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Creating a Water Friendly Garden: An Interview with Elizabeth Ramos of The Water Conservation Garden

By Elizabeth Ramos

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

The Water Conservation Garden is a not-for-profit, six-acre demonstration garden that shows visitors, through a series of themed gardens and how-to exhibits, how to create beautiful landscapes that use very little water and are therefore appropriate for San Diego's semi-arid climate. San Diego receives less than 10 inches of rain annually, making our region very reliant on imported water supplies. Because of this, it is important that we San Diegans do our best to conserve the water that we receive.

The Water Conservation Garden was created in response to a multi-year drought that occurred in the early 1990's. The Helix and Otay Water Districts envisioned a water conservation garden that would show the public how to save water outdoors. Cuyamaca College, which has an excellent horticulture department, joined as a third partner, agreeing to initially provide nearly 5 acres of land for the garden. The Water Conservation Garden opened its doors to the public in May of 1999, and has since grown from nearly five acres to six acres, thanks to acquisition of more land from Cuyamaca College.

What are some of the services your company provides?

The Garden offers workshops on a variety of topics related to drought-tolerant landscapes each month; free, docent-led tours every Saturday at 10:30am; and personalized landscape design consultations with a professional landscape designer by appointment. The Garden's Ms. Smarty-Plants environmental education programs reach nearly 50,000 school kids annually either at The Garden or via school assemblies. The Ms. Smarty-Plants programs recently won the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA), the state of California's highest environmental honor. In addition, The Garden offers large, public events, such as the recent Butterfly Festival, which celebrated the opening of the new Dorcas E. Utter Memorial Butterfly Pavilion, The Garden's newest permanent exhibit.

In your opinion, what is a water friendly garden?

For San Diego's semi-arid climate, a "water-friendly garden" is one that uses the least amount of water possible, while still looking lush and beautiful. These types of gardens incorporate plants that need very little water once established.

What are some common gardening practices that waste water?

  • Faulty or broken irrigation systems that waste water
  • Improperly adjusted irrigation systems that are over-watering
  • Watering in the middle of the day when the sun is at its hottest and will quickly evaporate water that is meant for plants' roots

It's also important for people to remember that it's not necessary to have plants that are not appropriate for our climate. You can get the same esthetic value from plants that are water-efficient and appropriate for our region.

What is the first thing you suggest when attempting to make a landscape more receptive to dryer conditions?

We recommend that people evaluate the plants in their landscape and replace high-water-users with drought-tolerant plants. In particular, if people can reduce or eliminate grass from their yards, a huge water savings can be realized. Grass, with the exception of native meadow grasses, is the thirstiest plant in the landscape. There are many attractive, water-saving alternatives to grass, including drought-tolerant ground covers, or even hardscape alternatives. It is also a good idea to use mulch in the landscape around plants and to cover bare ground. Mulch acts as a barrier between the environment and the soil, helping to eliminate evaporation when water is applied, moderate soil temperatures, and discourage weed growth.

Do you have any interesting statistics concerning water waste when it comes to gardens?

An average southern California household directs up to 60% of total household water use to the landscape. When water-saving landscape principles are implemented, a savings of up to 50% of this amount can be realized.

Any other tips you can offer to someone who is looking to create a beautiful lawn or garden but also adhere to water conservation?

There are actually 7 steps to creating a water-smart garden. Simply put, they are:

  1. Take time to plan and design your garden or landscape
  2. Use turf (grass) appropriately
  3. Irrigate efficiently
  4. Condition the soil (amended with compost, for example, if soil is too clay-like),
  5. Apply mulch
  6. Select water-efficient plants
  7. Maintain the landscape and the irrigation system

When considering irrigation, drip irrigation is a good choice for ensuring that irrigation gets directly to plants' roots with the least amount of waste.

And of course, visit The Water Conservation Garden to explore six acres of water-wise landscape to to serve as inspiration for your own home landscape.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you and your company?

Either via our website at, or our main office at 619-660-0614. I may be reached at

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