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 The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at

How to Compost the Right Way

You can make composting on-site a goal for your sustainable landscape maintenance to reduce waste and help the soil thrive. You’ll know when the compost is ready to use when it has an earthy smell, has cooled off, and doesn’t reheat when stirred. Next, look for a uniformly dark brown or even black color. You shouldn’t be able to identify any of the original particles.

Spread compost directly on the soil surface to use it as mulch. That can prevent erosion and help plants and soil filter pollution, such as hydrocarbons and metals from road surfaces. Most greenwaste-based composts can be applied to a depth of three inches. Use up to two inches of bio-solids.

If you don’t produce your own compost on site, get it from a reputable source that guarantees high quality. Commercially produced quality can vary significantly due to the diverse nature of feedstock, processes, and maturation standards.

Use compost to make healthier soil

For native plants in your sustainable landscaping, use roughly 15 percent compost by volume to repair disturbed or damaged soils.

Clay-based soil amended with compost leads to more productive and healthy plant growth at a lower cost than amending the same soil with the necessary 45 percent sand. Therefore, you can mix poor soils that are compacted, lifeless, or subsoils with about three to six cubic yards of high quality compost per 1,000 square feet to improve the soil structure.

If your compost is based on bio-solids, it can be high in ammonium nitrogen. Use this type of compost sparingly.  When using bio-solids, be sure you know exactly where they came from.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Composting With Biosolids: What Are Biosolids And What Are They Used For

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

Sustainable Garden

National Report Highlights Success of San Diego Sustainable Landscapes Program

San Diego’s Sustainable Landscapes Program ranked among the most effective landscape transformation programs in the nation in a study released today by the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency. The “Landscape Transformation Study: 2018 Analytics Report” compiled data from 14 similar landscape conservation programs in the U.S. and Canada.

The Alliance for Water Efficiency concluded that San Diego program participants reduced water use by an average of 114.8 gallons per day, or 34.8 percent. “The Water Authority has established a high benchmark for landscape transformation programs that include rigorous program requirements that result in the achievement of multiple benefits,” according to the report.

By saving about 42,000 gallons of water per project each year, Sustainable Landscapes Program participants who transformed their landscapes save enough water to supply the average four-person household in San Diego County for more than three months.

“This study highlights our success improving water-use efficiency across the San Diego region,” said Jim Madaffer, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “We empower program participants to take a hands-on approach to WaterSmart living, and it’s gratifying to see their pride of ownership in these projects that are changing the way San Diegans think about landscapes. An enhanced environment and happy homeowners are part of the promise of sustainable landscaping.”

The national report was accompanied by a survey of more than 3,000 homeowners across North America, which emphasized that residents are ready to embrace new landscape ideals.

“Beautiful landscapes are a source of pride for homeowners, but the emotional connection we have with our outside spaces is not in conflict with a more sustainable approach. People also want to be smart water users,” said Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, in a press release today. “Whether it’s installing a more efficient irrigation system, opting for drought-tolerant turf or re-landscaping with climate-appropriate plants, we need to communicate that a sustainable landscape can be beautiful and water-conscious.”

Empowering WaterSmart lifestyles

Efforts to develop the San Diego landscape program began in 2010 with a successful Proposition 84 grant application. Known as the SLP, the program was developed to help homeowners upgrade their yards with climate-appropriate plants, high-efficiency irrigation equipment, rainwater capture and detention features, and soil amendments. The sum of these measures results in multiple environmental benefits, including water use efficiency.

The SLP was a partnership by the San Diego County Water Authority, the City of San Diego, the County of San Diego, the Surfrider Foundation, the California American Water Co. and the Association of Compost Producers. Although the grant-funded SLP pilot has been completed, the Water Authority continues to offer and promote SLP-related programs and resources, such as classes and personalized advice from landscape design professionals, a comprehensive guidebook, financial incentives, a demonstration garden and

Water Authority Water Conservation Program Manager Carlos Michelon said the SLP sets high standards for efficient water use and other sustainable practices above and beyond standard turf removal programs. Participants achieve multiple benefits, including water efficiency, drought tolerance, stormwater management, water quality enhancement and aesthetically appealing designs.

“Using smart irrigation technology and climate-appropriate plants to increase water-use efficiency makes sense,” Michelon said. “Doing so while also tapping rain water as a resource, improving soil health, and creating other environmental benefits makes even more sense. That’s sustainable landscaping in a nutshell.”

Recognizing the variety of landscapes and microclimates in San Diego County, SLP resources helped to inform and empower participants each step of the way.

“When it comes to sustainable landscaping, planning and collaboration are as critical as soil amendments or detention basins, Michelon said. “The synergy resulting from our collaborative partnerships with other agencies and non-profit organizations has created even more value for participants and the region.”

Financial incentives help fund landscape projects

During a pilot period, the Water Authority and its partners provided more than 325 Sustainable Landscape Incentives to San Diego County homeowners to help transform their landscapes into beautiful, climate-appropriate mini-watersheds.

While this locally-administered program is no longer accepting applications, the Landscape Transformation Program administered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is open to qualifying water customers in the Water Authority’s service area. Effective April 1, 2019, residential rebates will start at $2 per square foot, for up to $5,000 square feet. Added funding by local water agencies (where available) means total incentives may be as high as $3.25 per square foot. An online incentive calculator at identifies incentives for specific proposed projects.

The SLP was made possible by an Integrated Regional Water Management program grant funded by the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006, administered by the California Department of Water Resources.

Match your plant choices to the different microclimate areas in your landscaping. A microclimate map helps you make good choices. Photo: Water Authority

Sustainable Landscapes Takes Root in San Diego

More than 225 San Diego County homeowners have transformed their landscapes into beautiful, climate-appropriate mini-watersheds through the Sustainable Landscapes Incentive Program developed by the San Diego County Water Authority and its partners.

Since the program launched in October 2016, more than 354,000 square feet of turf has been removed and replaced with sustainable landscaping. Approximately 100 projects are still under way, though the program isn’t taking new applications.

Instead, a new generation of rebates is available through the Landscape Transformation Program offered by the Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Residential rebates start at $1 per square foot, up to $1,500 per year. In the Water Authority’s service area, participants can receive $2.75 to $4 per square foot, depending on their retail water agency and funding availability. For more information, go to

“We are leaders in developing innovative initiatives like the Sustainable Landscapes Program, and we are pleased to see other programs embracing the same holistic approach,” said Carlos Michelon, who leads the Water Authority’s conservation team.

Removing turf grass is one of the best ways to reduce outdoor water use – but it’s just a piece of the larger movement toward sustainable landscapes. A holistic approach to environmental stewardship involves enhancements such as reducing or preventing wasteful runoff by using rainwater capture or filtration systems, along with other upgrades.

In San Diego County, the Sustainable Landscapes Program helped generate substantial interest, and it set the bar for similar efforts to include education, technical assistance and incentives.

“As with the initial Sustainable Landscapes Program, the new incentive program requires that homeowners incorporate the four key components of sustainable landscaping: healthy soils, high-efficiency irrigation, rainwater harvesting and climate-appropriate plants,” said Jana Vierola, a water resources specialist for the Water Authority.

“People are putting much more thought and care into their landscapes,” she said. “It’s not just gravel and two plants. People are creating sustainable designs for much more of a long-term commitment.”

An example of the upgrades inspired by the Sustainable Landscapes Program:

Before and after views of a landscaping project in San Diego. Photos: Water Authority. Sustainable landscaping

Before and after views of a landscaping project in San Diego. Photos: Water Authority.

Free WaterSmart classes help homeowners achieve successful results

Vierola said homeowners interested in sustainable landscaping should take advantage of the Water Authority’s free WaterSmart classes and other resources.

“Residents who participate in our classes and follow the guidebook tend to have more successful projects,” Vierola said. “Through these educational programs and resources, customers get a better understanding of best practices and recommendations for a watershed approach to landscaping.”

The next Three-Hour Landscape Design for Homeowners workshops are August 28 in Encinitas, September 8 in Fallbrook, September 22 in Oceanside, and October 27 in Vista. Click here for details.


Former water conservation class graduate and rebate recipient Rosalba Ponce from Chula Vista was named the Otay Water District's 2018 winner for “Best in District.” Photo: Courtesy Otay Water District Landscape Makeover

Otay Water District Announces 2018 WaterSmart Landscape Contest Winner

As part of the countywide WaterSmart Landscape Contest, the Otay Water District has selected water conservation class graduate and rebate recipient Rosalba Ponce of Chula Vista as the 2018 winner of its “Best in District” award.

Each year, participating water agencies in San Diego County honor residential customers who showcase the best water-efficient features in their yards. This year’s contest committee from Otay determined that Ponce’s landscape best achieved overall attractiveness, a well thought-out design, efficient irrigation methods, and appropriate plant selection and maintenance.

Water-efficient Mediterranean floral garden replaces thirsty front lawn

Former water conservation class graduate and rebate recipient Rosalba Ponce from Chula Vista was named the Otay Water District's 2018 winner for “Best in District.” Photo: Courtesy Otay Water District

Former water conservation class graduate and rebate recipient Rosalba Ponce from Chula Vista was named the Otay Water District’s 2018 winner for “Best in District.” Photo: Courtesy Otay Water District

Prior to converting her yard, Ponce participated in two of the San Diego County Water Authority and its member agencies’ water conservation programs — the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program series and the Sustainable Landscapes Program. In 2016, she attended the Water Authority’s free landscape makeover classes, and as a result hired a professional landscaper to help her replace her thirsty front lawn with a Mediterranean floral garden that was both welcoming and water-efficient.

“Upon retiring, I thought the four-class course would be perfect for me,” said Ponce. “At first, it was very difficult for me because I had never really stepped out into the garden in my whole life. I didn’t know what a valve or filters were. I didn’t know anything about what kind of soil I had. This course gave me the tools to learn about turf removal and opened my eyes to the joy of remodeling my yard.”

With water savings in mind, she also installed a drip irrigation system, two rain barrels, and a detention area to collect rainwater.

 Regional incentives help offset landscaping costs

The Otay Water District's WaterSmart Landscaping Content winner for 2018 is Rosalba Ponce of Chula Vista. Photo: Otay Water District Landscape Makeover Program

The Otay Water District’s WaterSmart Landscaping Content winner for 2018 is Rosalba Ponce of Chula Vista. Photo: Otay Water District

Ponce also submitted her application for the Sustainable Landscapes Program, and in less than nine months, she had completed the full transformation of her front and back yards, receiving an incentive of $1.75 per square foot for replacing approximately 1,200 square feet of turf with sustainable landscaping. (Editor’s Note: As of July 2018, sustainable landscaping incentives in San Diego County are available through the Landscape Transformation Program at

Her residential landscape now serves as a living example of what conservation education can help create. Ponce’s efforts could have potentially led to a decrease in her overall water use by an average of up to 38 percent.

“Ms. Ponce’s landscape transformation demonstrates the importance of outdoor water-use efficiency as a means of helping to meet the future water needs of our service area and our region as a whole,” said Mitch Thompson, Otay Water District Board member and Water Conservation Garden Joint Powers Authority committee member. “Water-saving approaches to landscaping create healthy, natural yards that offer both economic and environmental benefits.”

Rosalba Ponce from Chula Vista receives recognition at the July 11 board meeting of the Otay Water District as its 2018 landscaping contest winner. Photo: Courtesy Otay Water District Landscape Makeover

Rosalba Ponce from Chula Vista receives recognition at the July 11 board meeting of the Otay Water District as its 2018 landscaping contest winner. Photo: Courtesy Otay Water District

At its July 11, 2018 meeting, the Otay Water District’s Board of Directors honored Ponce for exemplifying water-use efficiency in her garden. She was awarded a certificate of recognition, a gift certificate to a local nursery, and other promotional items. She is also being recognized in the district’s newsletter and other outreach materials.

“When I entered the contest, it was another way for me to share my story with other people and motivate them to do something that’s going to be good for our world,” said Ponce.

For more information about the landscape contest, go to

READ MORE: Vista Irrigation District Announces WaterSmart Landscape Contest Winner