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 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

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

Jon Foreman of the San Diego band Switchfoot is among the many fans of The Water Conservation Garden in San Diego's East County. Photo: Water Authority

Water Conservation Garden Celebrates 20th Anniversary Nov. 16

Twenty years ago, people who saw a need to help people conserve water and preserve San Diego’s environment conceived the idea for a demonstration garden.

The Water Conservation Garden celebrates its 20th-anniversary Saturday, November 16 at 5 p.m. with a benefit concert featuring food and drink stations, dancing, auction items and live music provided by The Mighty Untouchables. More information and tickets are available on The Garden’s website.

Native San Diegan Jon Foreman of the Grammy-award winning band Switchfoot is among The Garden’s newest fans after a recent visit.

“It has been an amazing journey,” said CEO Jennifer Pillsbury. “We run six acres with educational exhibits for the public, but we also have a huge education program for the public. Last year we had 42,000 visitors and reached 88,000 kids. When we first opened, we were excited about 1,000 visitors.”

Water agencies and municipalities worked together to bring The Garden to life

The annual Spring Garden and Butterfly Festival is among The Garden's most popular annual events. Photo: The Water Conservation Garden

The annual Spring Garden and Butterfly Festival is among The Garden’s most popular annual events. Photo: The Water Conservation Garden

A task force of water agencies and municipalities conceived The Garden in response to six years of drought in San Diego County.

Otay Water District, Helix Water District, and Cuyamaca College kick-started the effort in 1990. By 1992, the San Diego County Water Authority, City of San Diego, and Padre Municipal Water District joined the effort, forming the original Water Conservation Authority.

The following year, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District approved the establishment of a 4.5-acre Water Conservation Garden adjacent to Cuyamaca College. With $700,000 in donated services, products, and labor from local nurseries and members of the California Landscape Contractors Association, the Water Conservation Garden came to life. San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob presided over its grand opening in May 1999.

Over the past 20 years, The Garden has added its popular children’s exhibits, bird and butterfly gardens, the Dorcus Utter Memorial Sensory Garden, and the Dorcus Butterfly Pavilion.

“The Garden is here to inspire everyone to use all natural resources efficiently, not just water,” said Pillsbury. “When people see proper irrigation and the right plants in the right location with the right soil, having everything working together can be beautiful and efficient.”

Inspiring positive change in the living environment

Pam Meisner, also known as Ms. Smarty-Plants, started the conservation program in 2008 at the Water Conservation Garden. Photo: The Water Conservation Garden

Pam Meisner, also known as Ms. Smarty-Plants, started the conservation program in 2008 at the Water Conservation Garden. Photo: The Water Conservation Garden

The Water Conservation Garden has been governed as an independent nonprofit organization under its own Board of Directors since 2011. Memberships, donations, grants, facility rentals, gift shop sales, and water district dues fund operations.

With additional land donated by Cuyamaca College, The Water Conservation Garden now covers six acres of displays showcasing water conservation through its themed demonstration gardens and how-to displays on mulch and irrigation.

Students in the Cuyamaca College Ornamental Horticulture program benefit from hands-on education just steps away from their classrooms.

“Students come through and learn plant identification and experience lab learning,” said Pillsbury.

New smart classroom available soon at The Garden

The Garden's amphitheater seats 300 and will host its 20th anniversary benefit concert on Nov. 16. Photo: Water Conservation Garden

The Garden’s amphitheater seats 300 and will host its 20th-anniversary benefit concert on Nov. 16. Photo: The Water Conservation Garden

The Garden will open a new smart classroom available for business retreats, meetings, and seminars. Pillsbury also hopes to book more events in the 300-seat amphitheater.

Through its evolution and innovation, the mission of The Water Conservation Garden remains the same as it did on its opening day 20 years ago: to inspire positive change in the living environment through water conservation and the protection of natural resources.

“We’re here to educate the community on efficient water use, but we also want to be a spot where people can come learn and explore together in so many ways,” said Pillsbury.

Admission to The Garden is free. Docent-led tours take place on the first Saturday of each month at 10 a.m.

Winning Vista Irrigation District WaterSmart Landscape Reduces Water Use

Vista resident Deborah Brandt showed how attractive water-wise landscaping can be when low-water use plants are combined with other landscape components in winning the Vista Irrigation District’s 2019 WaterSmart Landscape Contest. District officials selected Brandt’s entry this month among many quality entries received.

The Vista Irrigation District is among 13 San Diego member agencies with landscape contests in 2019 with the goal of showcasing beautiful residential water-wise landscapes throughout the region.


La Mesa residents Bob and Shan Cissell transformed 2,500 square feet of turf into their own Conservation Garden in La Mesa, winning the 2019 Oty Water District Landscaping Contest. Photo: Otay Water District

La Mesa Conservation Garden Wins 2019 Otay Water District WaterSmart Landscape Contest

La Mesa residents Bob and Shan Cissell’s conversion of 2,500 square feet of thirsty irrigated lawn into a creative conservation garden was selected by the Otay Water District as the winner of its 2019 WaterSmart Landscape Contest.

The annual competition recognizes landscape redesign projects among 13 participating San Diego County water agencies which best represent water-efficient landscaping principles.

Project inspired by free WaterSmart landscaping classes

The Cissells designed their new yard after attending the Water Authority's free WaterSmart Landscape Makeover courses. Photo: Otay Water District

The Cissells designed their new yard after attending the Water Authority’s free WaterSmart Landscape Makeover courses. Photo: Otay Water District

Inspired after their participation in the Water Authority sponsored WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program courses, and by the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon, the Cissells began their La Mesa Conservation Garden project in April 2018 by removing the sod. They incorporated creative elements including a hand-built waterfall made from an old truck ladder rack, and other solid materials otherwise destined to become trash in a landfill.

Water from a swale feeds the waterfall, then travels through microtubes up a faux bonsai tree — made of concrete and unused materials – to irrigate flower baskets resting at the end of each tree branch. Large tree roots that once ran through their yard now decorate other areas of their yard.

Water from the waterfall grotto travels up the faux bonsai tree in the Cissells' La Mesa Conservation Garden. Photo: Otay Water District

Water from the waterfall grotto travels up the faux bonsai tree in the Cissells’ La Mesa Conservation Garden. Photo: Otay Water District

New efficient irrigation includes drip tubing along the top of the ground, and corrugated drain piping below. The piping allows excess water to irrigate the slopes surrounding the home. To assure their drip system would continue to work properly, the Cissells came up with a system using a birdbath made from an old sink. When their drip system turns on, it feeds the birdbath. The water flows up into the sink and into the overflow hole and back down to the trees. No water is wasted, and mosquito reproduction is avoided. If the birdbath is dry, it means that the drip system is not working properly.

‘Not a single drop of water wasted’

The Cissells’ “Stonehenge” is constructed from large tree roots topped with stones (left), serving as a reminder of what was once the nature beneath them. Photo: Otay Water District

“The coolest thing is that it was a 100 percent makeover from irrigated lawn that took a pathetic amount of water to keep it green, and it wasn’t even green,” said Shan Cissell. “It’s the design, the technical, the labor, the creativity, and the focus on not a single drop of water being wasted that we took seriously.”

The Cissells maximized their viewing area by strategically placing curved walking paths of decomposed granite throughout their yard. Paths are surrounded by vegetation and water-wise plants such as succulents, honeysuckle, pincushion flowers, and manzanita. The Cissells say they their efforts have reduced their water bill as much as 25 to 30 percent.

The Cissells maximized their viewing area by strategically placing curved walking paths of decomposed granite throughout their yard. Photo: Otay Water District

“The Cissells’ unique project proves that creating a beautiful WaterSmart landscape can be both cost-efficient and environmentally beneficial,” says Mitch Thompson, Otay Water District board president and Water Conservation Garden Joint Powers Authority member. “The benefits can be attributed to their efforts in incorporating recycled material along with water-saving features.”

Winners are selected based on overall attractiveness, design, plant selection, and efficient irrigation and maintenance. The Cissells were recognized with a certificate of recognition, gift certificate to a local nursery of their choice, and other promotional items. View more photos of the Cissells’ winning landscape here.

READ MORE: City of Oceanside Selects Drought Tolerant Gardens as 2019 Contest Winners

Olivenhain Municipal Water District Logo landscape design workshops

OMWD Hosts Free Landscape Design Workshops

Encinitas, Calif. — Olivenhain Municipal Water District and San Dieguito Water District have partnered to offer free WaterSmart Landscape Design Workshops. The three-hour courses will be held Wednesday, July 17 and Thursday, October 3, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

CWA Authorizes Water Audit Contract With Mission RCD

The San Diego County Water Authority authorized a contract with the Mission Resource Conservation District to administer the SDCWA’s WaterSmart Field Services Program. The May 23 CWA board action authorized CWA acting general manager Sandra Kerl to enter into a three-year contract with the Mission RCD which will pay $260,000 for administration of the WaterSmart Field Services Program through June 30, 2022. The authorization also includes an option for a two-year extension which can be ratified administratively rather than by CWA board approval. The WaterSmart Field Services Program includes residential surveys, landscape audits, irrigation checkups and follow-up irrigation controller visits.

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

WaterSmart Landscape Contest Seeks Inspiring Entries

The 2019 WaterSmart Landscape Contest invites homeowners across San Diego County to share their landscaping makeovers to inspire and encourage more people to consider their own makeovers by showcasing the beauty and variety of water-efficient landscapes.

The winning landscape from each of the participating water agencies will receive a prize valued at $250 and be recognized in print and online publications. The deadline to apply is April 26. Enter the contest here:

Customers of these local water agencies are eligible: the City of Escondido, Helix Water District, the City of Oceanside, Olivenhain Water District, Otay Water District, Padre Dam Municipal Water District, Rincon del Diablo Water District, City of San Diego, San Dieguito Water District, Sweetwater Authority, Vallecitos Water District, Vista Irrigation District and California American Water.

Jeff Moore stands in his San Marcos front yard featuring his award-winning waterwise landscaping work. Photo: Water Authority

Contest rules vary with each agency, but all entries will be judged on the same criteria. Judges are looking for overall attractiveness of the landscaping including its curb appeal and whether the plants are well maintained; a design with adequate plant coverage and permeable soil able to thrive with less water; efficient methods of irrigation; and climate-appropriate plant selection with minimal turf.

Water-efficient landscaping is beautiful

Raised planter beds and a living wall are features in this award-winning Olivenhain area landscaping project. Photo: Courtesy OMWD

San Diego County residents have embraced the new WaterSmart approach to their landscaping, installing water-efficient gardens and removing thirsty turf in increasing numbers.

One of those swapping turf for sustainable landscaping is San Marcos homeowner Rhonda Holmes. She won the 2018 Vallecitos Water District Landscape District contest. Holmes transformed the landscape at her home shortly after buying it. Her outdoor remodel included replacing the front and backyard turf areas with water-efficient plants.

She designed a garden that was smart on water while being beautiful at the same time.

“It’s really easy to do,” Holmes said. “I’d love to see more people try to do their part.”

The contest aims to inspire residents to consider a landscape makeover by showcasing the beauty and variety of water-efficient landscapes.

Video of 2018 Vallecitos Water District winners

Many previous winners have taken advantage of the San Diego County Water Authority’s free WaterSmart landscape makeover classes to help them successfully create and complete their projects. More than one million square feet of turf has been targeted for removal by course participants, generating a water savings potential of 36 million gallons annually.

Interested residents can learn about the next series of Landscaping Makeover classes and register on the WaterSmartSD website.

In addition to the benefits of reducing water consumption, water-efficient landscaping can improve a home’s curb-appeal and value, and reduce the need for costly, time-consuming maintenance. Many native plant selections also have fire-resistant qualities and provide habitat for local wildlife.

Outdoor watering accounts for roughly half of statewide urban use, and more in inland areas, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report. Savings can come from installing more efficient irrigation systems and replacing thirsty lawns with less thirsty plants.

Check irrigation systems when changing the clocks on Sunday November 4. Photo: Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources daylight savinig time

Fall Back and Save Water As Clocks Change

Whether you are excited about an extra hour of sleep or dour about losing an hour of sunlight at the end of the day, daylight saving time ends Sunday, Nov. 4. The annual adjustment is a great reminder to perform several important household tasks, such as replacing smoke alarm batteries and restocking emergency preparedness kits.

The San Diego County Water Authority asks residents to add one more important task when changing the clocks: Adjust irrigation systems to save water in the months ahead.

“Adjusting irrigation is an easy way to conserve water, since landscapes need less irrigation as the days get shorter and cooler,” said Dana Friehauf, a water resources manager for the Water Authority. “Residents also should make sure their irrigation systems are working correctly, and are free of broken sprinkler heads or other leaks that waste water.”

Approximately half of a typical California household’s water use is outdoors. Seasonal adjustments to irrigation controllers in preparation for winter weather not only reduce water waste, they benefit the health of landscape plants.

Cool-season water-saving practices can reduce use

Additional water-saving practices during the fall and winter months include:

  • Turning off irrigation systems when rainstorms are predicted.
  • Leaving irrigation systems off for at least a week after significant rainfall.
  • Installing rain barrels or cisterns to help capture stormwater from roofs and store it for future irrigation use.

Fall is also the ideal time for residents to upgrade thirsty turf yards to WaterSmart sustainable landscapes. Homeowners can take advantage of winter rains to help establish a new landscape. The Water Authority’s award-winning WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program offers a variety of free classes and how-to online videos to guide homeowners through the conversion process. More information is at WaterSmartSD.

In addition, there are a limited number of residential rebates available for homeowners who want to upgrade to sustainable landscaping at SoCal Water$mart.

The Water Authority offers additional water-saving resources for residents and businesses through its Live WaterSmart campaign. These include:

  • Free water-use surveys and irrigation checkups
  • Rebates for highly efficient irrigation equipment, washing machines and other devices
  • Water-efficiency training for professional landscapers
  • An online home water-use calculator and other tools

For a comprehensive list of tips, or to learn more about the Water Authority’s suite of water-saving resources, go to