Programs promote conservation practices

Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Monica Environmental Programs Division.

Santa Monica’s Garden/Garden project uses two neighboring residential lots to educate residents and landscape professionals about the differences in native plants (shown here) and traditional landscaping, both in appearance and in terms of water use/cost.

Oil has always been referred to as a “valuable resource,” and these days a stop at the gas pump provides a rude reminder of just exactly how valuable it is.

In terms of critical resources, oil pales in comparison to water. Picture our future if there were shortages and price spikes in the water market. To help avoid that scenario, and to ensure we use our water resources in the best manner possible, cities and water management authorities in many parts of the country are assisting homeowners and lawn care professionals who are interested in conserving water, but still want to preserve beautiful landscapes.

One of the most comprehensive efforts is taking place in Santa Monica, Calif., where the city’s Environmental Programs Division (www.smepd.org) provides an array of programs focused on water efficiency and conservation. One of the components of the program targets gardens and landscapes, which account for an estimated 50 to 60 percent of residential water use.

“We’ve been promoting sustainable landscaping since the late 1980s,” says Kim O’Cain, water resources specialist with the city of Santa Monica. “We’ve just had a huge increase in interest just in the last few years.”

The city gears its gardens and landscaping conservation programs to a wide audience, homeowners, commercial property managers, professional lawn and landscape companies, etc. “We’re trying to get the message out to as many people as possible,” explains O’Cain.

She says the Sustainable Landscape Professional Program, designed for green industry professionals, is particularly strong and popular. “We offer what we describe as ‘continuing education classes’ on specific water conservation measures. So, in addition to giving them information about what the city considers as sustainable landscaping—and the policies and regulations we have in regard to irrigation equipment and plant palette—we also offer classes on weather-based irrigation controllers, drip irrigation, rotary nozzles, how to make spray irrigation more efficient, plant-soil relationships and more. In many cases, these are classes that their professional organizations aren’t offering them, so every time we hold a workshop it fills up almost immediately. We get lots of great feedback.”

The program is open to landscape professionals, landscape designers, landscape architects, general contractors and maintenance contractors. O’Cain says that those who take part in the classes often use the skills they learn to set themselves apart and to market their expertise in sustainable landscaping. “They want to be able to explain to their customers what sustainable landscaping is, and the value in hiring a trained professional,” she explains.

Currently, the city provides a list on its Web site of the contractors who have taken the classes, giving the public an idea of which contractors are embracing the fundamentals of sustainable landscaping. “We get many phone calls from people who say, ‘I want to put in a sustainable landscape, but I don’t know who does it,’” says O’Cain. “We can’t refer specific companies, but we can at least steer people in the right direction.” She adds that, in the future, those on the list will be required to have certification from either the Irrigation Association or the California Landscape Contractors Association.

One of the challenges they might have in selling clients on switching to a sustainable landscape program is the up-front cost involved. “A sustainable landscape includes not only climate-appropriate plants and efficient irrigation, but also a way to capture rainwater runoff and keep it on-site or reuse it,” explains O’Cain. “So all of those things combined do add perhaps $4,000 or $5,000 to the cost of what we might consider a ‘traditional landscape,’ but you’re going to save money in the long run.”

The city also offers classes to homeowners about the basics of conserving water in landscape settings. “We cover design, irrigation systems, plant selection and maintenance,” says O’Cain. “Often, people will come to the classes and realize that landscaping is much more complicated than they thought, and they’ll end up hiring someone, but at least they’ll be more knowledgeable and know what questions to ask when talking to landscapers.”

To help show homeowners exactly what a sustainable landscape looks like and how it works, the city of Santa Monica partnered with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Santa Monica College to create a unique demonstration garden. Called “Garden/Garden,” the project involves two neighboring residential lots: one showcasing California-friendly native plants, an efficient irrigation system and an infiltration pit to capture rainwater; the other a cool-season turfgrass lawn setting surrounded by more traditional landscape plants such as roses and azaleas, and a spray irrigation system. “Both are maintained by professional landscape companies,” explains O’Cain.

Thus far, the native landscape has been shown to use seven times less water and cost 50 percent less (in terms of water, labor, etc.) to maintain. “It’s saving about 50,000 gallons and almost 500 pounds of green waste every year, so the difference is quite significant. Especially as water rates around the country are going up and up and up,” O’Cain says.

Plant selection is one important factor in reducing both water use and green waste. “Many landscape architects and designers are familiar with the plant palette that’s appropriate for this area,” says O’Cain. For those who want to learn more about plants and their water use, Santa Monica’s Department of Water Resources has developed a list of about 1,200 plants that do well in various regions of California. They’re ranked by high to low water use.

Another resource available to help with proper plant selection can be found on the “Be Water Wise” Web site (www.bewaterwise.com) developed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest wholesaler of water in the U.S. The site’s Garden Spot page includes “a very nice, hands-on tool where you can see photos of the different plants, and get information about what nurseries [they are] available at,” explains O’Cain. “I know many landscape designers like to use that component to at least get their clients thinking about sustainable landscape plants, and you can search by category to find plants that will do well in the sun, in the shade, along sidewalk strips and so on.” The site also includes scores of tips and an array of water-saving information for lawn and landscape professionals and homeowners.

To help encourage the installation of efficient irrigation systems and low-water-use plants, the city of Santa Monica offers a grant program, which provides up to $160,000 each year in grants to homeowners renovating existing landscapes or installing new, water-efficient landscapes. “It’s a competitive program and people can apply for up to $20,000, not to exceed 50 percent of the total cost of the project. The project must have a water-efficient irrigation system, and it also can include things such as climate-appropriate plants, permeable paving and so on,” explains O’Cain.

Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The landscape that includes native, climate-appropriate plants (above) has been shown to use far less water than the traditional landscape (at below).

Applications for the grants can be submitted by homeowners themselves, but are more frequently created by landscape professionals. “We’ve recently included technical specifications regarding the irrigation system, so we’re seeing more professionals submitting that part, which is what we wanted. Water savings is going to come less from the plant species selected and more from the way it is irrigated,” she says.

One other program available to landscapers in Santa Monica is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s “Save a Buck” initiative (www.mwdsaveabuck.com). This program provides rebates for the use of efficient irrigation equipment, such as smart controllers, and for replacing inefficient nozzles.

Given the resources available in Santa Monica, and in other municipalities around the country, there is plenty of information out there for professionals who want to help their customers save water and create more sustainable landscapes.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.