It was 2019 when Jennifer Dell purchased and moved into her home on a corner lot in a San Marcos neighborhood. The front yard was “scruffy grass,” as she put it, with a large oval raised planter in the center, made of concrete retaining wall blocks that held — and still holds — three soaring palms.
Dell, who grew up in Vista with four younger siblings, was raised by a mother who was a lifelong gardener and a father who was handy at fixing stuff around the house. She decided she’d learned enough from them to feel confident in taking on what seemed like an overwhelming project — creating a haven of privacy with waterwise landscaping befitting a SoCal garden — and the result was winning the Vista Irrigation District’s 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Contest award.
“The scruffy grass was no fun to mow and required a ton of water to keep up to the homeowners’ association standard for green,” she said. “At first I just wanted to create some privacy and some shade. Three years later, I’m still working on making it better, although the bulk of the work was completed in about a year.”
Dell, a single mom of two grown sons and a civil servant working in acquisition for the U.S. Navy, could take full advantage of her mom’s guidance, but she also turned to a variety of YouTube videos hosted by local garden experts, including Epic Gardening, Next Level Gardening and Jacques in the Garden. She combined what she learned from those experts with the tenacity to source free or inexpensive supplies and plants. And, while she did most of the work herself, she benefited from the generosity of her two sons, parents, three sisters and their young kids, who put in a lot of labor to help her realize her dream garden.
“My family has been amazing during this whole process,” she said. “We did it all ourselves. My kids helped shovel mulch, even on my son’s 18th birthday. My sisters and my parents spent hours helping me move rocks, dig out retaining blocks, and shovel mulch.
“It was a ton of work but a lot of it we did during COVID, so it was something that we could do safely outside, in our family bubble. My mom has always had a great eye for garden design and which plants will work best in a spot. She spent so much time going to nurseries with me to figure out which plants would work in my garden and helped me lay out what elements should go where.”
Dell’s frustration with watering and mowing the lawn jump-started her decision to tear it out and create a totally new look.
“I wanted a beautiful space with shade and, ideally, food production, but I still didn’t want to spend any more money on water bills,” she explained. “As I read more and learned more, I keyed in on a few things. I want native, beautiful, drought-tolerant plants but I also want to use my garden to grow food. I want lots of flowers and color. I want bees and birds and other wildlife.”
When Dell heard about California’s turf replacement program, she found it the ideal motivation to do more. She went online to learn about what she could do in her yard with a program offered through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
“I feel pretty strongly about maximizing the rainwater captured and retained on my property and using natural products and waterwise techniques to accomplish that. I took a couple of the online waterwise landscaping classes on garden design and understanding your soil, which were excellent. I think the ones they offer now are even better and more specific to water retention and plant choices.”
Dell now has a couple of rain barrels and a 275-gallon IBC tote in the back garden for rainwater collection, which she uses to water the vegetables she grows in the backyard. She intends to buy a couple more so she can store enough to get through the drier months.
Because the front yard is on a southwest-facing corner, it gets very hot and dry, so another inspiration was to plant trees that would eventually provide shade, as well as privacy. With that in mind, Dell planted a ring of yew plum pine and purple hopseed along the perimeter. Interspersed are a variety of citrus trees — lemon, lime, Satsuma mandarin and red grapefruit — along with other fruit trees, including a loquat, Saturn peach, pomegranate and mission fig. She’s increasingly adding California native shrubs and flowers as well as roses and lavender for visual interest and to encourage pollinators. Dell’s hardscape is mostly reclaimed or reused rocks with a deep layer of arborist wood chips.
Physically digging out lawns can be excruciatingly hard work. Dell found an alternative method for getting rid of the Bermuda grass: sheet mulching. She described it as wetting the grass, then layering cardboard over it that also gets wetted to soften it and create contours, followed by laying woodchip mulch on top of the now-soft cardboard. That’s it.
But because of the way the grass grows, Dell explained that she also needed a barrier to hold the mulch in place, especially because the lawn sloped down to the sidewalk. So, she laid down rocks as a barrier between the sheet mulching and the sidewalk. She also bought metal edging. And not only was it a much easier process of getting rid of the grass, it resulted in Dell getting $4,000 from the state.
But that process came after Dell planted her trees. She described digging holes for the trees like digging into concrete. She ended up with a strategy of digging little holes, then filling them with water to soften the dirt enough to dig some more. And because she wanted to plant around the palm trees, she would use pruning shears to cut a hole around the roots, which she said were like an iron grid.
Dell also converted the existing sprinkler system to drip irrigation with pressure reduction valves at the former sprinkler heads.
“Each of the trees has a 4-gallon-per-hour emitter, while the smaller plants have 1 or 2,” Dell explained. “I set the automatic system to run an hour or two every other week or so, depending on the weather, so everything gets infrequent, but long, deep waterings.”
The oval raised bed in the middle of the garden that houses the pre-existing palm trees got a redo as well. Because Dell needed to improve the soil, she removed the wall blocks from the north side and used them to raise the height of the bed on the south side to hold back added compost and mulch. She explained that by doing this, she opened up a more gradual slope away from the house to help slow runoff and keep the water in the garden.
Dell created some visual interest and texture with river rocks of various sizes, both along the sidewalk and closer to the house, where she also built a path using the rocks and pavers.
The smaller plants Dell has incorporated into the garden are a collection of the unexpected for a low-water garden — from lavender and rosemary to jasmine and iris, with nasturtiums, California poppies and sweet peas showing up in the spring. She acknowledges that she’s now becoming more intentional. Yes, there are a lot of roses and random plantings, but there are some succulents in the garden now, as well as sages.
“Three years ago, I just picked up whatever caught my eye, was on clearance at the hardware store, or I ended up with some other way — like the rosemary,” she explained. “I’ve also made a number of mistakes that resulted in plants dying — the most poignant being that even native plants need some love and care to get established. I’ve absolutely killed a few (not inexpensive) farmers market California natives because I planted them without putting in proper irrigation or having any mulch.
“Now that I’ve learned more, some of the existing non-native plants will be replaced with natives in the fall, so they have a chance! I’ll also pay more attention to the ‘full grown’ plant size, so they are spaced appropriately.”
Dell estimated she’s spent up to $1,000 since she first started her garden project, and she kept the costs down using a variety of local resources. She scoured Facebook Marketplace for landscaping material along with other websites like OfferUp and Freecycle.
“It was crazy,” she said with a laugh. “We would go to people’s houses with shovels and buckets and shovel little rocks from their yards. And one lady asked for $100 for as many large rocks as I felt comfortable putting into the back of my dad’s truck. My family and I drove out to San Pasqual Valley Soils and got organic mulch. It’s, like, $28 for a full truckload of compost or raised-bed mix.”
Dell also took advantage of a free tree program through SDG&E. It provided the loquat, pomegranate, Elder and Australian willow that are in the front yard, as well as an apricot and plum tree in her backyard.
“They allow you to select up to 10 trees, but only five can be fruit,” she explained. “Their main focus is on shade trees, so I did a fair bit of research on which shade tree would grow well in my hot garden and not impact plumbing or sidewalks, before choosing the Australian willow.”
And Dell received a $250 gift card that she’s spent at The Home Depot on more plants.
Dell said it is hard to tell how much water she’s saved since completing her project. She has a pool in the backyard and she said she didn’t water much before the lawn replacement. But her average $152 bimonthly bill hasn’t changed much since her first bill in December 2019. She credits some of the low bill — as well as healthier plants — to all the mulching she does.
“The difference between my garden before mulch and after has been dramatically better,” she said.
Dell is thoroughly enjoying her new landscape. She loves all the flowers and bees it brings. And her neighbors have been complimenting her as the work has progressed.
“My neighbor across the street actually saved boxes for me when she saw I was sheet mulching, which was really cool,” Dell said. “One neighbor stopped by while I was out front a couple of weeks ago and said he loved what I was doing and how much diversity and habitat I have created, which was really satisfying. I’m not sure how much the HOA likes it, as it definitely doesn’t adhere to their manicured lawn standard, but in truth, I’d love to help other neighbors convert their lawns to native, low-water landscapes.”
She’s also touched by how meaningful winning the WaterSmart competition has been.
“This wasn’t just my effort,” Dell said. “It was my family’s. It was an acknowledgment of all our work to make this space more beautiful. How often do three generations get to do something together that results in this kind of recognition?”
A closer look: Jennifer Dell
Plants used: purple hopseed (Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’), yew plum pine (Podocarpus), Australian willow (Geijera parviflora), Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), Iceberg and other roses (Rosa), lavender (Lavandula), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), jasmine (Jasminum), honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), various iris and other perennial bulbs, California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), cosmos, lantana, sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), red grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi), ‘Bearss’ lime (Citrus x latifolia), Satsuma mandarin (Citrus unshiu), Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri), loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), Saturn ‘donut’ peach (Prunus persica var. platycarpa), Pluot, Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Mission fig (Ficus carica ‘Mission’), bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis)
Where are the plants from? Various North County nurseries, including Ganter Nursery and El Plantio Nursery & Landscaping, the Vista farmers market and Costco
Estimated costs? Approximately $700 for the main effort, but probably another $200 to $300 in additional plants since then.
Was there a water district rebate and/or contest dollar award? Yes. Approximately $4,000 for the rebate, and a $250 award from the water district
Who did the work? Dell did all the work with help from her family.
How long did it take? 1 to 1½ years overall
Water savings: Unknown, but even with all the new plants, her bill has not changed since she moved into her house in 2019.
- Remove all of your lawn all at once to maximize the grant award, but be prepared to pay taxes on that “income.”
- Sheet mulching is easy and doesn’t require a ton of labor, and you can absolutely source everything you need through free or very inexpensive community sites.
- There are a few really great YouTube channels that focus on local, San Diego gardening that I recommend local gardeners watch: Epic Gardening, Next Level Gardening and Jacques in the Garden.
- If I had it to do over, I would prioritize California natives from the beginning because they are so hearty once established and bring such benefits to pollinators with their beautiful flowers.
About the series
This is the seventh in an occasional series on winners of the annual WaterSmart Landscape Contest, conducted in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority. To learn about entering the next contest, visit landscapecontest.com.
For details on classes and resources through the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program, visit sdcwa.org/your-water/conservation/. Landscape rebates are available through the Socal WaterSmart Turf Replacement Program at socalwatersmart.com.
Golden is a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.