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Maintenance and care of your new garden

Quiz directions

Like any new landscape, water-efficient plants require careful attention during their initial establishment period. What we want during the “establishment period” is for the root system to become expansive – in other words, we care less about how well the plant looks above ground, but more about how well it’s doing underground. Once its root system becomes well-established (hence, “establishment period”), your new plants should thrive.

We recommend you follow a few simple Tree of Life Nursery guidelines to ensure proper establishment:

  1. Be careful not to overwater your new plants. If the ground stays soggy for too long, plant-damaging disease can develop. Let the first few inches of soil dry out between waterings, but do not let the root ball dry out during the first 2-3 months of a plant’s establishment period.
  2. When deciding about whether infrequent, deep soaking is preferable to short, frequent watering, consider the plant’s root system. Does your plant have relatively short roots such as with bunch grass? Or more expansive root systems as you would expect with most shrubs and trees?
  3. You many need to water your new plants 1-3 times a week if you plant in the summer. Once established, you can water deeply once every two to three weeks in the summer, depending on the kind of plant and the size of its root system.
  4. Rainwater alone is often enough to satisfy a water-efficient plant in the winter. When possible, winter is the best time to plant native plants in order to get the benefit of that extra rainwater. During the spring, you may want to water on occasion to supplement infrequent periods of rain.
  5. Avoid watering during the hottest parts of the day, as this encourages evaporation and is not necessarily efficient for the plant. Also, as a general rule it’s a good idea to avoid getting water on the leaves in the late evening.
  6. To retain moisture, use composted mulch around the plant, but not up against the stem or trunk. This helps prevent evaporation, encourages the growth of beneficial organisms, and suppresses the growth of weeds.


Most water-efficient plants will flourish without the use of artificial fertilizers. If you choose to use fertilizer, be sure to use an “all purpose” type of plant food during cool season plantings (October through May). Generally, you can cut the amount of fertilizer given for general ornamental plants in half when applying fertilizers to water-efficient plants. Fertilizers often contain high levels of nitrogen, which can be environmentally harmful in high concentrations. This excess nitrogen is then carried through our storm drains and deposited directly in our coastal waters. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether or not to use fertilizer on your landscape.


You may need to thin and cut back certain types of plants in order to direct growth of the maturing plant. Pruning a plant often stresses the system but encourages new growth and flowering. It is not necessary to prune all plants. Some people like the appearance of a well-maintained, pruned garden, while others like a more natural look. Ask your local nursery if any of your plants require pruning and, if so, what time of year they should be pruned and by how much.

Long-term maintenance

Many homeowners commit to a landscape retrofit project and think they’re done once it’s in place.  However, the landscape still requires regular monitoring and maintenance (but it will be less work). The more effort you put into maintaining your landscape in its early stages, the less you will have to maintain it in the long run. No more mowing, edging, or spending countless hours maintaining a water-thirsty grass lawn. Consider adding a couple of inches of organic mulch (preferably composted mulch) annually and periodically weed your garden to avoid unwanted plants from getting established. It is also important to occasionally check your irrigation system to ensure that it is running efficiently without any leaks and make any repairs promptly.

Plant installation

Quiz directions

Installing the plants is done after you have installed almost everything else, including the hardscape and irrigation system.

Set the plants, while still in their containers, in their approximate location (per your planting design plan, if you have one), stand back and review. Make any adjustments to their locations at this time to avoid having to dig up and relocate any plants. Note:  Many water-efficient landscapes look sparse for the first few years, but will fill in over time; so be sure to allow proper spacing to allow each plant to grow to its full size.

Dig the planting hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the plant container. If you have heavy clay soil, you may want to increase the size of the hole. This step is very important if you have clay soil; the impenetrable clay may become like a clay pot, preventing the plant from extending its roots into the soil and trapping water in the “tub” where it will destroy the plant.

Fill the bottom of the hole with native soil that has been amended (composted material). Put in enough soil, and compact it, so the plant crown will be just above ground-level.

Pre-irrigate the planting hole: fill it with water and allow it to drain into the soil, then add root stimulant (bought at any nursery or big-box store).

Remove the plant from the container, and avoid damaging the roots. If you find the plant had become root-bound (the roots circled around the inside of the container), gently uncurl the roots.

Fill in the rest of the hole with a mix of native soil, high-quality amendments (composted material), and a little starter-fertilizer. You want to use about 60% native soil, so this area becomes a transition zone from the potting soil the plant came in and the native soil around it.

For trees and sometimes shrubs, create a “watering basin” around the base of the plant. Form excess backfill into a circular berm, or mound of earth shaped into a ring around the tree, to direct water to the roots. Slowly fill the area with water and allow it to drain, and then repeat this. 

Cover the planting area with a 3-inch deep layer of bark mulch. Keep a few inches clear of mulch around the plant stems to prevent rot. Mulch has many benefits; it can help suppress weeds, enrich the soils, protect plant roots from compaction, provide a finished look to your garden, and conserve water!

For more detailed instructions on plant installation, please see the Tree of Life Nursery Planting Guide.

Soil preparation

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Before you plant your new garden, understand your soil. Healthy soil will help your plants get established and thrive. Soil texture and organic content should all be taken into consideration in preparation of your new landscape.

Soil is a critical component of a healthy landscape. A soil test will show you how to properly condition your soil before you plant, so you can create a healthy environment for plant material and help save water and reduce maintenance in the long run.  The San Diego County Water Authority provides a quick and easy soil texture “squeeze” test in “A Homeowner’s Guide to a WaterSmart Landscape”.

Drainage is one of the most important characteristics of your garden’s soil. Soil needs to be porous enough to allow air and water to travel in between pore spaces and, ultimately, to the roots of the plants. Sandy soils tend to have good drainage, while clay soils have poor drainage.

Clay soils

Moist clay soil, when pressed into a ball, will hold together well and not crumble when dropped. There is little or no presence of grit or large coarse particles and you can form a long ribbon when pressed between your thumb and index finger.

Clay soils are made up of tiny, microscopic mineral particles packed closely together that leave little pore space for air. These poorly aerated soils absorb water slowly, and irrigation water may puddle or runoff. These soils have poor drainage (downward movement of water). Once wet, clay soils hold a lot of water but in a manner that locks the water away from plants.

Sandy soils

Moist sandy soil will form a cast but barely hold together, and will only form a short ribbon, if any, when pressed between the thumb and index finger; you can feel the coarse grit of the relatively large particles. Sandy soil is well aerated and drains well. Sandy soils absorb water quickly when irrigated. They hold little water and dry quickly. Because sandy soils are well drained, nutrients are lost from the soil more quickly than to clay, thus, requiring more frequent feeding and watering.

Loam soils

Moist loam soil will form a ball easily and will make a ribbon of approximately one inch or more. You may feel some grit from a small amount of sand particles that are present. A handful of loam forms a pliable ball that breaks apart with a gentle touch. Loam soils are easy to work with. Loam soils are an ideal balance between large and small mineral particles, giving loam soil the title of ideal garden soil. In this type of soil, no single soil particle predominates, hence offering a combination of large and small pore spaces. Loam soil drains well, and doesn’t dry out very quickly. Nutrients will be lost at a moderate rate. Watering frequency will also be moderate compared to sand.

You can change the texture of the soil in your garden, but it will require work. A less costly alternative is to amend your soil. You need to work with what you have, and make what you have work for you.

Ideal soil amendments

The ideal soil amendment for most situations is composted organic matter; it adds nutrients to the soil and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. It encourages healthy populations of beneficial soil microorganisms. However, composed organic matter, if purchased, costs more than non-composted material (such as wood chips).

Non-composted organic matter is also helpful, breaking up the soil and increasing its water-holding capacity. Soils and microorganisms need organic matter, and organic matter needs microbes for decomposition (composting).

In heavy clay soils, organic matter increases the porosity of the soil, making for better soil aeration. Inorganic amendments, such as gypsum and lime, also help loosen clay soil. In sandy soils, organic matter gets into the pore spaces to act like a sponge to hold water and nutrients. It’s a good idea to rototill the new garden area if this was not already done as part of the grass removal process. This helps work the amendments into the soil, by completely breaking up the soil about six inches deep.

Kill your lawn dead, dead, dead

Quiz directions

Properly removing your existing grass lawn is one of the most important components of installing a WaterSmart landscape. If the existing grass lawn is not completely killed, including the roots that might be deep underground, it will come back and ruin your new landscape. Premature planting of your new garden will mean years of follow-up weed removal, which you do NOT want to do. So make sure the lawn is dead, dead, dead!

There are a few different methods to kill your lawn, including herbicide application and solarization. Before you kill your lawn, you must:

Determine what kind of grass you have

  • Cool season turf: Marathon, Fescue, Bluegrass, or grasses that stay green in the winter
  • Warm season turf: St. Augustine, Bermuda, Zoysia, or any rhizomatous grass (grows horizontally under or along the ground and often sends out roots and shoots) that is brown in the winter

Determine your method of removal

  • Cool Season Grasses. Here are a few options of how to kill cool season grasses:
    • Smother with mulch, no plastic
    • Strip and flip using a sod-cutting machine
    • Herbicide
  • Warm Season Grasses are harder to kill, especially in the winter when they are dormant, because you have to kill all the roots. Here are a few methods of removal:
    • Solarization (cover with plastic)
    • Herbicide

When in doubt, assume you have at least some warm season grass, so you’ll have no regrets later.

Some methods for killing the grass lawn

  1. Natural turf removal:  A natural way to remove turf and preserve the soil’s ecology is to strip the turf, and for the next two weeks, water the area to encourage grass to re-sprout, and remove all new growth.
  2. Solarization:  If you have six to eight weeks time, a preferred alternative is to use the process of solarization, which involves covering the area and using the sun to heat up the soil to levels that will kill the weed seeds without damaging the healthy soil microorganism.
    1. Cover your entire lawn with black plastic sheets and weigh down with bricks or rocks.
    2. The lawn must stay covered for at least 6 weeks to ensure that it has been properly killed.
    3. Water and fertilize the (hopefully) dead lawn for a couple of weeks after removing the plastic to make sure all the grass is dead.
    4. Mow the dead grass to a very short length and remove with a sod cutter or shovel.
  3. Herbicide
    According to the UC Guide to Healthy Lawns, the most effective way to kill your grass lawn is through the application of a nonselective herbicide, like glyphosate. Glyophosate is the main ingredient in “Roundup”, which is readily available at most garden supply stores. Since Bermuda grass and some other grasses are dormant in the winter, they must be treated with herbicide when they are actively growing in the remainder of the year. While herbicides are undeniably effective, they also pose threats to the environment if used improperly. It is up to the consumer to determine the costs and benefits of herbicide use. Here are some key points to consider if you plan on using this technique:
  1. Water, grow, spray, kill; repeat. Apply herbicide while your turf is actively growing (non-winter months) to ensure proper absorption. Don’t apply if it is expected to rain within 24 hours; don’t water for 24 hours.
  2. Do not disturb the sprayed area for at least 7 days, as it may take up to 7 days for the plant to fully absorb the herbicide.
  3. Once the grass has died, mow the lawn at a very low setting—as close to the bare soil as possible—and collect the resulting material.
  4. Water and fertilize the (hopefully) dead lawn for a couple more of weeks; spraying any live shoots that appear. Remove remaining material with a sod cutter or shovel.

NOTE: In order to prevent unnecessary pollution and the destruction of non-targeted plant material, it is important that herbicide is not applied in windy conditions or 24 hours before a rain event. Visit Cornell University’s Pesticide Management Education Program for more information on glyphosate. Before applying any herbicide, be sure to read and understand the label. When it comes to herbicide, the label is the law.

Tree of Life Nursery provides an easy-to-read guide on how to kill your lawn.

The techniques listed above are not meant to be exhaustive. Learn how to kill your lawn in greater detail with UC Guide to Healthy Lawns or visit the UC Sonoma County Master Gardeners for more information.

Design: Hardscape

Quiz directions

Hardscapes are structures within your landscape design such as terraces, patios, walls and paths. They are features constructed of hard materials including brick, stone, wood, and concrete. However, it is important to use permeable materials, or place impermeable materials (such as bricks and pavers) with enough space to allow water to infiltrate between them. Allowing water to percolate into the soil reduces or eliminates runoff and helps irrigate the soil.

Hardscape can create architectural interest by changing the shape or elevation of your garden, as is the case with short retaining walls and terraces, or direct the eye, as well as the foot, by forming permeable walkways that meander through your landscape.

Every southern California home should take advantage of our incredible weather by expanding our living space into the outdoors through the use of patios, lovely dining or sitting areas. These areas are great for entertaining and just plain relaxing and also help ease the transition between house and garden. 

The California-Friendly Gardening for San Diego County and BeWaterWise.com websites have a lot of examples of beautiful, highly functional hardscapes.  Visit your local big box hardware store for a good selection of hardscape, or visit a specialty store to view a much wider choice of options.

Choosing the right plants

Quiz directions

Choosing the right plants will be one of the toughest decisions to make because there are so many potential factors to consider.  This is where spending time at nurseries, on the Internet, and observing what grows well in your neighborhood will really pay off.

When selecting plants for your garden, it is important to (1) understand the characteristics (such as the amount of sunlight) of the location to determine what plants are suited for that area and (2) understand the water needs of existing plants in that location – to make sure your additions can be placed

Some important things to consider:

  • If you have clay soil, certain plants may never do well.
  • Whether the garden is predominantly in sun or shade.
  • How hardy do the plants have to be (do you have a green thumb, or should the plants be nearly indestructible?)
  • Are you looking to create a garden of a certain theme, such as a hummingbird or butterfly garden, or succulent garden, or capture a southwestern U.S. style or casual coastal?
  • Do the colors or plants need to complement your home’s design or exterior paint?
  • Color of foliage and color of blooms and time of year of the blooms.
  • Select plants that will have room to grow to their full size to avoid overcrowding or the need for excessive pruning.
  • How tall and wide should plants be when mature (usually taller as you get close to tall structures such as the house, smaller as you get closer to smaller “structures” such as sidewalks and walkways)?
  • How much variety or uniformity of color, size and shape are you looking for?
  • Are the plants evergreen or deciduous?
  • Can you benefit from deciduous trees near south-facing walls, which help warm the house in the winter and keep it cool in the summer?
  • Do the plants attract critters you might not like, such as bees?
  • Are members of your family allergic to certain plants?
  • Can plants you’re considering be toxic to kids or pets?
  • Avoid invasive plants.

Visit California-Friendly Gardening for San Diego County to help you with plant selection.  This site offers beautiful pictures and specific characteristics for each plant. You can save items that you like by clicking on the “Add to My Plant List” button.  This allows you to go back when you are finished browsing and print out a list of your selections. You can even print the list out by hydrozones. A hydrozone is a landscape practice that groups plants with similar water requirements together. Also try the short online class at BeWaterWise.com.This short course on Plant Selection will elaborate on the list of things to consider to help you narrow your choices. Also, you may wish to consult with an arborist regarding your existing trees, or trees that you are considering for your new landscape.

Choosing the right irrigation system

Quiz directions

Did you know that about half of the water used at the average home goes towards landscape irrigation, and that about half of the landscape water is wasted? Most sprinkler systems are inefficient and tend to waste a lot of water.

The most water-efficient irrigation system is watering by hand, which tends to use the least amount of water on landscapes. The drawback with this method is that people are not always available when the plants need watering, so the latter become unhealthy and the former unhappy. A  WaterSmart landscape incorporates the most water-efficient plants, requiring no more than once per week watering, even during the summer (certain short-rooted plants in hot sunny parts of the landscape).

But when the convenience of an in-ground irrigation system is needed, it’s important to know that different types of systems are more water-efficient than others.  Below are the major types of water-efficient irrigation systems.

  1. Drip Irrigation
    Drip irrigation is a precise, slow, direct system of applying water to the soil, which makes 100% of the water available to the plant.  Where drip systems release so many gallons of water per hour, traditional sprayheads release up to four or more gallons per minute. The environmental and water-saving benefits of drip include decreased run-off, evaporation, and overspray. Drip irrigation is often preferred where there are relatively few plants spread over a large area (for example, a few large bushes with a lot of open space between them) or where there are hard-to-water areas such as narrow planters. When installing drip, a device to lower the water pressure and a special filter to keep the system from clogging up must be included. Click here (http://www.dripirrigation.ca/) for more information on drip irrigation.
  2. Bubblers
    Bubblers are a form of precise watering that deliver water deep into the soil – hence, it is especially useful around plants that have deep roots, such as trees. Bubblers are also useful in certain planter boxes where traditional sprinklers will not work. Bubblers are durable, require little maintenance, require minimal filtration, minimize overspray and evaporation, and have an easily adjustable flow rate.
  3. Stream Rotor Pop-ups
    Stream rotors replace traditional pop-up sprayheads by screwing the old top (the nozzle) off the pop-up and screwing the stream rotor back in its place. Compared to traditional sprayheads, stream rotors are fairly water conserving and only release about 25 percent of the water per minute; reducing evaporation and reducing runoff. Stream rotors work well where there’s need to water a lot of plants that have fairly short root systems, like many groundcovers and bunchgrasses. The alternative irrigation system is to run an extensive drip system.

Smart Controller:  Upgrade to a Smart Controller (often called a weather-based controller), which is an automatic controller (also called a timer or clock) that is either weather-based or has a moisture detection system that automatically adjusts watering schedule in response to environmental changes. Smart controllers have the ability to turn off your sprinklers when it rains and increase the frequency and/or duration of watering in hotter weather. Locate the controller in a place that is easy for you to access, such as the garage.

Water Pressure:  Check your available water pressure to ensure that you choose the right irrigation equipment for your home. To determine your water pressure, follow one of these two steps:  (1) Contact your local retail water purveyor and request a pressure reading; (2) Check your pressure with a gauge (available at your local landscape supply store) at a hose bib. If your house has a hose bib located on the water line before the line enters the house, test the pressure at that location as it will tell you the available pressure before water passes through the pressure regulator for the house. It is important to identify your available water pressure so you can select equipment that is optimized for that operating pressure. If your pressure is high (above 70 psi), a pressure regulator may be needed to avoid misting. If your pressure is low (under 30 psi), drip irrigation would be the ideal choice as it has a lower operating pressure.

Important:  If you use more than one type of irrigation, do not mix different sprinkler types in one zone.

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