Tag Archives: water conservation

landscaping horror: where diy meets wtf

One of my friends recently turned me on to Regretsy, a blog that gathers together some of the more unfortunate objects that earnest DIYers have made and posted for sale at the Etsy craft site.

I really like Regretsy’s tag line, “where DIY meets WTF,” and I’ve borrowed it for the subtitle of this quick post on a new garden space that went up in my neighborhood, a bit of landscaping horribleness that seemed perfect for Halloween.

I thank John for noticing it first and pointing it out to me, knowing how well I’d appreciate it. “It’s on the right as you head down the hill. You can’t miss it.”

Ah, what a wonder: plastic grass-colored indoor-outdoor carpeting, one of my personal favs…placed naturalistically between the sidewalk and the side fence…

But it gets better! Ever six feet or so, next to the fence, the designer has planted big red silk roses. I’m sure they were meant to coordinate with the red curb.

A garden made out of dead things emulating live ones. Zombies. Plastic roses. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

One of the dangers of having lovely flowers next to a public walkway is that someone might want to pick them.

One of the roses planted in this plastic lawn. Note the price tag still attached.

Could this be the latest avant-garde garden designed by Martha Schwartz, who’s incorporated plastic plants into her designs, as in her [ Splice Garden, at Cambridge’s Whitehead Institute ]?

No, sadly, probably not. But I will force myself to say something nice about it: At least it doesn’t require watering, except maybe to hose off the dust.

but they said to cut down on watering…

I read this in the weekend paper and had to share: It looks like the population of San Diego County is doing so well in cutting down our water use that the water districts that supply us are suddenly feeling the financial pinch. Here’s a snippet from the San Diego Union-Tribune article:

“We don’t need to keep telling (customers) to do a better job,” said Bill Rucker, general manager for the Vallecitos Water District in San Marcos.

His agency’s sales fell 20 percent in the April-to-July period compared with the same period in 2008. To make up for the downturn, the district will leave some positions vacant and roll back conservation education.

During a meeting of the region’s top water managers in late August, “everyone was concerned about the lost revenues,” said Dennis Lamb of the Vallecitos district.

He said the decision-makers expressed support for allowing residents to continue watering their lawns and other landscaping a maximum of three days a week during the winter and spring, even though current regulations call for irrigation only once a week from November through May.

After reading reactions from the authorities I’m left wondering: Should it really be the water districts that are at the public forefront of water conservation? On one hand they’re telling us to do the right thing. But at the same time it’s in their financial interest if we don’t. Conflict of interest, anyone?

the most recent water bill

We’ve taken a lot of measures to try to conserve water. Each water bill we receive gives us a chance to look at how well we’re doing. Compared to last year, this last bill showed a 40.1% drop for the two-month period of mid-May to mid-July.

40 percent decrease

To get to this point we’ve installed drip irrigation for most of the remaining thirsty plants, reduced the number of times a week the outdoor sprinkler runs, recycled water from the shower, mulched many garden spaces, and replaced some water-intensive plants with low-water or no-water selections. It’s helped that this has been a fairly cool spring and early summer.

Still, 112 gallons a day average total for a household of two people–one of us working 40 hours a week, the other mainly working out of the house–still seems a little on the high side. That’s enough water to flush a 1.6 gallon low-flow toilet 70 times per day. But compared to an American per capita average of something around 60-70 gallons for just indoor usage, I guess that’s not too awful for both indoor and outdoor use.

Hmmm, I wonder if we can get the usage down to less than 100 total gallons a day for the two of us. It might be a little tricky over the summer. But it should be totally doable once the weather cools.

two reasons to mulch


One of the weekend garden projects was to put down some mulch around a couple of the fruit trees. I’d resisted doing it earlier because I’d been using the bare ground at the edge of the little orchard as a place to sow various annual wildflower seeds–clarkia, baby blue eyes, poppies, fun things like that. Mulch would have prevented the seed from germinating.

A little garden of annual wildflowers sounds really cool, but it’s a lot of work to keep going. Bare ground during the wet winter and spring weather is an open invitation for all the dormant weed seeds to set up house, and keeping the bed weeded was a several-day-a-week chore.

Add to that that we’re re trying to do more to conserve water. Mulching around the trees to conserve water was making too much sense to not do. Come winter I’ll be glad for the reduced weeding.


The raised bed with the fruit trees still contains some ornamentals near the edges, and I mulched up to near the edges of most of them. This is the local Dudleya edulis, combined with blue chalk fingers, Senecio mandraliscae, from South Africa.


Some of the other plants in the bed were so low-growing that mulching would have covered them entirely. I left a couple little patches of the native Dichondra occidentalis with mulch only at the edges. Hopefully the plant will be able to grow up through the mulch a bit.


This little San Miguel Island buckwheat seedling was large enough to not bury, but a couple seedlings nearby were specks in the dirt that would have never seen the light of day.


For these tiniest seedlings, I left the ground bare. In addition I erected a couple little goalposts to mark the location so I wouldn’t stomped on when I walk through or pull them out thinking they’re a weed. It’s a technique I use whenever I plant some seeds in the open ground. The little upright twigs usually stay around long enough for the seeds to germinate and get to a safe size.

I’ll miss the little meadow in the spring months, but not the weeding. And I feel better that the fig and plum will be able to get by with a little less water. Come fall, if I decide I’d still like some annuals to liven up a garden spot with the bare branches of the trees overhead, there really wouldn’t be anything stopping me from clearing little patches of dirt through the mulch, sowing some wildflowers, and erecting little goalposts to protect the plants from marauding gardeners.

Hmm. I’m not sure why it took me so long to do this…

pleasures of hand-watering

It’s not a proper graywater system, but we’ve gotten used to showering with a bucket below us, both to catch the water before it gets warm enough to use and to catch whatever water splashes into the bucket. We still lose usable water down the drain, but we’re putting what we save to good use in the garden.


With only a small part of the yard on automatic watering, I’ve always done a lot of watering by hand. Now I’ve been doing it a lot more using reclaimed water.

Most of it’s been spot-watering. Not everything in the garden needs the same amount of water, so why not water only the things that need water? This is a tiny buckwheat seedling I’ve been encouraging to get established.

It’s a great way to get to know your plants better. At the same time you learn a lot about the soil they’re growing in, with some areas of the yard accepting a lot of water, while others just pool up and drain slowly.


Another water-conserving thing I’ve been doing is to let the facial fuzz go a few more days than I used to–Good thing facial hair is in these days. More fuzz = less water needed to take it off. (Don’t let the color of the hair get you off-subject. Remember that I’m talking about graywater, not gray hair…)

But back to graywater: One concern I have with using water from the shower is what happens when bath products get dumped in the garden. I’m working on finding out more, but in the meantime I’m only watering the ornamentals with the graywater. A local blog Linda turned me on to, Angel with Dirty Finger Nails, did an introduction to the subject. The post made some recommendations for laundry detergents and linked to a list of a few things to avoid.

Sure, watering by hand is more labor-intensive than turning on the sprinklers. But I think I’ve mentioned it before that I count myself among the gardeners who enjoy gardening, not just gardens. Watering by hand is one of those great pleasures that only gardeners like us will understand.

how the neighbors are coping

Water restrictions went into effect here in San Diego on June 1. So far there’s a short list of thou-shalt-nots, and the water district has primarily targeted landscape irrigation, the low-hanging fruit, with directives like: no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., watering only on specified days based on your address, sprinkler-watering limited to no more than 10 minutes, three times a week.

Walking around my neighborhood I can see a lot of people who’ve responded to the call. Some are just beginning to make changes, while others made changes years ago.


I was down a couple streets from my house when I saw this front yard makeover. Simple. Just a few big plants chosen for their countours. This is a house where the modern lines of the house echo the style of the plantings. The sago palm requires some water, but the other plants would do well going dry.

Walking around I saw a number of houses where more drought-tolerant plantings were making their way into the landscape. Each house seemed to have their own take on what a drought-tolerant front yard could look like.


Some relied on hardscape to replace a lawn…


…some went in for lots of mulch instead of a lawn, but not many plants…


…some for mulch with some plants, drought-tolerant or not…


…many of the yards that were reimagined as dry landscapes many years ago seemed to rely on gravel and some plants…


…several used gravel with just a few plants to image a desert theme…


…this one mixed gravel, junipers, and edible landscaping–a fig–right out front…


…many used what I’d consider a contemporary look, employing widely-spaced drought tolerant combining natives or exotics set in mulch or DG…


…here’s another of the style where a few plants are set in the middle of space they’ll never grow into. It’s definitely a look, as well as landscaping that embraces the fact that things don’t need to be densely planted to look good…


…many yards feature some more water-intensive plants mixed in with ones that require a lot of water, a kind of planting that a drip irrigation system can make possible. These people used some roses along with plants that’ll look good with less water.


Looking around you sense that this is a neighborhood in transition. Some people are just letting their lawns go brown. Some may be planning on redoing their plantings. Others are probably just waiting out the water restrictions to go back to their old ways.


Some houses are still attached to their old ways that feature conspicuous water consumption. Maybe at some point its was a status thing, showing everyone that you could spend resources on something that can’t be used. But these days it’s hard not to feel a little hot under the collar when these are resources that are being taken from the rest of us.

Still, before I get overly tough on the neighbors, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt for a while. These are tough economic times. Redoing your landscaping can be an expensive proposition. And there are people for whom dealing with a sprinkler timer would be like asking them to pilot the Space Shuttle. (My father could never figure out his timer.) And there’s a chance that people haven’t heard about the new restrictions.


But there’s one water-user that I’ll call out on the carpet. This is our local shopping center, which presumably is maintained by people who know what they’re doing. But watering the sidewalk and the asphalt…


…and then letting all the water run off into the storm drains, well, that does get my goat. But it’s not like I’m only grousing on a blog they’ll probably never read. They’ve heard from me already, and I hope they’ll get in step with the neighborhood they serve.

But overall I’m pleased. People are getting the message and they’re doing something about it. I think they get a sense that we’re all in this together, and we’ll find ways to deal with this water crisis. Not living in a neighborhood ruled by a homeowner’s association, you can see that we’re all finding different solutions.

Some choices will be better than others from the standpoint of water use, habitat, urban runoff or reducing the heat island effect. Still, it’s encouraging to see people people waking up from this fantasy of a lush, green, subtropical California of endless water resources.

from shower to flower

Earth Day is coming up on Wednesday. What environment-friendly changes will you be trying to make?

Last year we installed a tankless water heater, a move that has saved us at least 30% on our gas bill. But it still takes a while for the heated water to make it to the bathroom. In the past, we let the cold water in the pipes go down the drain until the water got to a proper shower temperature. recovered-water-bucketBut now the water is going into a bucket that we’ll use to water the garden. (A prettier–or at least cleaner–bucket not formerly used for pulling weeds and mixing potting soil is next on the agenda…)

The next logical step for water conservation would be to install a gray water system to reuse washwater. Regulations in California have been complex enough so that only 41 households have done it legally in San Diego County, and only 200 state-wide. State senator Alan Lowenthal from Long Beach has introduced a new bill, SB 1258, that would mandate a review of existing codes to make it easier to design and install legal gray water systems, a piece of legislation that is being called the “shower to flower” bill.

It’s a good start, and one worth supporting.

Related reading:
San Diego Union Tribue: New watering source is surfacing (March 23, 2009 article)
Los Angeles Times: A solution to California’s water shortage goes down the drain (April 19, 2009 opinion piece)
The text of SB 1258, marked up with comments and suggestions for further improvements by Oasis Design.

the rain might not belong to you

At first I thought it was a good idea. I never imagined that in some communities it would be prohibited.


During some of the recent rains I put some little buckets to catch rainwater that had drained off the roof. In this part of the state you can hardly ever have too much water, and good-quality water is extra-valuable.



One of my water-use indulgences is an experimental little bog garden with carnivorous plants. Tap water here has four times the dissolved solids usually recommended for these swamp-dwellers, so in warmer weather they get five gallons a week of reverse osmosis water from the local water store. Collecting fresh rainwater seemed like a much more sustainable alternative.

Left: Drosera Marston Dragon.
Drosera capensis, red form, with deerfly snack.

Yesterday’s LA Times had an article on residents in some of the dryland Four Corners states who were finding out that collecting rainwater was actually illegal in their communities. Because of a complex patchwork of water rights agreements, many homeowners actually don’t own the rainwater that falls on their houses.

Here’s a quick snippet from the article:

“If you try to collect rainwater, well, that water really belongs to someone else,” said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress… Frank Jaeger of the Parker Water and Sanitation District, on the arid foothills south of Denver, sees water harvesting as an insidious attempt to take water from entities that have paid dearly for the resource. “Every drop of water that comes down keeps the ground wet and helps the flow of the river,” Jaeger said. He scoffs at arguments that harvesters like Holstrom only take a few drops from rivers. “Everything always starts with one little bite at a time.”

I have a healthy respect for the rule of reasonable laws, but these seemed way beyond the pale. Like, are they worried these people are going to bottle the rainwater and sell it to us in Southern California?

Here within view of the Pacific Ocean, any water not retained in the ground would just wash down the storm drains and slide out into the bay. I doubt we have the same sorts of rules. But for many folks in Utah or Colorado who are trying to grow their own veggies, doing what they can to reduce become more self-sustaining and reduce their footprint on the earth, things aren’t so easy.

What do you think? Should the rainwater belong to all of us?

“drought emergency”

Our Governor has declared a drought emergency for California. The state rainfall and snowpack has been lower than average for most of the recent years, and reservoir reserves are dwindling. My county has been slightly over average in its rainfall this season but most of our water comes from the Sierra snows and the Colorado River. So this crisis is very real for us down here as well.

hang-tag_1At this point we’re on call for a voluntary water reduction, but if the rains fail us people will be required to reduce their water use 20%, and then–if things get worse–by 40% or more. Since landscapes consumes the majority of the water, our county water authority has started an advertising campaign to deliver these water-overuse doorknob hangers with the Sunday paper. It’s also available online: here.

There are checkboxes for “Your sprinklers are watering the pavement,” “Your sprinklers were on during the rain,” “You have a broken sprinkler, and/or your irrigation system is leaking,” “Your sprinklers are on every day” and “Your sprinklers are on during the day.” My local shopping center is a huge offender in the first category and will be getting a hang tag from me.

But this program is mostly about sprinklers and watering habits and doesn’t really address the underlying causes. There really need to be big boxes saying, “Your huge expanse of grass and water-thirsty plants are attractive, but I’d like to show you how you can have a terrific-looking yard that requires almost no additional water,” or “This extremely well-watered golf course has no place in the desert that is San Diego County.”

The very green golf course in the local canyon bottom would get a violation tag if that were the case. At least, to their credit, they let the driving range go brown with the end of the rains. Maybe in California golf could morph into a seasonal winter sport, like skiing? Maybe I’m delusional?