Saving Water In Your California Friendly Garden
Learning how to save water in our gardens here in Southern California is vital. Water is a scarce and precious resource that all living things need yet we use 60% of our drinking water in our landscapes. Even on dry days, millions of gallons of water are wasted due to inefficient irrigation. When it does rain, we throw it all away into our storm drains where it picks up trash and pollution and ends up at our beach and in our ocean killing wildlife and risking human health.
Our average rainfall is 10-12” inches per year, falling from November to March. Our typical turf grass needs about 50” per year, and the majority of that is needed in the summer.
If we replace turf grass with Mediterranean plants, we can reduce our landscape water use by half. If we go one step further and replace our turf with California Natives, we can reduce our water use by 80-90%.
California Friendly gardens reduce or remove thirsty turf grass, and replace with Mediterranean or California Native plants.
The water that is delivered to us is expensive both in terms of its dollar cost and the cost to our environment. Lets make the most of the rain we do get.
A California Friendly garden has many more surfaces that water can pass through. Instead of concrete pathways we use gravel, mulch or permeable pavers. We break up our patios and drives by cutting strips and filling with gravel. We dig shallow trenches or swales and direct our rain gutters into them, slowing, spreading and sinking the water into the soil. We install rain barrels and rain chains to help with this slowing, spreading and sinking$. We aerate and dethatch our lawns annually. We break up compacted soil in our planter beds and make sure bare soil is always mulched.
Our neighborhood soil is pale, hard and mostly heavy clay. It’s hard to work; it holds on to moisture, pushing out the oxygen, eventually drowning our plants and killing the life in the soil. When we irrigate, the water sinks in very slowly, causing most of the water we apply to run off or evaporate. Our plants seem thirsty, so we add more water, compacting the soil more, and creating this cycle of over-irrigation. Our plants get sick so we throw in some inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, killing more of the soil life.
In a California Friendly landscape we turn our soil into a living sponge that can absorb water when it arrives, and release it to the plants, as they need it. We have armies of soil microbes that work hard so we don’t have to, and the only help we provide is to get it all started with compost. We keep mulch and leaves on our planter beds so that our plants get all the food and medicine they need to stay healthy and fight off pests and diseases, so we don’t have to use fertilizers and pesticides.
More importantly for us, the soil is able to hold on to more water, releasing it to the plants, as they need it. This reduces our need to irrigate, and means we can make better use of rainwater when it comes.
Many of us have automatic irrigation systems that run before we get up, so we never actually see what happens to the water delivered to our plants. Our existing irrigation systems are so inefficient that, instead of the 50” per year of water for turf grass, we can end up applying 100” per year.
In a California Friendly landscape we manage our irrigation system by running it zone by zone, and watching. We look for any or all of the following problems, and fix them as they arise:
- Spray heads that mist -water pressure too high, check your pressure regulator or call a plumber
- Popups that fail to pop up – water pressure too low, pressure regulator issue or leak, call a plumber
- Geysers or broken pipes – find the breaks and fix them
- Insufficient coverage because the water from one head is not reaching as far as the next head – change the nozzles
- Watering the walkway more than the plants – redirect the nozzles or replace them
- Water running off your property – shorten the run times (3 minutes instead of 5) but run it more often. This ‘cycle and soak’ approach is handled really well by smart irrigation controllers
- All the water drains out of the lowest head at the end of the cycle – replace that head with a pop up that includes a check valve
- Leaking valves – install new valves
All of these problems can be fixed, either by you or by calling in a professional.
In our California Friendly landscape we install a ‘smart’ irrigation controller that automatically adjusts the run times according to all of these factors:
- What kind of soil we have,
- What kind of plants we are trying to grow,
- What kind of irrigation heads we have,
- If we are on a slope,
- If its been particularly hot, cold, sunny or windy,
- What time of the year it is,
- Where we are
In our California Friendly landscape we replace regular spray heads with the new water-saving rotary nozzles or replace spray heads with drip that delivers water directly to the roots of the plants.$ If you need help with any of this, the various water agencies will send out a representative to run checks on all the water use in your home and identify problems along with recommended solutions.
Many rebates are available for these methods of saving water in your landscape. Check out the details using these resources:
California Friendly Landscape training classes are free to homeowners
BeWaterWise.com – for rebates for turf removal, irrigation upgrades, irrigation calculator and plant lists
WaterSmartSD.org – for additional rebates, plant lists and the water smart e-guide
The City of Carlsbad has some additional advice for saving water at home.