By Michelle Curtis
Rain in California can be a mixed blessing. While it brings welcome relief during times of drought, it also flushes pollutants into our oceans and waterways. Population growth over the years, combined with more parking lots, asphalt roadways and concrete driveways, has deceased the number of native wetlands that historically served as natural filters and buffers during major storms.

Sustainable landscaping strives to change that by turning each individual landscape into a mini-watershed where rainwater is captured, cleaned, and used to nurture local plants and wildlife. This not only saves water but also helps restore loss habitat, decreases erosion and reduces storm water pollutants, one property at a time.

To get started creating your own sustainable landscape, plan to tackle one section of your yard at a time. Many home and business owners haphazardly add a plant here and there, ending up with a mix of plants with different needs. Instead, pick one section of your yard to focus on and do a complete overhaul, then move on to the next area as time and resources allow.

Ready to start planning your project? Here’s what to do, starting from the ground up.


Loosen your soil
If your soil is compacted, loosen it with a pitchfork to increase air and water flow below ground which improves plant growth and water storage.

Amend your soil with organic compost, either homemade or store-bought, to improve soil health and water retention.

Add a three inch layer of mulch to the top of your soil to limit water loss due to evaporation and to keep soil and plant roots cooler. Organic mulch such as shredded bark will also decompose over time, further adding to soil life and plant health.

Don’t use fertilizer or pesticides
These chemicals run off our properties during rain storms, polluting our rivers and ocean. They can also kill beneficial microbes and insects. Healthy soils nourish themselves and the plants that grow in them.

Photo: Christine Holmquist Landscape Design
Below: The Design Build Company


Choose climate-appropriate plants
Choose plants that are adapted to our long, dry summers and limited winter rain. Plants from Mediterranean regions are a good choice, or better yet, plant local natives.

Plant trees
Trees improve water quality, reduce runoff and erosion, help clean and cool the air and can improve property values; make sure your landscape plan includes them.

Don’t plant invasives
Some low-water plants can become invasive in San Diego County, such as African fountain grass, taking water and soil nutrients from other plants or even pushing them out. Visit for a list of plants to avoid.

Group plants by water needs
Even water-wise plants can have different water needs. Make sure to create hydrozones by grouping plants with similar water needs together so that they are easier to water and maintain.


Contour for rain
Move your soil around to capture rainwater where it can be used by your plants. If there’s more rainwater than your site can absorb, allow it to flow through your garden. This helps remove pollutants before it reaches our streams and ocean.

Use permeable materials
Water runs off concrete and asphalt. Use decomposed granite or permeable pavers so that rain water can pass through to your soil, nourishing your plants and reducing storm water runoff.

Capture rainwater
Rainwater can also be stored; install rain barrels and cisterns under your downspouts so you can store it until later when the weather turns dry.

Use graywater
Reroute and reuse graywater from your showers or washing machine. This water is a great supplement to rainwater and is great for watering shrubs and trees.

Supplement with intelligent irrigation, if needed
Sometimes rainwater isn’t enough to keep plants alive and healthy during the heat of summer. Install or retrofit your irrigation system so that you’re using drip or low volume spray heads, which deliver water more efficiently.

By following these steps, you will be on your way to creating your own healthy mini-watershed. Join us in the upcoming weeks for additional articles which will explore sustainable soil, plants and watering in more detail. Together, we can redefine what a California landscape is – beautiful and sustainable.