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demonstration garden, WaterSmart, Helix Water District

Helix Water District Creates WaterSmart Demonstration Landscape

Helix Water District recently completed a new demonstration landscape outside of its administration building in La Mesa. The project is intended to inspire and educate the surrounding communities to install WaterSmart landscaping, and it serves as an example that residents can use to help design their own landscaping.

The demonstration landscape includes three unique WaterSmart gardens on the streets around the building, including a Mediterranean garden on University Avenue, a desert landscape on Lee Avenue and a California native landscape along the building’s main entrance on Quince Street. The three gardens exemplify different types of plants that thrive in the climate of San Diego County and only need half to one-fifth of the water that a traditional lawn needs.

“Our new demonstration landscape shows customers that water-efficient landscaping is not just one style,” said Helix Water District Board President Mark Gracyk. “You can choose plants that compliment your home and personal taste – there is an option for everyone.”

Helix Water District, demonstration garden, WaterSmart, native plants

The native plants in the demonstration garden show that WaterSmart landscaping not only saves water and maintenance costs but can be beautiful too. Photo: Helix Water District

Interactive garden gives residents visual design inspiration

Each garden is full of a variety of flowers of different colors and textures. Plant markers are placed to identify each plant and QR codes provide easy access to plant names, sun and water needs, mature size and photos when scanned through the camera of a smartphone.

The water district also created an interactive webpage https://hwd.com/demonstration-landscape where customers can make a list of their favorite plants and download design plans. Information on water-efficient irrigation and rebate programs is also available.

Helix Water District, WaterSmart, demonstration garden

The garden includes interactive elements such as descriptive signs with QR codes that visitors can scan to learn more about specific plants. Photo: Helix Water District

“We’ve made it easy for customers to learn about WaterSmart plants and landscaping,” said Gracyk.

WaterSmart landscapes provide homes for wildlife and pollinators

In addition to requiring less water, WaterSmart landscapes also require less maintenance and provide habitat for local wildlife and pollinators such as honeybees, birds and butterflies.

“Outdoor water use typically accounts for half of a home’s total water use,” said Helix Water District Board Vice President DeAna Verbeke. “With our new demonstration garden, we’re encouraging people to upgrade to a WaterSmart landscape by showing them that water-wise plants are not only sustainable but beautiful as well.”

The project was partially funded through a grant from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Helix Water District provides water treatment and distribution for 277,000 people in the cities of El Cajon, La Mesa and Lemon Grove, the community of Spring Valley and areas of Lakeside – east of downtown San Diego. Helix is also a founding member of The Water Conservation Garden, a nearly six-acre water-wise demonstration garden in El Cajon.

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

Vallecitos Water District Employee Leads By Example With WaterSmart Landscaping Makeover

Vallecitos Water District Development Services Coordinator Eileen Koonce transformed the front yard at her new home into a beautiful water-efficient design with help from the San Diego County Water Authority’s Landscape Makeover Program.

As a new homeowner, when Koonce received her first water bill, she decided to figure out a way to reduce her water bill and her water usage. She realized the thirsty lawn covering the front yard had to go.

“As an employee of the District, we are always talking to customers about how they can reduce water use in their landscape, and what better time to put that theme to use than in my own yard,” said Koonce.

The Vallecitos Water District was hosting the Water Authority’s WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program at the time. After Koonce saw the great turnout, she decided she wanted to participate in the program.

Knowledgeable instructors guide participants

Homeowner Eileen Koonce discovered watersmart landscaping can be colorful and attractive. Photo: Vallecitos Water District example watersmart landscaping

Homeowner Eileen Koonce discovered watersmart landscaping can be colorful and attractive. Photo: Vallecitos Water District

Koonce said she enjoyed working with the instructors.

“They bring the language down to the do-it-yourselfers,” she said. “They walk you through every part of it and if you have questions, they can help you out. You feel empowered because you can understand the process.”

Koonce tackled most of the design work herself with the help of instructors, who are licensed landscape architects. They also helped Koonce pick out the plants and choose an irrigation system.

She also applied for a turf rebate through the Metropolitan Water District’s Turf Rebate Program. Koonce said the application process was easy for her to follow, and she met all the criteria for acceptance into the program.

Video tour of Eileen Koonce’s new landscaping

New landscape a pollinators’ paradise

Koonce wanted a garden that would attract butterflies and birds, especially hummingbirds. She says her top takeaway from the WaterSmart course is how many attractive landscape options exist. Many beautiful, flowering plants do not require a lot of water.

“The WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series is a great way to gather the skills needed to make your front yard transformation happen,” said Michelle Landis, course instructor and Registered Landscape Architect. “The WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series also teaches the skills needed to tap into the new, local turf removal rebates. We invite you to join us for one of the sessions above to transform your front yard into money-saving, WaterSmart design.”

Koonce said she realizes a $70 per month savings on her water bill since her landscape makeover. And no longer spends time mowing a lawn.

Register now for workshops and class series

Eileen Koonce says she was able to install her own landscaping with the help she received from instructors. Photo: Vallecitos Water District

Eileen Koonce says she was able to install her own landscaping with the help she received from instructors. Photo: Vallecitos Water District

The WaterSmart education program offers free three-hour workshops and a four-class landscaping makeover series. Three-hour workshops are scheduled on weeknights and Saturdays from March through October.

The four-class series is currently enrolling participants for March in Encinitas and in El Cajon. The series is also open in Oceanside and San Diego in April. Find participation requirements and register for the free series online at WaterSmartSD.org.

Native plants can add beautiful color to your sustainable landscape, while attracting pollinators like hummingbirds and butterflies. Image: Water Authority

Design a Native Garden

If you haven’t finished planting your sustainable garden yet this year, you still have some time. Choose native plants that will thrive in the arid San Diego County climate.

Native plants are naturally drought-tolerant. They also support local ecosystems by providing food and habitat for pollinators, such as butterflies and hummingbirds. Native plants can fall into one of many categories: trees, succulents, perennials, shrubs, grasses, groundcovers and more.

Create your sustainable garden

Each type of plant serves a different purpose in a sustainable garden.

Trees are a great way to provide natural shade. They also catch water that runs off your roof when it rains.

Perennials often have colorful flowers that bring beautiful colors for your garden.

Groundcovers and shrubs are great for covering dry slopes and catching rainwater.

Succulents look great next to rocks or other features in your garden and are usually low-maintenance.

Need ideas for your new sustainable garden this spring?

The California Native Plant Society-San Diego Chapter will conduct its eighth annual Garden Tour, The Artful California Native Garden: Native Gardens and Art Tour of East County on Saturday, April 4, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Demonstrations will include how to add dry stream-bed bioswales, adjacent natural areas, water catchment devices, slope gardens, charming water features, bridges, sculptures and more in your garden.

Local artists will be meeting and greeting guests in many of the gardens and selling their California native garden themed artwork and crafts.

Tours of private residential gardens

Twelve private residential gardens will be visited on the tour, and their owners will be on-site to answer questions. At the Water Conservation Garden there will be guided demonstrations for planting and tours of the native plant garden.

When: Saturday, April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Water Conservation Garden
12122 Cuyamaca College Drive West, El Cajon, 92019

Cost: $30 – $40

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.

Planning for the amount of space your new plants will need when fully grown will help your landscape thrive. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Make Space for New Plants

When choosing new plants for your landscape this fall, be sure to account for the space each plant will need as it matures. This will help avoid overcrowding in your landscape.

Proper plant placement, while predicting the mature plant’s size, also should limit the need for future pruning. This can help reduce the amount of maintenance required in the long run.

The spacing chart below helps to judge how many plants are needed per square foot, based on the mature size of the plants.

Plan for space needed at maturity

On your landscaping plan, use circles to note the size of every plant at maturity using a scale in which one inch equals four feet. Use colored pencils to note different water needs of each plant. That will make it easier to group plants into their proper irrigation zones (hydrozones).

Wide canopy trees that grow to 20 or 30 feet in diameter will significantly change the landscaping over time. Consider whether a tree will cover a large section of landscaping with shade that is currently getting full sun. Be sure to avoid placing plants that will need full sun underneath these trees.

Small but mighty

Select the smallest, healthiest plants possible, especially when choosing native plants. Once they are planted in properly prepared soil and watered wisely, small plants establish themselves more vigorously than plants raised in larger containers. Do not plant more than the space will allow for when the plants are fully grown.

Root depth matters

Take note of the root depth of plants when you place them. Note root depths on your landscape plan. Trees will be irrigated less frequently, but for a longer period of time. Groundcovers with shallower roots require more frequent, shorter periods of irrigation. Keep these types of plants in separate hydrozones.

Did you know that fall is the prime time for plant sales in San Diego County? Check out your nearest nursery or farmers market for native plants to help grow your landscape!

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.

New Pilot Program Helps Southern California Grow Native Plants

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and local water agencies have teamed up with the California Native Plant Society to bring more native plants to the region’s homes and gardens.

A new pilot program launched by the organizations this fall will boost the number and variety of native plants offered at local nurseries and ensure consumers have the information they need to plant and maintain the water-efficient flowers, trees, shrubs and succulents.

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.

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

Summer Plant Care

Summer is heating up! While you’re heading to the beach or pool to cool off, your landscape might need a little help keeping cool too. Summer plant care is easy with a little planning.

Native plants

Most native Southern California plants do well in hotter temperatures if they are established before the summer begins. Avoid planting new plants, repotting, or fertilizing during the hot summer months. Fertilizing in the summer can trigger more green growth, which means an increase in water needs. During hot days, it is difficult to keep up with these needs as the soil tends to dry out more quickly.

Pruning is a great summer plant care strategy to help keep growth in check and provide pest control. Save most of the pruning for the cooler months to promote growth, but light pruning in the summer can benefit plant and tree maintenance.

Water deeply and less frequently

It might seem counterintuitive to water less frequently in the summer, but this is important for summer plant care. Watering too frequently on warmer days can cause too much water loss due to evaporation. Less frequent watering will also encourage your plants and trees to grow a network of deep roots. This will benefit them in the long term.

Protect soil with mulch

A good layer of high-quality mulch helps keep soil cool and prevents evaporation. Insulating the soil with mulch can also protect thinner roots that plants use to feed from surrounding soils. Over time, these roots will grow deeper along with less frequent watering.

Mulch is great for summer plant care, but it’s also a good investment any time of the year as it helps maintain a consistent soil moisture so you can water less.

Wait until fall to plant

Timing is important when planting new plants or trees. New plants require more water more frequently to develop their new root systems. Wait until the cooler fall months to begin planting to ensure higher rates of success.

With a little planning, summer plant care is a breeze!

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.

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.

Professionals trained in different aspects of sustainable landscaping can help you ensure the success of your project. Photo: Water Authority

Getting Help From Landscaping Professionals

The perfect time to plan your new beautiful, livable and WaterSmart landscape is in summer because fall is the ideal time to plant a garden in this Mediterranean climate we all enjoy. The WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series and related educational programs are a great way to gather the skills needed to make a lawn transformation happen. The four class series, which includes one-on-one design help from local design professionals, is currently enrolling for July locations in Central San Diego and Escondido.

Register for Free WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Classes:

Escondido – Saturday mornings July 13, 20, 27 & August 3

San Diego (Mission Hills) – Wednesday evenings July 10, 17, 24 & 31

Many homeowners are eager to create a beautiful new sustainable landscape on their own, with guidance from organizations like the San Diego County Water Authority. But sometimes it’s a smart idea to call on professionals trained in different aspects of the watershed approach to landscaping. With a little help, you can ensure the success of your project.

Assessment organizations including site assessment and testing, various measuring services, surveyors, soil testing services and even Google Maps are available. Property measuring and survey companies can develop more detailed site plans with elevations, siting of trees and landscape amenities.

Planning and design professionals can help you develop a working plan and budget for your landscaping. The plan should include drawings, resource lists, and an outline of the techniques needed to implement the plan. Landscape designers and architects can help you create a conceptual design. Working with a licensed professional is recommended if you have hillsides and slopes, or complicated structures.

Landscape installation and construction professionals are licensed contractors who specialize in building landscape, and can work on all aspects of a sustainable landscape plan. You may be able to install your own garden, but if you get stuck you can call upon the expertise of an experienced pro who carries all the necessary insurance and is knowledgeable about permitting requirements.

Rainwater catchment specialists include people certified by the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) to design and install rainwater capture systems. These pros can bring specialized expertise to your project, particularly if it involves installation of an active capture system such as a cistern. The water savings you achieve can offer you a solid return on investment.

Irrigation system consultants include people with certification by an EPA WaterSense ® organization to provide irrigation system auditing, design, and maintenance. They can help you improve the efficiency of your irrigation system. The Irrigation Association, California Landscape Contractors Association Water Managers, Qualified Water Efficient Landscapers, and G3 Watershed Wise Landscape Professionals all provide searchable lists of qualified people.

Plant selection specialists include your local retail nursery and garden center, native plant societies, Master Gardeners, and professional gardeners. Learn from them, and do your homework to select plants that are both climate appropriate and locally native to your area, and you will be rewarded with a better understanding and appreciation of your garden as it evolves over the years.

Maintenance of sustainable landscapes requires an understanding of the watershed approach to landscaping and water management. Even if you eliminate the need to mow a lawn, there remains the need for fine pruning, irrigation tune-ups, cleaning and checking water retention devices, and soil building. Maintenance people must have the know-how to implement mulching, basic irrigation adjustments, and care of native plants.

Certified arborists are specialists trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. Find qualified professionals at the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA).

Take advantage of the public education provided by your local water district, various nonprofit organizations, and the San Diego County Water Authority. Classes are often free of charge. For more information, visit WaterSmartSD.org.


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.