Design your WaterSmart Landscape

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Even though you are not required to submit landscape design plans, it helps to have it as a reference for your plant and irrigation elements.

You can have a simple, hand-drawn design that uses simple icons to represent landscape elements, such as circles to show where trees will go. When thinking about the design of your new landscape, don’t forget to take advantage of all the landscape resources we have developed for you.

Explore our online flipbook, “A Homeowner's Guide to a WaterSmart Landscape” that offers step-by-step instructions for do-it-yourself homeowners who want to convert their landscapes into more water-efficient ones. Also, check out our RESOURCES  tab on this website for helpful tips.

It’s worth mentioning again that there is an excellent “How To” course. This class leads you step-by-step through the drawing of your plans. We highly recommend you take this short on-line class prior to developing your plans. Of course you always have the option of hiring a professional landscape designer/architect.

Budgeting for Success

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It’s very important to get a rough, yet realistic, estimate of the cost of your project before you start spending money; we’ve all heard the horror stories about the kitchen remodel that stopped with the work only partially complete because homeowners grossly underestimated the cost of the projects and ran out of money.  This does not have to happen to you and your new landscape if you take a little time to plan it out.

Two of the most important factors related to cost are: (1) whether you plan on using expensive materials (exotic plants and stone, for example) and (2) whether you plan on doing most of the work yourself or hiring others to do it.  We have found that you can expect to pay anywhere from less than $5 per square foot to over $20, depending on your answers to these two questions.

If considering hiring others to do the work, it’s important to get the right person for the job.  One of the best ways to do this is to find landscapes that you admire, and ask those homeowners who they worked with (landscape designer/architect and/or installer) and whether they would recommend that person.  If you find a professional you might be interested in hiring, ask that person for references.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about cost.

  1. Cost of design:  The WaterSmart program requires commercial, industrial, or institutional customers to submit a set of landscape design plans developed by a professional.

    When it comes to developing landscape designs, you have options:

  • Hire a professional
    Costs vary widely depending on the size of your landscape, if you collaborate with a landscape designer or architect, and their experience.
  • Get help from your regional garden
    Regional garden like the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College and the San Diego Botanic Garden often offer one-to-one design consultations and/or design workshops that walk homeowners through the design process.
  • Utilize landscape design software
    Purchase do-it-yourself landscape design software off the internet for under $100.
  • Take a free design course at
    This online class leads do-it-yourselfers through a step-by-step process of plan drawings.
  1. Cost of killing and removing the existing lawn:  The most labor-intensive part of the process may be removing the existing lawn.  Although killing it may be time consuming, it’s not necessarily physically demanding. But removing the dead grass can be a lot of work as it usually requires removing the top two to four inches of soil. Hiring someone to do this may cost about $500-$900, depending on the size of the lawn.
  2. Cost of the irrigation system:  It takes a new water-efficient garden one or two years to get “established”, that is, for the plants and root systems to significantly mature. Once established, a WaterSmart landscape will require much less water than during its establishment period. Some of the factors to consider when estimating the cost of irrigating the new landscape include:
  • Will you be able to use an existing irrigation system, with minor improvements, to meet the lower water needs of your new WaterSmart landscape?
  • Do you want to install a completely new, very efficient irrigation system such as a drip system?
  • Can you do most of the work yourself or do you need to hire someone?
  • Do you want a fully automated system or are you willing to invest the time necessary to do a lot of the watering yourself?
  1. Cost of hardscape:  Hardscape can be a wonderful addition to most landscapes: new walkways, patios for outside entertaining or dining, decorative planters that add interest to your landscape.  Hardscape features can add the most pleasure to a garden by increasing livable space and creating a peaceful place to relax.  Another benefit to most hardscapes is they require little maintenance: no watering, mowing, fertilizing, etc.  (Please remember:  your WaterSmart landscape can contain NO impermeable hardscape such as concrete; any hardscape you add must allow water to infiltrate into the soil.)

    There are two basic cost issues related to adding hardscape.  First, the cost of material can range from a couple of dollars per square foot to more than five or six dollars depending on the choice of materials (such as inexpensive brick vs. flagstone).

    The second cost issue is whether you will install the hardscape yourself (zero labor cost) or pay someone to do it (usually several dollars per square foot.).  As always, when considering paying someone else to do the work, check their references – that’s the best indicator of whether you will be happy with their work or not.

    There’s a lot of information about hardscapes at local hardware and specialty stores and on the Internet.  This research will help determine whether it’s a project you can handle yourself or if you need to hire someone.

  1. Cost of plants:  Important factors related to the cost of plants are:
  • Common vs. exotic: Exotic plants will cost more, common plants less. While it’s fun to add a few uncommon plants, they can get pricy.
  • Less mature vs. full grown plants:  Fairly young plants of a particular species will cost less than larger, more mature individuals that a nursery has had to “nurse” for several years.  Other than trees, many plants can achieve close to full size in one to three years. Some experts believe it’s healthier for plants if they are purchased young and allowed to mature in the soil that will become their permanent home, as opposed to maturing in a pot.
  • Labor:  Expect to pay about $3 to $7 per plant for installation.


Resources to help you plan your WaterSmart landscape

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The Internet has an abundance of free information about water-efficient landscaping, from instructions on how to kill your lawn to guidelines for efficient irrigation methods.  Begin your search with the Resources Tab  on this website, where we have listed many of our favorite sites.

Be sure to visit our website, which contains before and after photos of beautiful landscapes, and includes the design plans and names of plants as well as our “A Homeowner’s Guide to a WaterSmart Landscape”.

Two other terrific sites are: California-Friendly Gardening for San Diego County and Garden Spot. In addition to photos of beautiful landscapes, both sites have extensive on-line databases of water-efficient plants, including photos and information about the plants, such as size, color of blooms, whether they attract wildlife such as butterflies, and more.

The Garden Spot also hosts free on-line “California Friendly Landscape and Gardening Classes”.

Another resource is very close to home.  Remember the old saying “imitation is the highest form of flattery?” Flatter your neighbors. A sure-fire way to end up with a landscape you’ll love is to simply copy existing landscapes that you admire. Walk around your neighborhood.  Identify what it is you like about a particular landscape; the plants, rocks, mulch, seating area, etc. If you’re feeling bold, knock on the front door of these homes and ask about their experience, which designer and/or contractor they used, etc. You’ll find most homeowners take pride in their landscape and love to talk about it.

Stores, nurseries and botanical gardens are other good sources of ideas.  Non-plant material, such as pavers, can greatly enhance a landscape. 

For plants, you can explore local nurseries to see what’s in season (be sure to check the Resources Tab for San Diego area nurseries). But for the widest selection of water-efficient plants, go to nurseries that specialize in them. Most of these nurseries maintain informative websites, including Tree of Life Nursery, Las Pilitas, California Native Plant Society, and Theodore Payne Foundation (google them and see for yourself!).

If you deserve a relaxing stroll through beautiful landscapes, take a short trip to one of our local botanical gardens to see the absolute beauty of water-efficient plants. Local gardens include the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, San Diego Botanic Garden, and South Bay Botanic Garden.

Finally, professionals experienced in water-efficient landscapes can be a terrific choice. Be sure to check out some completed projects before committing to work with them to make sure their concept of “beautiful” is the same as yours.

Your WaterSmart Landscape project is very important

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Thank you for your interest in the WaterSmart Turf Replacement program (WaterSmart). This brief tutorial was developed to help make your important project even more successful. Your new project will benefit both you and the San Diego region in many ways in addition to conserving water.

Preserve our limited drinking water

Southern California’s water supplies have been permanently reduced. Your new WaterSmart landscape may permanently reduce your need for outdoor irrigation by as much as 40 percent!

Protect our upstream environment

Half the drinking water consumed in Southern California is imported through hundreds of miles of aqueducts from environmentally sensitive ecosystems. By conserving water in San Diego, you will help reduce the pressure to extract more water from northern California’s Sacramento Delta and from the Colorado River.

Protect our coastal waters

WaterSmart landscapes minimize runoff, reducing pollution to our coastal watersheds.  The runoff from lawns often contains pollutants such as animal waste, grass clippings, fertilizers and herbicides. This runoff flows into storm drains where it is transported directly into our coastal waters. Your WaterSmart landscape will reduce the runoff and the pollution load by greatly reducing the landscape’s need for water, using efficient watering systems that create little to no runoff, demanding less chemical treatments, using compost and other material to enrich the soil and slow the flow of water, and, when possible, grading the landscape to keep rainwater on-site. 

Beautify our neighborhoods

A well-designed WaterSmart landscape enhances the appearance of your property, transforming it into a vibrant neighborhood showcase. WaterSmart landscapes incorporate richly colored and textured elements and beautiful plants that naturally thrive in the San Diego County’s Mediterranean climate, many of which provide food, habitat and other benefits to birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Reduce yard maintenance

A WaterSmart landscape often reduces or eliminates the need for weekly mowing and use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.  Other than occasional watering and weeding, your WaterSmart Landscape will require less maintenance – freeing you up to enjoy the beautiful new landscape!

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