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MEETING REPORT: Water Wisdom, Plants & Rebates With Debby Dunn

By Donna Mallen, for Let’s Talk Plants! June 2023.

Debby Dunn's 2023 SD County Fair Get "Out There" Groovy Garden. Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

Water Wisdom, Plants and Rebates with Debby Dunn

In the scant hour of time allotted to her at our June meeting, dynamic Debby Dunn entertained us with more than an hour and a half’s worth of valuable information about maximizing the efficiency of our water usage in our gardens and homes.

Speaking to us in her current capacity as Water Resources Specialist for the San Diego County Water Authority, she shared her insights into state of our local water supply. Debby is also a Master Gardener and former Water Conservation Administrator for the City of Beverly Hills, with decades of experience in designing gardens and conserving water.

You might want to watch the YouTube replay of this month’s meeting to catch all of the details and recommendations she gave us, even if you attended the meeting.

As our Water Conservation Coach, Debby alarmed us with the astounding fact that a running toilet can waste 200 gallons of water per hour - 292,800 gallons in two months! She motivated us to test our toilets for leaks (easily done with a few drops of food coloring) and fix our flappers.

She gratified us with the good news that using our dishwashers saves water – typically a dishwasher load uses 5 gallons of water, while running water in your sink takes 1.5 gallons per minute multiplied by the minutes it will take you to wash and rinse all those dishes individually.

However, it is our outdoor usage that drives our water meters to the maximum. Typically, in San Diego, over 60% of the water used for a single-family home is spent outdoors, vs. 55% indoor consumption (although one shower head typically uses the same amount of water as one landscape sprinkler head).

Turning to our landscaping, she showed us a gallery of her favorite water-wise plants, yet beautiful plants for our yards. Personally, she prefers plants that do not have sharp stickers, and prefers her succulents to be planted in pots. Her advice is to pick the plants that you like, so long as they are the right plants for the place where you intend to put them.

In selecting them, keep in mind, she says, that in the first year they will sleep, in the second year they will creep and in the third year they will leap. And they’ll keep on leaping if you fail to read the label that tells you their ultimate size. Avoid invasive growers that will cover their neighbors and escape into the canyon. Or big trees that will pull up your sidewalk or foundation if they don’t have the room that they need in the space where you unfortunately planted them.

She recommends -

For lawn alternatives:

- Kurapia, Lippia nodiflora, which has a low, mounding habit that harbors fewer weeds than --- Dymondia, Dymondia margaretae, which is flatter and requires no mowing.

For flowering plants:

- Verbena De La Mina, Verbena lilacina 'De La Mina', 1’ – 2’ high x 3’ - 4’ wide. Lots of fragrant purple flowers year round.

- Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia. San Diego native. Large evergreen shrub/tree. 6’ x 12’ high, 4’ x 8’ wide. Red berries that feed birds in the cool months.

- Howard McMinn Manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora 'Howard McMinn'. 6’ high x 8’ to 10’ wide.

- Narrow Leaf Milkweed, 3’ high x 3’ wide. This is the one, Asclepias fascicularis, that is safe for us to plant locally for Monarchs. Blooms June to September.

- Baja Fairy Duster, Calliandra californica. 4’ – 6’ high x 6’ x 8’ wide. Native with red flowers.

Other natives recommended for landscaping color:

- Heuchera, Coral Bells, Red Buckwheat, Ceanothus (sizes vary with the variety).

Plants that are not native here, but do well in our climate:

- Grevillea – size and flower color vary by variety. She recommends Superb, Robyn Gordon, Long John and Moonlight.

- Salvia leucantha, Mexican Bush Sage.

- Autum Sage, Salvia gregii, keep it small, instead of leggy, by limiting water.

- Prostrate Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'.

- Trailing Lantana, Lantana montevidensis.

- Statice, Limonium perezii.

- Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, (not really a Yucca).

- Dwarf/Little John Bottlebrush, Callistemon 'Little John'.

- Nandina domestica (smaller varieties, which are 2’ – 3’ high and wide: Firepower, Compacta Gulf Stream) (taller variety, 4’-8’ high. Good for borders, narrow places, against house)

- Pride of Madeira, Echium candicans, (can be invasive).


Donna Mallen is the SDHS board member in charge of programs.

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