. The water requirement of each plant in your landscaping can be determined by gathering information about the plant and then comparing it to the amount of water needed by the cool-season grass growing in your climate zone.