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San Diego’s New Water Conservation Garden

Articles: San Diego’s New Water Conservation Garden
A dry streambed of pebbles and boulders leads past the watering can kiosk through the entry gates to a small pool filled by a trickle of water from an aqueduct pipe. Photographs by Robert E Younger
A dry streambed of pebbles and boulders leads past the watering can kiosk through the entry gates to a small pool filled by a trickle of water from an aqueduct pipe. Photographs by Robert E Younger

Where water is missing, life is all but impossible. Where water is scarce, nature improvises.

Plants, soil, light, air—and water: the timeless ingredients of a garden. Arid Southern California challenges gardeners to create pleasing outdoor spaces with only a trickle of rain and minimal dependence on precious imported water supplies. It’s an ambitious but rewarding task for those savvy enough to take advantage of nature’s own water-saving adaptations and apply proven principles of water-wise gardening.

That is the premise behind The Water Conservation Garden, four acres of interpretive exhibits and commentary located on the campus of Cuyamaca College, just east of San Diego. Far from the stereotypical rocks and cactus most people envision as low-water landscaping, The Water Conservation Garden proves handsomely that savvy planning, intelligent maintenance, and carefully chosen irrigation methods can yield beautiful and water-wise results.

First envisioned in 1991 by the East San Diego County Water Conservation Committee, The Garden was proposed as an important conservation tool in a metropolitan area that sees only ten inches of annual rainfall and imports ninety percent of its tap water, primarily from the Colorado River and from Northern California. Living literally at the end of the pipeline, San Diegans must develop alternative water supplies through every possible means, including conservation.

Since fully half of the average San Diego household’s water consumption ends up outside on the landscape, the committee reasoned that even modest reductions in irrigation, when multiplied by thousands of homes, would create a major “new” source of available water, even as San Diego County continues to expand in population. (Some estimates predict another 1.2 million residents over the next fifteen years.)

More locally available water would reduce the need for additional imported supplies and costly new water-management facilities and storage tanks. In fact, the Helix and Otay Water Districts, co-developers of The Water Conservation Garden, anticipate sufficient savings in infrastructure construction costs alone to more than offset The Garden’s price tag.

As the case for a demonstration water conservation garden in San Diego came together, so did area garden enthusiasts, local government officials and water district managers who formed a board to oversee the project. The Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District donated a four-acre tract of land at the entrance to the Cuyamaca campus. Helix and Otay joined forces to manage the design and construction process. Local corporations, foundations and individual sponsors pledged their financial support. The final plan called for a water-conservation learning center for San Diego homeowners, and a showcase of drought-tolerant plants representing both native Californian species and exotic plants from other arid or semi-arid regions of the world.

To transform the vision into reality, the committee turned to a talented team of San Diego designers, contractors, and horticulturists. Deneen Powell Atelier, Inc (DPA) took on the challenging task of designing The Water Conservation Garden. This involved conceptualizing and organizing the necessary range of teaching topics; laying out the spaces, exhibits, and paths; choosing and placing more than 600 kinds of plants; and creating a complete package of signage, including directional and plant identification signs, as well as interpretive messages.

The result of their creative energy, now open to the public, is already gathering kudos, including an “Orchid,” San Diego’s people’s choice award for architectural and landscape design, and The President’s Award, the highest honor bestowed by the San Diego chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. This recognition and feedback has been gratifying for DPA’s graphic designer Jeri Deneen and landscape architect Jon Powell, who set out from the start to create an inviting outdoor space, entertaining as well as educational, for both gardeners and non-gardeners. Since installation began, Steve Maranhao has coordinated the planting and maintenance of the Garden.

A checkerboard of living and non-living groundcover alternatives
A checkerboard of living and non-living groundcover alternatives

A Tour of the Garden

The Garden experience begins just outside the front gate where a river of pebbles and boulders meanders across the parking lot and into the entrance plaza. As visitors follow the pebbles to their source, they find a huge culvert emptying into a small pool with just a puff of vapor—a graphic reminder of San Diego’s precarious position at the end of California’s water pipeline. Interpretive panels on the adjacent curving wall tell the story with a map of the state’s major aqueducts, historical photographs, and a brief summary of “California’s Water Story.”

The educational exhibits that follow are visual and easily understood, showcasing water-conservation principles and plantings that San Diego homeowners can replicate in their own gardens with plants readily available at local nurseries. The vegetation is lush and handsome everywhere, creating a living tapestry of forms, colors, and textures that welcomes and envelops visitors, offering a tranquil respite from the hectic strip-mall world just outside the entry gate.

Whimsical accents provide a delightful counterpoint to the no-nonsense water-conservation message. An enormous watering can serves as an information kiosk. Animal topiaries populate the pruning exhibit, and a pack of metal cutout hounds chase an agile fox across the turf display. Giant icons designate the three major educational sections of The Garden: a pair of crossed pencils for design; pruning shears for maintenance, and a twelve-foot-tall sprinkler head for irrigation.

The DPA team give away all their landscaping secrets in the series of thirty-eight interpretive signs, which also work as an integral part of The Garden’s overall design. Elegantly designed to serve as sculptural accents, the signs reflect the forms and colors of the surrounding plantings; an engaging text explains each exhibit. Those too young or too rushed to read the complete sign can catch the essence in accompanying sketches and captions. Common design elements echo also in the directional signs and even in the gift shop marquee.

Augmenting the primary teaching mission of the Water Conservation Garden, a handful of well-chosen facilities adds to its value as a new community resource. Indoor and outdoor classroom spaces accommodate workshops, seminars and school groups; a small gift shop offers a variety of gardening accessories and souvenirs. Display areas near the entrance and along the paths allow for plant sales and presentations by local nurseries and garden clubs.

About midway through The Garden, a charming gazebo and a patch of lawn offer a sweet setting for a small garden wedding or reception. At the end of the main path, a 500-seat amphitheater, complete with sound towers and a lighting booth, provides an inviting venue for plays, concerts, and other community gatherings.

Giant pencils mark the start of the design loop among familiar plants from Australia such as lemon-scented bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus)
Giant pencils mark the start of the design loop among familiar plants from Australia such as lemon-scented bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus)


But the soul of The Garden is found along the winding paths that trace three “loops” or thematic sections, each emphasizing a crucial element in water-wise gardening: design, maintenance, and irrigation. The design loop encourages visitors to “plan before you plant,” with special attention to basic artistic principles, such as color, balance, scale, form, and texture.

Selecting drought-tolerant plants is another crucial planning step. Fortunately there are plenty of choices. The same sunny weather that has made San Diego a world-renowned resort city sets it apart also in one of only five climatic regions of the world sharing the long, dry summers and brief, wet winters of the Mediterranean Basin. It is a climate that makes San Diego—and most of California—hospitable territory for almost any plant native to a region with an arid or Mediterranean climate. DPA has made lavish use of these water-thrifty species, grouping them together en masse according to their geographic origin.

In the design loop, Australian and a few New Zealand species populate exhibits explaining the finer points of mulching, composting, planting, screening, staking, windbreaks, soil assessment and erosion control. A background hedge of lemon bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) adds long-lasting spring and summer color as it screens the outside world. A spiky row of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) lines the path.

Young carrotwood trees (Cupaniopsis anacardioides) will eventually offer dense shade to demonstrate how plants can control microclimates in the landscape. Low-growing Australian fuchsia (Correa ‘Ivory Bells’), with tiny leaves and bell-shaped flowers, provides ample ground cover, while New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Ruby Glow’ and ‘Snow White’), add spectacular spring and summer color with their masses of red or white button flowers.

California native plants, such as Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’, California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and red monkey flower (Mimulus puniceus) provide spring color
California native plants, such as Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’, California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and red monkey flower (Mimulus puniceus) provide spring color

Leaving the design loop, visitors find themselves among California native plants, many used centuries ago by indigenous peoples for food and clothing. Common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), California and desert encelias (Encelia californica and E. farinosa), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) were all familiar and useful plants to the first San Diegans.

Additional California natives planted as background shrubs will eventually enclose the exhibit areas and screen distracting outside views. Included here are California lilac (Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), and Catalina cherry (Prunus lyonii). Native trees used include coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), California laurel (Umbellularia californica) and San Diego’s own Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana).

Huge hedge shears denote the maintenance loop with the white garden and the turf demonstration area beyond
Huge hedge shears denote the maintenance loop with the white garden and the turf demonstration area beyond


The care of a water-conserving garden is the subject of the second section of The Garden, the maintenance loop, which features plants from the Mediterranean Basin used to demonstrate such topics as proper pruning and successful slope planting. A handsome integration of walls, pavement, and other elements of the hardscape highlights this part of The Garden. Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans, syn. E. fastuosum) accents the amphitheater, complemented by statice or sea lavender (Limonium perezii) massed as a ground cover. Cork oak (Quercus suber) and Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) screen the area’s perimeter.

The maintenance loop also teaches visitors how to create a number of special gardens: a kitchen garden, a wildlife habitat, a white or single-color planting, a fragrance and touch garden, and a salute to those stereotypical water-misers, cacti and succulents.

In a leafy alcove just off the maintenance loop, a stunning, fourteen-foot-tall weather vane, another DPA original, anchors the weather exhibits. This working sculpture combines distinctive graphic representations of plants, sun, rain, and lightning, topped with a tiny cow suspended within a crescent moon. A tall hedge of yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana) and thorny, yellow-flowering sweet acacia (Acacia smallii) enclose the weather station.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candidum) brightens the path to the amphitheater
Pride of Madeira (Echium candidum) brightens the path to the amphitheater


The third and final section of The Garden, the irrigation loop, features South American and South African plants. Bougainvillea, nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and verbena (Verbena rigida) serve as ground cover. Tipu trees (Tipuana tipu) edge the fence line, while two kinds of seldom-planted, but spectacular trumpet trees (Tabebuia chrysotricha and T. impetiginosa) provide dramatic accents. Irrigation loop exhibits demonstrate intelligent uses of turf and feature a gallons-per-month irrigation comparison of various turf grass types, from buffalo grass to hybrid Bermuda grass to perpetually thirsty Kentucky bluegrass.

A little farther down the path, amid a dizzying collection of irrigation hardware, is a sprinkler-head fountain that arcs gracefully at timed intervals within a circular pool surrounded by fortnight lilies (Dietes bicolor). For the kids in the family, a surprise fountain squirts a get-wet stream across the path when triggered by electronic eyes hidden among red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) and lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus).

South African trees featured here adapt easily to the climate; all boast of unusual shapes, as in tree aloes (Aloe arborescens) or dramatic flowers and foliage, as seen in giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai).

In the parking lot and interspersed elsewhere throughout The Garden, the observant visitor will find plants from other arid regions of the world, also thriving nicely in San Diego. A stately row of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) leads from the entry drive to The Garden’s main gate. Butterfly bushes (Buddelia davidii) in the wildlife garden attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Daylilies (Hemerocallis cultivars) brighten several areas with splashes of color. A formal grove of crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’) appear in a grid pattern along the design loop.

As San Diego continues to evolve into a great metropolitan center, two factors are sure to stand as constants: the vast Pacific to the west and the warm, dry climate that is at once the greatest asset and toughest challenge for gardeners in Southern California. But San Diegans need no longer stare helplessly at weedy expanses of thirsty lawn, slopes slathered in the ubiquitous red apple (Aptenia ‘Red Apple’) or freshly graded and master-planned backyards. Now, at The Water Conservation Garden, they can learn how to create fresh, new landscapes as beautiful as they are water-wise.

If you would like to visit . . .

The Water Conservation Garden is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm, with extended hours during the summer. The Garden is on the Cuyamaca College campus just off Hwy 94, at 12122 Cuyamaca College Drive West, El Cajon, CA 92019. Call 619/660-0614 or www.thegarden.org for directions and events.




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