When in drought, landscapes count

Posted: April 24th, 2015 | Features, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Jeremy Ogul | Editor

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent emergency decree restricting water usage and no sign of the drought letting up, the pressure continues to mount on local homeowners to do what they can to conserve.

At the Water Conservation Garden on the campus of Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego, chief horticulture specialist Clayton Tschudy works to curate what is essentially a living museum of water-efficient plants and landscapes.

One of the most important messages Tschudy tries to convey to visitors is that the San Diego region has a xeric, or Mediterranean, climate. As hot as it may get in La Mesa in the summer, homeowners here have many more options beyond the traditional rock-and-cactus layout common in true desert areas such as Palm Springs or Yuma.

“It doesn’t have to look like a desert,” Tschudy said. “You can replicate any style of garden you want — there are no stylistic or aesthetic limitations.”


The flowers of the “New Gold” lantana plant attract an anise swallowtail butterfly at the Water Conservation Garden in Rancho San Diego. (Photo by Jeremy Ogul)

Of course, the Water Conservation Garden features succulent and cactus habitats, but it also shows off plants common in Australia, South Africa and similar Mediterranean climates. There are examples of formal gardens and native gardens. One area shows the different species of grass and groundcover and compares how many gallons of water each one needs to survive.

Asked if people should be scared by dramatic photos of empty reservoirs and aerial shots of dry mountain ranges, Tschudy had a reassuring but firm answer.

“People shouldn’t be afraid, because there’s a lot we can do to conserve water and make our water stretch,” he said. “People do need to accept that they must adapt their lifestyle to our climate. We currently do not garden like we live in a Mediterranean climate. We garden like we live in the Midwest, and that’s a profligate use of our most precious resource: water. We need to change that.”

The urgent drought messages caught the attention of Roman Jimenez, a homeowner on Violet Avenue in West La Mesa. Jimenez and his husband decided to convert their front lawn to artificial turf with the assistance of a rebate through

The rebate — up to $2 per square foot — is helpful, Jimenez said, but it certainly does not cover the entire cost of replacing a thirsty grass lawn with artificial turf.

Horticulture director Clayton Tschudy points out the false esparto grass, which has a low need for water, at the Water Conservation Garden. (Photo by Jeremy Ogul)

Horticulture director Clayton Tschudy points out the false esparto grass, which has a low need for water, at the Water Conservation Garden. (Photo by Jeremy Ogul)

“The installation is where the real cost comes in,” he said.

By the time landscape workers have ripped out the grass, removed up to four inches of top soil, laid down decomposed granite and installed the new turf, the final price can range anywhere from $6 to $10 per square foot, depending on how expensive the artificial turf itself is, Jimenez said.

For a 900-square-foot yard, that adds up to an investment of somewhere between $5,000 and $9,000. A $2 rebate per square foot reduces the cost by about $1,800.

Depending on how much water was used to keep the grass alive and well, artificial turf could pay off for some homeowners in the form of lower water bills.

“We don’t anticipate a large water savings, but we do anticipate a significant upgrade to the curb appeal of our home, and we do anticipate a significant return on investment in the value of our home,” Jimenez said.

For homeowners considering a switch to artificial turf, Jimenez suggests doing as much research and comparison as possible, because there are a lot of options out there across a wide range of price and quality.

“They have different grasses that have different heights,” he said. “They have one that looks like it’s been freshly mowed and they have some that looks like it could use a mow. We went to a showroom that had it up in Miramar. We took our flip flops off, we walked around on it, we felt how it feels on our toes.”

In addition to rebates from water agencies, there are also special financing programs available that allow homeowners to add the cost of a water-efficient landscape to their property tax bill. The Property Assessed Clean Energy program (PACE) allows homeowners to pay off clean energy investments in periods of five, 10 or 20 years.

Even if homeowners don’t have the ability to invest in an entirely new landscape, they can still dramatically reduce the amount of water they use in their existing landscapes, said Bob Bradshaw, a master gardener and vice president of the La Mesa Beautiful organization.

Bradshaw said he has cut back the frequency with which he waters potted plants and has also reduced the frequency and length of watering cycles on the sprinkler system that he uses to irrigate his small lawn.

Lynlee Austell-Slayter, a master gardener and sustainable landscape expert, said many people are giving their plants more water than they really need. Though plants may thrive at certain watering levels, many plants in typical landscapes can survive with far less water than we’re giving them now.

“In ornamental landscapes, we don’t want maximum yield as we do in agriculture,” Austell-Slayter said. “In agriculture, yield equals nutrition. In residential landscapes, excess yield equals waste and pollution.”

In a drought like the one California is now experiencing, homeowners don’t need landscape plants to grow as much as possible, so watering should be reduced to the low or moderate levels.

For more ideas and resources on what you can do to reduce the amount of water in a residential landscape, check out the following websites:,, and and

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—Email Jeremy Ogul at

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