Even in our arid climate, the first rainfall can add up to a lot of water runoff - save as much as possible in your landscape. Photo: Denis Doukhan/Pixabay

Prepare Your Landscape for the First Rain

After a dry spell, the first rainfall is the most important water to capture for your landscape. This is called the “first flush.”

In arid regions like San Diego County, this happens every year because there is a long stretch of dry weather in between rainy seasons.

Why is the first rainfall so important?

It washes away pollutants that have collected since the last rain. This water needs to be filtered as much as possible by landscaping before it goes anywhere else. Usually the next stop for this water is storm drains that empty into oceans. So your landscape can be a very important tool in preventing the buildup of pollutants in local water supplies.

In addition, the first rain in the fall is very important for your plants. New or established plants will want to grow deep roots in the fall and winter, and the additional water is essential. Capturing the rain with your landscape reduces the need for increasing irrigation.

How much water comes off your roof?

Measure the size of your roof to determine how much water will come off it. The shape of your roof doesn’t matter in this instance. The same amount of water falls on the roof whether it is sloped or flat. You can measure a sloped roof either using an aerial view or from the ground without worrying about the slope itself. Just measure the outside edges the same way you would if it was flat and calculate the square footage.

Flat roofs covering a building in one contiguous shape are easier to measure. Some roofs are more complicated. You can divide this type of roof into individual squares or triangles. Then, measure each one at a time and add the figures together for your total roof area.

Calculate your potential water capture

Once you know the total roof area, you can determine the amount of rainfall it generates in gallons, then use the following formula to convert square feet to gallons.

Formula: Rainfall in Inches x Total Square Feet x 0.62 = Gallons of Rainwater from the Roof

Here’s an example using a 1,000 square foot roof: 1 inch of rain x 1000 x 0.62 = 620 gallons.

Even in a dry climate, this rainfall adds up to a lot of water runoff. It’s easy to see how important it is to save as much of this water as possible in a landscape designed to be a sponge instead of a brick. Take the watershed approach to designing your landscape, and you can use the first flush of rain to your advantage.

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

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

EPA WaterSense Excellence Award to San Diego County Water Authority for QWEL program.

Water Authority Wins National 2019 WaterSense Excellence Award

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today recognized the San Diego County Water Authority with a 2019 WaterSense Excellence Award for advancing water efficiency through its Qualified Water Efficient Landscape program, known as QWEL.

The Water Authority received one of 25 WaterSense awards at the national WaterSmart Innovations Conference in Las Vegas.

Water Authority wins second consecutive EPA award for QWEL program

This is the second consecutive year the Water Authority has achieved the Excellence Award for the QWEL program, which is certified by EPA to significantly increase water management skills and knowledge among landscape professionals. Program curriculum includes 20 hours of classroom and hands-on training on principles of plant care, irrigation system design, maintenance, programming, operations and troubleshooting.

“Partnering with EPA has helped the Water Authority promote water efficiency by training hundreds of landscape professionals each year to adopt best practices,” said Jim Madaffer, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “This approach helps to ensure that water-saving measures embraced by homes and businesses can be supported and sustained over the long term.”

San Diego County Water Authority Water Resources Specialist Efren Lopez accepted 2019 EPA WaterSense Excellence Award in Certification Program Growth.

San Diego County Water Authority Water Resources Specialist Efren Lopez (holding award) accepted the 2019 EPA WaterSense Excellence Award in Certification Program Growth on October 3 in Las Vegas. Photo: EPA

As one of the first QWEL providers in Southern California, the Water Authority has helped to expand the program’s branded outreach and educational outcomes. Since the January 2016 launch of QWEL, more than 1,000 San Diego landscape professionals have participated, making the region’s program one of the largest in the nation. More than 690 landscape professionals have earned QWEL certificates in the San Diego region over the past four years by passing a rigorous national test.

Water Authority Wins 2019 EPA WaterSense Excellence Award

The San Diego County Water Authority’s QWEL program is certified by the EPA and significantly increases water management skills among landscape professionals.

Water Authority’s landscape water efficiency classes

The Water Authority promotes English and Spanish QWEL training in collaboration with trade associations, faith-based organizations, English-as-a-Second-Language programs, community colleges and Master Gardeners associations. Nearly all (99%) program participants surveyed said the class would help them better manage landscape water efficiency, and 98% rated the class good or excellent.

San Diego County Water Authority Wins 2019 EPA WaterrSense Excellence Award

QWEL program curriculum includes 20 hours of classroom and hands-on training on principles of plant care, irrigation system design, maintenance, programming, operations and troubleshooting. Photo: Water Authority

Since 2006, the Water Authority and more than 2,000 other WaterSense partners nationwide have helped consumers save more than 3.4 trillion gallons of water. That’s enough water to supply the nation’s households for four months. In addition to water savings, WaterSense-labeled products and homes have helped reduce the amount of energy needed to heat, pump, and treat water by 462.5 billion kilowatt hours – enough to power more than 44.4 million homes for a year – and save $84.2 billion in water and energy bills, according to EPA.

“Our partners have made water-saving products, homes, and programs accessible across the nation and have educated millions on the importance of water conservation,” said Veronica Blette, chief of the EPA WaterSense branch. “These WaterSense award winners are leading the fight against water waste to save our most precious resource.”

The QWEL program is made possible in part from grants funds provided from voter-approved Proposition 84. The grant funds are administered by the California Department of Water Resources.

Butterflies and hummingbirds aren't just visually appealing; they also provide a service to your landscape by pollinating plants. Photo: GeorgeB2/Pixabay

Attract Butterflies and Hummingbirds

Witnessing the quick burst of color that often accompanies a butterfly or hummingbird’s flight is always exciting. It’s even more exciting when you see them in your own garden. Aside from being visually appealing, butterflies and hummingbirds also provide a service to your landscape by helping to pollinate plants. In doing so, they ensure seeds for future generations of plants.

How do you attract these beautiful garden pollinators?

Colorful, tube-shaped flowers located in sunny areas will attract hummingbirds in search of nectar. In Southern California, these tiny pollinators can stay year-round with a steady food supply. To provide this supply, try selecting a variety of plants that will bloom at different intervals throughout the year.

Hummingbirds also like shrubs and trees that provide shade where they can rest or find materials to build nests. Those cool areas are also where they can hunt insects. This can be helpful to your garden as they may eat insects harmful to other plants.

Similarly, butterflies also rely on flowers that provide nectar. They need host plants, which California native plants often are, where they can lay eggs. These eggs will hatch caterpillars, which will need to feed on nearby leaves. If you are concerned about leaves with lots of holes from hungry caterpillars, try strategically placing these plants behind other plants or in the back of your garden.

A good way to plan out where to put certain plants is by mirroring native plant communities.

Some native California plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds:

  • California Fuchsia
  • Manzanitas
  • Chaparral Currant
  • Narrowleaf Milkweed
  • Sticky Monkeyflower
  • Coyote Mint

By selecting the right types of native plants, your landscape will burst into color!

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

Sometimes improving your water efficiency is as simple as changing a few old habits. Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay

Indoor Water Efficiency at No Cost

There are many ways to use water more efficiently indoors, and a lot of these are completely free! You don’t have to go through the expense of replacing appliances or installing new ones to improve indoor water efficiency. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a few old water usage habits.

Here are some easy ways to reduce water usage inside your home:

  • Use a bowl of water to help thaw frozen food. Did you know that running the tap to thaw frozen meats and vegetables could use up to 2.5 gallons per minute? Using a bowl of room temperature water instead can greatly improve your water efficiency.
  • Scrape dirty dishes first before rinsing them. Not only will this save you time at the sink, but it will also conserve up to 2.5 gallons of water per minute.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables in a bowl of water instead of running water.
  • Run the dishwasher only when it’s full. Too often people are tempted to run the dishwasher as soon as the sink is empty, but standard dishwashers can use 2-4.5 gallons of water per load.
  • Turn off the water when brushing your teeth. This is possibly the easiest habit to change when it comes to water efficiency, and most people are already doing it.
  • Shorten showers to five minutes or less. Setting a timer on your watch or phone can help with this.
  • Use a bucket to collect water in the shower while you’re waiting for it to warm up. Then use this water to water your plants. Sometimes it can take a while for the shower to get to the right temperature before you step in. This is a perfect time to collect some clean water that can be reused around the house.
  • Wash only full loads of clothing – standard clothes washing machines can use a whopping 15-50 gallons per load. By running the washing machine only when it’s full, you can greatly improve your water efficiency.

Learn more about how to use water more efficiently indoors and outdoors this summer.

Check out for more resources also has information about incentives for indoor and outdoor water conservation, as well as opportunities to sign up for FREE WaterSmart checkups. If you’re looking to revamp your landscaping this year, take a look at the WaterSmart landscape makeover classes for some easy ways to get started.

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

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

July is "Smart Irrigation Month," designed to call attention to efficient irrigation techniques to preserve the world's fresh water supply. Photo: Irrigation Association

Smart Irrigation Month Highlights Water-Efficient Technology

San Diego regional water agencies are sharing water-efficiency tips during “Smart Irrigation Month.”

July is traditionally the month of peak demand for outdoor water use and the reason it was chosen as Smart Irrigation Month when it started in 2005. The month celebrates the social, economic, and environmental benefits of efficient irrigation for landscapes, recreation and agriculture.

Smart Irrigation Month highlights irrigation technology innovations and encourages water-efficient irrigation techniques to preserve the world’s fresh water supply.

Member agency activities for Smart Irrigation Month 2019

The Otay Water District is participating in "Smart Irrigation Month" education via its social media channels and website. Photo: Otay Water District

The Otay Water District is among those participating in “Smart Irrigation Month” education via its social media channels and website. Photo: Otay Water District

The Otay Water District is helping its customers increase water-use efficiency during Smart Irrigation Month with a dedicated webpage of tips. Customers can apply for a free WaterSmart Checkup by calling 760-728-1332 or at

The Helix Water District also offers free home water use checkups to its customers by phone 619-667-6626 or email

And, the City of Oceanside Water Utilities Department is hosting a free Smart Irrigation Workshop at Mira Costa College on Saturday, July 13. The event has reached capacity, but customers can all 760-435-5816 to get on a waiting list and be notified about future events.

Nine Watering Tips For #SmartIrrigationMonth

Inspect your sprinkler heads regularly to make sure they are not obstructed or watering onto pavement or other hardscapes. Photo: Irrigation Association

Inspect your sprinkler heads regularly to make sure they are not obstructed or watering onto pavement or other hardscapes. Photo: Irrigation Association

July is an ideal month to perform a check on current irrigation systems and determine whether any practices can be improved to save water. The San Diego County Water Authority offers these nine Smart Irrigation Month tips:

  • Select sprinkler heads and nozzles that apply water uniformly to the target area.
  • Inspect your sprinkler heads regularly to make sure they are not obstructed or watering onto pavement or other hardscapes.
  • Upgrade to a smart controller. Weather and soil moisture-based controllers can automatically adjust your watering schedule based on the conditions at your location.
  • Use drip or low pressure, low volume irrigation which applies water directly to the base or roots of plants.
  • If water is applied too quickly, it can run off into the street or sidewalk. Smart irrigation regulates water pressure, ensuring water has a chance to soak into the ground.
  • Less is more when watering turf. Water long enough to soak down to the root zone, then don’t water again until the soil is completely dry. If the grass springs back when you step on it, it has enough water.
  • The greatest waste of water in landscape irrigation comes from watering too much, too fast. Instead of watering 20 consecutive minutes, run sprinklers in four five-minute sessions. This allows water to soak into the soil and minimizes runoff.
  • A rain shut-off device is an inexpensive gadget to add to your sprinkler system.
  • Improve efficiency by watering at the coolest time of day. When it’s hot or windy, more than a third of the water can be lost to evaporation.

Find more tips and information on Smart Irrigation Month 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

Trees are the most valuable players in your landscape design, and you can keep them healthy by using proper pruning techniques. Photo: Benjamin Balazs/Pixabay

Take Good Care of Your Landscaping Trees

Trees are the most valuable players in your landscape design. They benefit both the environment and the communities in which they are planted. They save energy and clean the air we breathe. They help counteract the urban heat island effect and combat climate change. Trees provide protection from the elements, and even support healing. Invest in tree maintenance to promote their ongoing health.

When to prune your trees

First, for corrective or preventive measures. Second, to remove dead, crowded, or poorly angled branches or to reduce potential hazards. Third, to increase light and air penetration for healthy growth.

Routine thinning does not always improve the health of a tree. Removing large amounts of foliage all at once can reduce growth and stored energy reserves, resulting in stressed trees whose grow stalls.

Pruning should be performed in the best season for the tree to avoid potential disease, and avoid pruning just after the spring growth flush.

Use proper technique to promote healthy trees

There should be a purpose for each cut, as each cut into a tree has the potential to change the growth of the tree for many years to come.

Proper tree pruning technique is essential. Improper or careless pruning can cause damage that extends over the life of the tree. It is important to know where and how to make cuts before beginning the process.

Trees don’t “heal” the same way people do when we sustain a cut or a wound. When a tree is wounded, it compartmentalizes the wound to protect itself. A small cut does less damage than a large cut. Waiting to prune a tree until it is mature can create the need for large cuts that cannot be easily compartmentalized. This can threaten the life of the entire tree. Ongoing and regular maintenance is a must.

Ask for professional assistance

Call on a certified arborist to maintain your trees in optimal health. Arborists are specialists trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. They can identify and treat diseases before they spread to other trees. Find qualified professionals at the International Society of Arboriculture and the American Society of Consulting Arborists.

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