Landscaping and gardening in a drought is tough and expensive, so I started looking for ways to save water and money.
“The first thing to do is evaluate the irrigation system,” said New Way Landscape and Tree Service vice president Bob Rogers (858-505-8300; newwaypro.com). New Way offers water-management services and landscape design for businesses and homeowners’ associations, and they like to start with “the low-hanging fruit. We see what isn’t working right: fix any leaks, adjust sprinkler heads if they’re putting out too much water, maybe replace them with sprinklers that offer more adjustable settings. A lot of systems just haven’t been maintained, and over the years, they can become unbalanced — the precipitation rates are incorrect.”
Rogers stressed the need to get the right amount of water for your particular landscape; also, that some landscapes are more appropriate for San Diego than others. “The Metropolitan Water District has a list called the Nifty Fifty: ground covers, scrubs, and succulents that are proven winners as far as being attractive and also surviving with less water. But we don’t rubber-stamp any plant; it has to fit with the design of the property.”
Many people, said Rogers, are gravitating toward weather-based systems with so-called smart controllers ($165–$198 per controller, available from Rainbird) that are able to respond to soil and plant needs and adjust water dispersal accordingly. “You put in what plant material you have in what zone, and what kind of soil,” and the controller reacts accordingly. “But you have to do the work and enter the data. I like to say that the smartest controller is one that has a qualified person managing it. So, if you go with that, you should spend some time learning to use it. Often, the suppliers will offer training, or you can find video tutorials online.”
I got a more small-scale bit of counsel from Veronica Lavarello, owner of Pretty Pots and Beyond (619-488-2771; prettypotsandbeyond.com) and a big fan of ollas. “Ollas are non-sealed terracotta jars. They’ve been used in the Southwest for over 2000 years, and around the world for over 4000. The technology was lost, but now that we have drought basically everywhere, it’s coming back.”
Here’s how they work: “You bury them next to plants for irrigation. You dig a hole and bury the olla in the ground, leaving the neck exposed. You fill it with water, place the top on it, and plant around it. The roots of the plants press against the pot, and the pressure works to suck moisture through the porous wall of the jar. Every drop of water will be used by the plant, and the plant will take just what it needs. They’ll save you at least 40 percent on water usage. Nothing beats them, not even drip irrigation.”
Lavarello did note that thick, woody roots could be strong enough to crush the pot and suggested using them in vegetable or flower gardens. She also gave me some maintenance tips. “Every season, dig up your ollas and scrub them with vinegar and a toothbrush to remove any mineral deposits. You can also put fertilizer in your olla. It will dissolve in the water and feed your plants.” The ollas she sells come from Tecate; $20 gets you a three-gallon size. Available at Valhalla Nursery in El Cajon (619-590-1025) or Rancho San Diego Nursery in El Cajon (619-401-1151). You can request different sizes, and you can also get two-gallon ollas at City Farmers Nursery in City Heights (619-284-6358; cityfarmersnursery.com) for $29.95.
Finally, for my potted plants, I turned to Architectural Supplements’ sub-irrigation systems. “It’s a self-contained unit,” explained a rep, “and it comes in sizes similar to common nursery pots. You can fit it right inside your larger, more decorative containers. There’s a plate at the bottom with a fill tube. On top of that, you’ve got little balls of LECA — light-expanded clay aggregate. Then the soil and the plant go on top of that. You put water in the fill tube, and it travels to the tray at the bottom. The LECA then pulls the water into the soil as needed through capillary action. You can tell if you need to add water by looking at the float on the fill tube. You usually have to water only every two to three weeks.” Canyon Pottery (858-279-2600; canyonpottery.com) offers AS sub-irrigation pots from 12 to 17 inches ($6–$50).