Beautiful Landscaping, Even During a Drought

Scripps Townhomes is a community of 164 condominiums, just east of Interstate 15 off Affinity Court. Built in the early 1990s, it features Cape Cod styling that appeals to many transplanted Easterners, including current homeowners association (HOA) president Jim Sullivan. Originally the central public area, a natural bowl near the tennis courts, featured a large, attractive sweep of green lawn.

Over the years more and more water was needed to maintain that nice green look. Meanwhile, water prices were rising, and by 2010, the old lawn had become thatched and required overwatering to stay green. Also, the area attracted lots of off-leash dog activity from residents and neighbors, with the expected results.

Four years ago Jim Sullivan and the HOA board started converting several small water-wasting areas into drought-tolerant spaces. “The bowl” was their biggest challenge and greatest success. After extensive analysis and input from their landscapers, they created a functional, attractive, multiuse space that enhances the complex while saving water. According to Miguel Sibrian of the landscaping company, the area now uses about 60% less water, with watering weekly rather than four times a week. Changes include:

  • A large putting green of artificial turf that is often used as a play area for toddlers and a horseshoe pit surrounded by artificial turf. The “grass” in both areas is clearly not natural, but in the setting at the bottom of “the bowl,” it enhances the view, requires zero water, and needs almost no maintenance.
  • Borders of river rock and boulders sourced from the grading process.
  • Stabilized pathways of decomposed granite for naturalistic flowing paths with good permeability that were much less expensive than concrete.
  • Benches and a large shade structure.
  • Drought-tolerant plants with drip irrigation and extensive mulch. The landscapers recommended low-maintenance, long-lasting, soft-looking colorful shrubs such as salvias, westringia, cape honeysuckle, and rosemary.

In addition, the complex now features a new xeriscaped off-leash dog park with low-water plants, rock and decomposed granite, and major drought-tolerant renovations at the community’s entryway.

Most of the re-landscaped area sits on a shared easement with the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). This agreement greatly limits what can be planted and constructed because major water transfer pipes lie beneath the surface. Working closely with the SDCWA, permits were granted for minor grading, a low block wall around the horseshoe play area, and a free-standing shade structure. Likewise, all plant material required pre-approval by the SDCWA.

Difficult as the easement was, the most significant obstacle, says Jim, was accomplishing a large project in an HOA environment. “Many transplants to California simply don’t understand that we live in a desert environment where grass and turf don’t thrive without lots of water.”

One early backlash occurred before the new plants had a chance to fill in. The slopes looked stark. Owners complained “we had a green space that looked beautiful and now it’s all brown!” One small group called the bowl area “The Pit.”

Now, however, most people express pride and satisfaction with the attractive, shrub-covered area. Dogs go to the onsite dog park, hummingbirds, Cooper’s hawks, and other birds are commonly seen, and lizards sun on the rocks.

Project costs were another obvious lightning rod. Scripps Townhomes spent more than $25,000 on the water-saving changes, and in a communal water environment it’s hard to measure the financial payoff. However, the renovation cost was less than $250 per unit, and the project has created additional amenities in addition to reducing resource use. As Jim points out, “The savings will be seen year after year for the life of the community. More important than the savings today is the future expense we won’t have. As water rates increase, this project looks better.”

Scripps Townhomes will proudly show off the landscaping on Sunday, Apr. 6, as part of the 2014 Low-Water Landscape Tour sponsored by the Sustainable Scripps Ranch Committee of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association. Condo owners and HOA board members are especially invited. For tour details, see page 11 and visit [www.scrippsranch.org/org].