Oct. 20 2015 05:39 PM

How San Diego’s public gardens are surviving the drought

The Water Conservation Garden’s “End of the Pipeline” display
Photo courtesy of The Water Conservation Garden
Julian Duval isn’t your typical president and CEO. During an interview at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, he wasn’t sitting behind a desk or mulling over finance reports. Rather, he appeared to be getting into the Halloween spirit.

“It does look like I’m carving a jack-o’-lantern, doesn’t it?” asks Duval, as he gets down to start scraping out the insides of a giant succulent plant from South Africa. The 500-pound plant was recently donated by a member of the garden, but may have been damaged in the transfer. Duval and his staff have been down on their hands and knees almost every day trying to save the plant by scraping out large parts of rot from the inside.

Julian Duval
Photo by Seth Combs

“It’s the largest type of this succulent I’ve ever seen outside of pictures,” says Duval, who has worked at the garden for more than 20 years. “It’s heavier than it looks. It’s a big water-storing bag, is what it is.”

Water is always on Duval’s mind, but more so lately. When you run a 37-acre garden during one of the worst droughts in California history, it’s hard not to think about it. And even though much of the garden features drought-resistant plants and ones native to California, nine of the 26 individual garden displays, such as the rainforest and bamboo gardens, do require a lot of water to sustain.

“I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase from Mark Twain, ‘Whiskey is for drinking—water is for fighting over,’” Duval says. “Water is a huge, huge issue and the garden has taken its use of the water seriously from the very beginning. Not just because we wanted to be conservation-minded, but it’s our second largest expense in operating this place, after staff expenses.”

Duval says that the garden’s water costs have risen significantly, but that the Botanic Gardens have always been water-wary and went out of their way in the past in order to be prepared for times like this. For example, the individual gardens that are the most water-hungry are all concentrated to one area of the entire garden in order to prevent wasteful usage. More importantly, one-third of the garden is watered using a recycled water irrigation system, set up 15 years ago with help from the San Elijo Joint Powers Authority. While Duval says the quality of the recycled water wouldn’t work in the rainforest section due to the high level of salts in the water, he does want to expand the recycled water system to the majority of the garden.

The Botanic Gardens is not the only public space that relies heavily on water and is feeling the heat to conserve. Paul Johnson is the senior gardener at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. He says the garden has had to scale back irrigation from three times a week to two.

The Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
Photo by Yasuhiro Fujiki

“It’s hard with a Japanese Garden, because you associate it with being really green and lush,” says Johnson, who says the garden recycles water from the ponds and fountains, but that changing the irrigation system or coming up with other ways to conserve has been an ongoing bureaucratic process.

“The wheels are moving slowly,” he says. “We have a 40,000-gallon tank down in a canyon that’s supposed to be used for collecting the runoff rain water and filter it, but I think we ran into cost problems and it’s just been sitting there for three years. I think we can figure out a way to get it hooked up.”

John Bolthouse, executive director of the six-acre Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon, says he’s seen a lot more visitors lately. Opened in 1999 next to Cuyamaca College, the quaint botanical garden was designed to serve as an educational complex on how people could save money and help the environment with drought-resistant landscapes.
Cork trees at the San Diego Botanic Garden
Photo by Rachel Cobb

“The attendance of the garden has gone up a little bit, but every single one of our educational classes are sold out,” Bolthouse says. “People are really engaged. The financial reason is what drives most people, but some people just love gardens and want to transition from water-sucking turfs to something that’s native to the region.”

Back at the Botanic Garden in Encinitas, Duval is approached by a local couple, Lance and Judy, who mention they’re at the garden to look at plants they could use to create a drought-tolerant landscape at their home. Duval gives them a brief overview of things like “mounting” and “contouring” before Lance mentions that a landscaper wanted $15,000 to create a drought-friendly landscape at the couple’s home. Duval scoffs and assures them that not only can they do it themselves, but that they’ll be better off for it.

“Lawns are the default landscape, but most people don’t need them,” says Duval. “I tell people all the time that gardening is a process, but if you get into it, you’ll love it. You’ll save money and you’ll feel better knowing you’re doing your part.”

Water saving tips from garden experts

"One of the strategies in being water-wise for your landscape is to concentrate the high-water-requiring plants in one spot so that you don't have to water the whole garden."

Julian Duval, San Diego Botanic Garden

"I've found that what works well is a lot of ground cover and a lot of shade. Covering everything really well with plants like mondo grass or vinca major (periwinkle) so it holds a lot of the moisture."

Paul Johnson, Japanese Friendship Garden

"No matter what type of drought-tolerant plants you use to start your garden, you are going to have to use a little more water in order to get them established, so be prepared for that. You can't just plant them and walk away. But once they're established, the maintenance on them is so much less."

John Bolthouse, Water Conservation Garden


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