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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Going On A Water Diet – The 30% Solution, Parts One, Two & Three

By Steve Brigham.


(originally published in Let’s Talk Plants! February 2008, No.161)

What if you had to cut back your water usage this year by 30%? With everything from big droughts to little fish limiting our water supplies these days, it may soon happen – and it already has for some of us! Would your garden survive on a water diet? In this three-part series, we’ll take a look at some serious water-saving techniques, as we explore “The 30% Solution”.

New Year’s Day, 2008

O.K., I guess I could stand to lose a little weight, especially after numerous Holiday meals and all. But lose 60 pounds? That would take me all the way down to 140 pounds (a bit slim for a 6′-1′′ tall guy) – even my doctor wouldn’t make me do that! But that’s the kind of diet that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California wants my garden to go on this year, and these guys mean business!

As an agricultural water user, Buena Creek Gardens participates in a program where we get a 16% discount on our water rates. But to qualify for this discount, we have to comply with whatever agricultural rationing the MWD chooses to impose, and whenever it chooses to impose it. In 2008, the MWD is imposing some major water rationing for agricultural users. This year, I am required to lower my water use significantly, by a whopping 30% every month, based on my water usage each month from July 2006 to June 2007. And if I don’t, I’ll have to pay more than double for any water I use over my 70% allotment, plus a host of expensive fines and penalties. Yes, folks, this is the real deal as far as water cutbacks are concerned! And so in 2008, maybe not me, but my garden is definitely going on a diet!

Where’s My Water Meter?

The first step in any diet, of course, is to know how much you weigh. And so the first step is to get out all of your old water bills from the past year. This will show you, usually in 100 cubic feet “units,” how much water you’ve been using each month (if you have a big garden, water usage probably goes up significantly during the warmer months). The next step is to figure out how much you’re going to reduce each month – in this case, it’s 30% of what you used last year in the same month.

Now it’s time to “count calories,” or in this case, cubic feet of water. Would anyone think of going on a diet without a bathroom scale? Well, in the garden you have one and it’s called your water meter. If you’ve never seen your water meter, it’s usually below ground in a rectangular box with a plastic or concrete lid somewhere near the street. To lift the lid off, use a big screwdriver or a sprinkler key. (A word of caution here – if it’s been a really long time since you’ve opened your water meter box, there may be a host of odd bugs and other alien life forms residing within, so you may wish to delegate this initial opening to an entomologist, a Homeland Security officer, or even a husband.) Once you’ve got your water meter box sufficiently decontaminated, you will see that your water meter resembles a car’s odometer, measuring water used in cubic feet (one cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons). A “sweep hand” makes one revolution for every cubic foot of water used. On many water meters, there’s a cute little black triangle that spins around when water is being used. Now you can see how much water you’re using at any given time – and if we’re going to save 30%, we’re going to have to get very serious in counting our cubic feet! So read your water meter often, paying particular attention to how much water you’re using when you water your garden.

Check For Leaks

Don’t close that box – for the first step in saving water is to make sure you’re not wasting it unintentionally. Let’s hope, first of all, that you don’t have any water leaks on your property! To test for leaks, make sure all faucets and water using appliances, inside and out, are turned off. Note the location of the sweep hand and watch to see if the black triangle is moving (it better not be). Then, without using any water, recheck the sweep hand and the “odometer” in 30 minutes. Unless someone’s been flushing toilets when you weren’t looking, you’ll know if you’re actually using water when you think you’re not, and you can multiply by 48 to see how much you’re wasting a day because of leaks.

Maybe, like me, you’ve just got some old, drippy garden faucets. Being inherently lazy, what I do is put inexpensive hose-end shut-off valves on all my leaky faucets (it’s easy, quick, and it works like a charm). This one quick fix can save a lot of water!

Irrigate Efficiently

No sprinkler system is perfect, and many are far from efficient. How many of us fail to adjust our automatic timers, and sometimes irrigate when we don’t really have to? How many of us end up watering the sidewalk as well as the plants? How many of us leave the sprinklers on “just a little longer” because of that one chronically dry spot that never seems to get wet enough? There are all sorts of ways to waste water with sprinklers, so let’s try to save the water we’ve been wasting! Now is the time to take a careful look at your sprinkler system. Are there enough sprinkler heads to get everything wet in the shortest amount of time, without runoff? Maybe some taller plants are blocking some sprinklers (not good). If so, you need to raise those sprinklers up above the foliage so they can do their job properly.

A good test to run requires you first to drink a lot of coffee (or know someone who does!). Once you’ve done that, take a bunch of empty coffee cans and put them around your garden, spaced fairly evenly apart. Then run your sprinklers like you usually would. Did each coffee can collect the same amount of water? Presuming all of the plants in the area need about the same amount of water, that’s the ideal. But probably, you’ll see some wetter areas and some drier areas. Try to adjust your sprinkler system so that the water is more evenly distributed. (An alternative method is simply to plant only very drought-tolerant plants in the dry spots – but that’s something we’ll discuss in Part 3 of this series.)

Go To Manual!

Ask any pilot – when times get tough, sometimes you just have to fly the plane yourself to save your neck! That’s why I don’t have any automated sprinkler systems in my four acre garden. You can save so much water by manually varying both the frequency and duration of your irrigation according to the weather, and this is the kind of major water savings we need right now! Next month, in Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at some irrigation strategies that can play a big part in our 30% water use reduction. Remember, we’re not out to make our plants suffer – we’ll keep them healthy with the water they need. What we will do, however, is save all of that precious water that we really didn’t have to use in the first place!


(originally published in Let’s Talk Plants! March 2008, No.162.)

Watering Smart

As an agricultural water customer, I am being required in 2008 to cut my water use by a whopping 30% over last year, with big penalties in store if I don’t! And it’s not like I was wasting lots of water before! So my garden is definitely on a water diet this year – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let my plants suffer. What I am going to do is pull out every trick I know to save every little bit of water I can!

The best way I know to save water is to “water smart”. Quite simply, this means not watering any plant unless it absolutely needs it, and only giving it just what it needs to stay healthy, never more. It also means doing all the right things in the garden to make sure your plants don’t need as much water.

Don’t Water When It Rains

Although it doesn’t rain much in San Diego, it’s a horrible shame not to take full advantage of free water when we do get it. In fact, not watering your garden if it’s going to rain is the single biggest water-saving technique of all. Unfortunately for us, however, our rainfall is somewhat unpredictable – especially during a dry year, when San Diego “storms” are typically what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might call “known unknowns.” But you’ve got to play the odds if you want to save water, so keep a close eye on the latest weather forecasts during the rainy season, and just don’t water if there’s even a slight chance of rain (if a crucial storm does totally miss us, you can always water later).

Don’t Water If The Plants Don’t Need It

Especially if they’re not avid gardeners, many people in San Diego County way overwater their landscapes – even to the point of watering every day when once a week will do (imagine the total water savings if we could get everyone to “water smart”!). But even water-smart gardeners can find ways to cut back a bit more. Just because the surface of the soil is dry, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your plants need watering. Dig down a few inches, and if the soil is moist, just don’t water!

Of course, how often you water depends a lot on the season, and the weather. In general, plants can get by with being quite dry in the cool, short days of winter – but watering is essential if the days are long and warm, or if there is low humidity and dry winds. A June or July heat wave, for example, can be particularly damaging because the days are just so long, and Santa Ana Winds in the fall can be devastating without sufficient irrigation.

If plants are somewhat dormant, you can usually let them get quite dry with no ill effect. Mediterranean climate natives, for example, really don’t need or want much water in the summer and early fall because that is their natural dormant period. On the other hand, late fall through spring is their natural growth and bloom period, so that’s when you really need to water them if it doesn’t rain.

One very important thing to remember when you do water is to water deeply and thoroughly. Then you won’t have to water nearly as often. Getting back to those folks who water every day, I have actually seen their plants die because they dried up! That’s because they were keeping the surface soil wet, but they weren’t watering long enough to get the water down to where roots should be. Of course, you never want to water so heavily that you get excessive runoff, because that’s only wasting more water. But unless you water deeply, you’ll never encourage your plants to get their roots deep enough to tolerate even a little bit of drought. By watering thoroughly when you do water, your plants will be able to tolerate longer intervals between watering if you need to save water. In my garden, I normally try to put down 1⁄2 inch of water (get those coffee cans out that I talked about in Part 1 of this series) once-a-week when the weather is hot and dry. This year, in order to save water, I’m not going to cut back on that 1⁄2 inch, but I am going try to lengthen that interval to once every ten days, which should save 30% all by itself.

When And How To Water

We hear this tip all the time, but it’s an important water- saving one that bears repeating: don’t run your sprinklers during the heat of the day, or when it’s windy (otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of water getting the air wet, but not the soil!). The best time to water is in the early morning hours, but I like to water in the evening since I don’t like to get up that early in the morning. Speaking of sprinklers, I greatly prefer them to drip irrigation in a fully planted garden. Why? Well for one thing, plants evolve with rain, and sprinklers wash off the plant’s foliage (like rain does), which is so essential for healthy growth and bloom. Also, a sprinkler system gets the spaces between the plants wet (where the roots are, or at least should be) – roots go out folks, not just down, and if the soil is dry all around your plants, those root systems will never be big and healthy, and neither will your plants. If you’re worried about weeds coming up between your plants, just mulch (which you need to do anyway to save water) – but more on that in Part 3 of this series.

There are times, however, when sprinklers aren’t the best way to water your plants – and that’s when the plants are newly planted. Over and over in my own garden, I have proven that hand watering with the hose is the best way to get newly planted plants off to a good start. What I do when I plant is to make a really big planting basin around the new plant and fill that basin twice whenever the plant needs water for at least the first month or two. Newly planted plants just love being soaked, since this makes their roots grow faster and helps them get established quicker. You know where the roots are on a new plant, and that’s where the water should go.

One final thing about any irrigation system, and that is that there will always be some inefficiencies, for whatever reasons. In the old days of wasting water, you might have just run the sprinklers a little longer so that poor little plant in the corner could get wet (while the rest of the garden was practically floating away). This is known as “irrigating to the weakest point in the system,” and we will absolutely not allow it now that we are on a water diet! The new rule is that you must only run your sprinklers for the minimum of time necessary, and you’ll just have to get the hose out and water those dry spots by hand (or with a small hose end sprinkler). This measure alone will save lots and lots of water, and maybe even make your garden look better, not worse!

The Best Time To plant

Big, healthy plants with big, deep root systems need less watering, and look better, too. For so many of our garden plants, the time when their roots are growing actively is in the cool of winter and early spring. This is also the time of year when we (at least sometimes) get free water from the sky – and nothing makes a new plant grow better than rain! The water-saving lesson here is that if you plant early in the season, your plants will be big enough by summer to tolerate our heat and drought without a lot of extra watering on your part. Conversely, if you wait until May or June to plant, your new plants might never get big enough to handle our summer and fall without a heck of a lot of summer watering. I know it’s tempting to wait until “all the flowers are blooming” to buy and plant new plants in your garden – but don’t. Buy and plant now, in March! Just about everything I have ever planted in winter and early spring has always succeeded, but if I wait until late spring to plant, I know I’ll have disappointing failures when the heat comes in summer.

Gardening Tips To Save More Water

If you’ve ever had to go on a diet, you know that you’ve got to cut calories every which way you can – but you’ve also got to exercise more. In the case of our garden “water diet,” “watering smart” is probably the biggest way to save water.

But are there other things you can do in your garden to save more water? Absolutely! (Uh-oh, here comes Mr. Rumsfeld again!) Could a heavy mulch help? Yes indeed! Would better garden design help conserve even more? Heavens to Betsy, yes! All this and more next month, when we continue with Part 3 of The 30% Solution!


(Originally published in Let’s Talk Plants! April 2008, No.163.)

Gardening Tips To Save Water

As an agricultural water customer, I am being required in 2008 to cut my water use by a whopping 30% over last year, with big penalties in store if I don’t! And it’s not like I was wasting lots of water before! So my garden is definitely on a water diet this year – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let my plants suffer. What I am going to do is pull out every trick I know of to save every little bit of water I can!

The first two installments in this series dealt with water management, which is obviously the most important way to save water in the garden. But are there even more ways to save? Well, yes there are! Not just how you water, but how you garden can save you lots of water and make your plants even healthier in the process.

Healthy Soil Means Happier Plants

All the watering in the world won’t make up for unhealthy soil – and I’ve seen plenty of gardens where the plants look crummy no matter how much water you give them. Our soils in San Diego County can be quite challenging to work with, especially if you’ve got the type of “non-soil” that results when an area has been bulldozed. But if you take the time to amend your soil before you plant, your plants will get off to a quick start, and be well-rooted in a hurry. Not only will they look better, but they’ll be much more drought tolerant as well.

Although we don’t ever see it, the root system of any plant is its most important feature. Unhealthy roots simply can’t absorb enough water (no matter how wet the soil is), but healthy roots can do their job well even when the soil dries out a bit. Healthy roots need healthy soil – and that means soil that has both good texture and composition.

Soften Your Soil

Apart from watering, the first question I ask folks when they say that their plants won’t grow is if their soil is hard. And that’s often the problem. Very few plants have roots that are capable of breaking through hard soil – and so the plants just never make enough roots. This is why it’s important to break up your soil as much as possible before you plant, and also do the right things to keep that soil from getting hard again. Whether you use a rototiller, a jackhammer, or just a plain old shovel, first get the soil wet as deep as you can, then wait until it dries out enough so it is workable (sandy soil will be workable almost immediately, whereas heavy clay may take a few to several days before you can work it).

But the work doesn’t stop there. Because our soils and irrigation water are so alkaline, it’s not enough to simply break up the soil. Your soil will just compact and get hard again unless you mix in some organic material such as compost or aged wood shavings, and especially in clay soils, agricultural gypsum. These materials will also quickly get your soil to the neutral or slightly acid level, which is essential for the proper growth of most garden plants. Gypsum in particular can be most effective in keeping your soil soft for at least six months, at which point the organic material is composted enough to do a similar job – and both compost and gypsum can be mixed lightly into the soil on an annual basis to keep your soil healthy (used in moderation, magnesium sulfate and iron-rich fertilizers can help, too).

For more information, a very good and thorough “how to” on amending soils in our climate can be found in the back “Guide To Gardening” section of your Sunset Western Garden Book.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

How important is mulch? Well in our dry climate, you can do everything right when you plant, but if you don’t mulch, you’re just wasting your time. Sure, wheelbarrowing around loads of mulch can seem a daunting job, especially if you’ve got a big area to cover. But you’ll just love the “finished” look that it gives your garden, and how it makes every plant really show off. Even more, you’ll love the weed-free life that mulch can give you. Most importantly, a properly maintained mulch in your garden can cut your water use in half compared to no mulch at all!

By shading the soil, mulch keeps roots cool, which is so important in our hot climate. And most importantly, it stops the sun from drying out the soil, saving you tons of water in the process. Water is a precious commodity in San Diego, and we should use our water only to give the plants what they need. Why waste that water by letting it all evaporate into thin air before your plants can use it?

Mulch can come in many forms, but I prefer organic mulches. Nice, black, ground-up wood compost that’s similar to your soil amendment is probably the best overall, since it enriches the soil quite effectively and also looks fantastic. But this decays fairly quickly, and often must be replenished a couple of times a year. I have big garden areas, and so it’s more practical for me to use a coarse mulch such as the wood chips I get for free from my local tree service. This still keeps the soil healthy, but it breaks down slowly, and only needs to be replenished every two years or so.

Not all mulches are organic. You can also use any of the many types of screened decomposed granite or fine gravel mulches available, which can be much preferable in desert plant landscapes and also wildfire-prone areas. Although they aren’t as effective in retaining moisture and keeping out weeds, and don’t enrich the soil, these inorganic mulches can be quite elegant in appearance, and of course are non-flammable. (Just don’t use coarse, brightly-colored gravels, or we’ll have to send the landscape police after you!)

Whichever type of mulch you use, remember to use enough to solidly cover the ground. I use around 3′′ of wood chips since anything less won’t do the proper job of keeping down weeds and shading the soil. Even if you’re tired, don’t skimp – you’ll be glad you put that extra bit down!

Design For Your Climate

Let’s all stop pretending that we live in a rainy climate! We’re nearly a desert in terms of rainfall, so why grow so many plants and lawns in our gardens that need tons of precious water to survive? It may go without saying, but if you grow plants that naturally come from dry climates, you won’t have to water them as much. Fortunately for us, these include some of the most beautiful plants and flowers in the world (including many of the world’s best hummingbird plants), and so many gardeners around the world would love to be able to grow them like we can! In addition, they all just look so much more appropriate under our sunny San Diego skies!

Shrubby plants and succulents from such regions as our desert Southwest (including northern Mexico), central and south coastal California, southern and western Australia, South Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea are all well-adapted to our climate once they are established and will need far less watering than water-loving annuals and wet-climate perennials and shrubs. Just remember to water your drought tolerant plants regularly their first full year in the ground, since they won’t be drought tolerant at all until they have developed a big root system. But once they have (and you have them well-mulched), they can go a really long time between watering.

Design For Your Site

One final, and perhaps rather obvious tip – and that is to know your garden’s microclimates. Most of us have drier places and wetter places in our gardens just because of their relative exposure to sun and wind. Hot, south-facing slopes, for example, can dry out really quickly no matter what you do, whereas those cool, shady areas under trees or near the house don’t dry out nearly as quickly. Why not just plant really drought tolerant plants in the naturally drier areas, and leave the cooler zones for plants that need a little more water? Then you won’t be fighting your climate, but actually working with it!

Tell Your Friends And Neighbors!

A full half of our precious imported water in San Diego County is used to irrigate our landscapes. Well, that’s what they say. If everyone that lives here read this series and actually did the things I’ve been writing about, how much water could we all save? The answer is – a lot! But most people simply don’t know – or don’t care.

You can help! Tell your friends and tell your neighbors that saving water outdoors is possible and easy if they do the right things. Help them with their gardens and make your own neighborhood more beautiful and responsible in the process! If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that we’ll always have long, dry summers. And we may be in for more water cutbacks in the future. But we’ll never have to stop enjoying our gardens, as long as we follow “The 30% Solution!”


Founding board member of the SDHS, Steve Brigham was our 2009 Horticulturist of the Year. He’s also the author of our book, Ornamental Trees for Mediterranean Climates.


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