Landscape tips for continuing to conserve water


By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

Now that this winter has brought some rain to California, does that mean to stop worrying about the water situation and go ahead and do some spring planting?

Even if Gov. Jerry Brown modifies statewide water restrictions, experts argue it makes sense to become more water-efficient and continue to conserve in a state that is naturally dry.

That was the takeaway message at a recent free class on "California Friendly Landscapes" sponsored by the California Water Service company, the state Department of Water Resources, G3 ( the Green Gardens Group), and the town of Portola Valley, where the event was held.

Pamela Berstler, a landscape contractor and CEO of G3 in Southern California, talked to dozens of Bear Gulch District water customers about rethinking landscaping and making changes to take what she calls a "watershed approach."

The process involves capturing rainwater and using it on site, but she emphasizes the real starting point is deciding "which plant is the right plant, and where is the right place for it" in a yard. Then, look at how feeding and watering impacts the larger picture of keeping local water bodies viable and pollution-free.

Ms. Berstler is a proponent of minimizing lawns and planting natives because, she says, "climate-appropriate native plants need about 20 percent of the water lawns need."

"Drought-tolerant plants don't really exist; our gardens need to be drought-adaptive," she says.

She suggests selecting plants that have adapted to doing well in this Mediterranean climate. She describes them as usually having leathery dark green leaves, small silver and/or hairy leaves, or leaves that follow the sun like Manzanitas.

She also encourages buying local natives to promote a healthy ecosystem. She gives this example: Butterflies will only lay their eggs on native local plants, and not on a butterfly bush because it's not native to California.

She cautions against planting highly proliferating invasives such as Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass), and prefers choosing Stipa pulchra (purple needle grass) because it's native. is the website she refers people to for more information on invasive plants.

Ms. Berstler of G3 says that "80 percent of what's going on is going on below the ground in the root system," so the balance of oxygen, water and life underground needs to be optimized in what she calls "a living soil sponge."

Billions of bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and fungi thrive in organic matter and nurture plants, whereas "fertilizer," she warns, "kills microbes in the soil, so stop with nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous."

To amend soil she advises handling it as gently as possible and spraying a compost tea or spreading a quarter inch of compost on top.

If the soil is compacted, drill down with an augur at regular intervals to the base of root balls and then fill the holes with compost or worm castings, she says.

She recommends adding 2 to 4 inches of mulch on top of that to slow down evaporation and weed growth.

Ms. Berstler is also big on sheet mulching to rejuvenate soil. That's when layers of newspaper or cardboard are placed on top of the ground, and then covered with compost, mulch and water to jumpstart decomposition. The process can take months.

As for lawns, at least once a year aerate, dethatch and feed them organic compost — not herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers that can harm the environment, she says.

She stresses that cool season grasses such as Kentucky blue, fescue and rye are too thirsty for this area, and that warm season grasses such as Bermuda, St. Augustine, Zoysia and Kikuyu require less water.

She recommends watering in a cycle-and-soak pattern, with sprinklers on for about three minutes, off for 20, on for three, off for 20, and then on for another three.

Keeping grass height at 3 to 4 inches, and taking clippings and spreading them out on top of the lawn — or using a mulching mower to grind up clippings in place — are good ideas, she says.

Ideally, she would like to see people steering away from lawns and looking at alternatives such as the "over seeded" clover lawn at Portola Valley Town Center.

In her opinion, artificial turf is not an option. Six lawn substitutes she does recommend are ground covers: Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Carex praegracilis (field sedge), native Leymus triticoides (creeping wild rye), Dymondia margaretae (silver carpet), Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry) and Thymus vulgaris "Elfin" (thyme).

When it comes to watering a yard, Ms. Berstler says, using the natural resource of rain is often overlooked. It just takes some site planning, she says, to create spaces designed to trap, slow and spread rainwater to get it back into the ground rather than running off into the streets.

She estimates 1 inch of rain falling on a roof measuring 1,000 square feet can generate about 600 gallons of water. A rain barrel might store 50 gallons. Redirecting downspouts, contouring landscaping, planting trees, and using permeable surfaces — such as driveways with strips cut into them or pavers with gaps — can trap water in swales and pockets long enough so it sinks in to benefit the yard.

Ms. Berstler says many homeowners put twice as much water on their lawns than they need to, and often forget to group plants according to their watering needs.

She admits it may take a pro to fix telltale signs of "poor irrigation practices" such as water damage, broken sprinkler heads, or leaks, but that there are a lot of products on the market to help manage water-wise gardening. They range from moisture sensors, to weather stations, smart irrigation controllers, low-flow valves, rotating spray nozzles and drip irrigation systems. has a list of resources on rebates, programs and tips.

Landscape pros

Two local landscape experts who attended landscape contractor Pamela Berstler's talk and a three-day workshop she put on recently, said they are inspired to implement some of her ideas.

Nancy Shanahan with Sycamore Design of Woodside finds the watershed approach "something brand new, grabbing rainwater off the roof from the street." She plans to incorporate grading in the sheet-mulching project she is doing for a client.

Janet Bell with Garden Sense in Menlo Park says she sees "a lot of value" in practicing water-saving strategies and has been doing it for a while.

Two years ago in a group effort to create a neighborhood park at 18th Avenue and Bay Road in North Fair Oaks, they used layers of newspaper to prep the soil, piled on compost, installed a drip irrigation system and planted low-water native plants.

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