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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Water-Wise Ways: The Water Conservation Garden Inspires and Informs

Mar 30, 2011 08:45PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Learning to be water-wise is particularly appealing to San Diego gardeners who enjoy growing edibles or creating a beautiful landscape. Gardening efforts here are only lightly blessed by Mother Nature’s average annual rainfall of just 10 inches, so gardeners of all skill levels rely upon water conservation experts like the individuals at the Water Conservation Garden, in El Cajon. “We have nearly five acres of displays that showcase water conservation through a series of themed gardens, which feature drought-resistant plants, and how-to displays for mulching and irrigation,” says Elizabeth Ramos, events and marketing specialist for the Garden.

Located on the Cuyamaca Community College campus, the Garden is owned by a Joint Powers Authority partnership of six agencies: the Helix Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, Otay Water District, Cuyamaca College, city of San Diego Water Department and Sweetwater Authority. Friends of the Water Conservation Garden, a nonprofit organization, operates and manages the Garden. “In the early 1990s, during a multi-year drought, the Helix and Otay Water districts envisioned a water conservation garden that would show the public how to save water outdoors,” explains Ramos, who adds that Cuyamaca College, which already had an excellent horticulture department, joined as a third partner, agreeing to provide land for the garden.

Garden landscape professionals offer a Nifty 50 list of plants that are easy to find and grow in moderate to low water conditions. The list and monthly educational programs are helpful in educating local residents about the importance of using drought-tolerant native plants, as well as those from Mediterranean countries whose climate is similar to San Diego’s. However, the importance of conserving the county’s precious water supply may be best understood after reading the narrative on a panel at the Garden entry. It tells the story of how water comes to San Diego County from northern California and from the Colorado River to the east of the county. “Only 10 percent of the water in San Diego County is of local origin, which is a major reason that water conservation is so important here,” notes Ramos.

The Garden also demonstrates how to transition from water-thirsty lawns and plants to a rich, sophisticated palette of ornamental grasses, various turf choices and ground coverings, in addition to lush flowering plants that require little irrigation. “People are amazed at how these alternatives, which are on display, can provide myriad textures for their lawn or garden,” says Ramos.

Fun activities for children and adults make the Garden a great destination for families. The latest addition of an owlcam for online viewing provides “edutainment” for everyone who visits the garden or the website to observe the owl-nesting box, where Hoot and Holla, two barn owls, have built a nest and are hatching six eggs. “It’s a privilege to watch Holla preen and keep her eggs warm, and Hoot bring home the rabbits and rodents from the many that raid the garden,” notes Ramos, who points out that the owls provide a natural solution to pesky rabbits that nibble away at exhibits.

Location: 12122 Cuyamaca College Dr. W., El Cajon 92019. Call 619-660-0614 or visit

Attend the Spring Garden Festival

Mark your calendar for April 9 and plan to attend the annual Spring Garden festival, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit for details about the plant sale, horticulture demonstrations, animal encounters, live music, water-smart gardening tips, expert design advice, children’s activities and international food. Free admission and parking.