Conserving water, drought or not: Tips for saving water – and money – in the garden

Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Creating a permeable path enables stormwater to recharge the water table rather than running down sidewalks and streets into the bay. Above, several inches of mulch, though packed down, allow water to infiltrate. The mulched path flows nicely into planted areas.

Despite the healthy amount of rain last winter, Los Altos still has a summer-dry Mediterranean climate, and conservation is still the cheapest and easiest way to save money on your water bill as well as to ensure that we all have enough water for essential needs.

The drought is not over: Recurring droughts historically have been part of the Bay Area climate, and the summer-dry pattern means that if you have a garden, you need to pay attention to watering.

Although reservoirs in Northern California are in better shape than they have been in several years, the focus is on "making conservation a way of life," according to Julie Ortiz, water conservation manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Permanent restrictions

Ortiz described the following "permanent water waste restrictions" that apply to use of water in the landscape.

• Avoid runoff when watering.

• Use a shut-off valve on the end of the hose.

• Use a broom or rake to clean sidewalks and other paved surfaces, rather than hosing them off.

• Use only recirculating fountains.

• Turn off irrigation during or just after measurable rainfall.

In May, the Public Utilities Commission plans to review whether to keep current drought restrictions in force. In the meantime, particularly if you’re thinking about renovating your garden, here are some factors to keep in mind.

• Save water from the outset by choosing plants appropriate to the Bay Area’s dry summer climate. This fall may be a good year to install a new landscape if you’ve been letting your garden go brown because of the drought. Summer is a great time to plan a garden, but because new plantings need regular water to become established, you can reduce your water bill and conserve water by planting at the beginning of the rainy season.

Typically, drought-tolerant plants will need regular water for the first couple or so summers so that they can develop the extensive root systems that enable them to withstand drought. Many California native plants offer drought tolerance as well as support for local pollinators. Plants from other Mediterranean climates also can be good choices for drought-tolerant gardens.

• Depending on what you are growing, incorporating compost into your soil and adding mulch on top (2-4 inches) will help your soil retain water and prevent runoff. Keeping water on-site helps recharge the local water table.

• If you’ve noticed any wet areas or ponding in your yard, now is the time to fix them. Installing a rain garden, a dry creek or a dry well can help keep water on-site, prevent erosion and proactively prevent problems caused by standing water.

• If you’re adding hardscape, consider using permeable pavers, permeable concrete or other permeable surfaces such as thick mulch or gravel.

• To reduce evaporation, water in the cooler part of the day, or set your irrigation system to start between 2 and 6 a.m. If you see any runoff, program shorter runtimes. Then, if more water is needed, schedule additional start times with an hour or two in between so that water can soak into the soil. Do the same as days get hotter and water needs increase - program more start times with shorter runtimes. For instance, instead of starting at 2 a.m. and running for nine minutes, program your controller to start at 2 a.m. for three minutes, 3 a.m. for three minutes and 4 a.m. for three minutes.

• If you have an irrigation system, install a weather-based irrigation controller that keeps track of rainfall and temperature.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. n

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