2020 Outstanding Public Engagement Award Winner

Garden Sense

Sonoma County Water Agency
Santa Rosa, California

Describe the goals of your program.

The Garden Sense program is a collaboration between Sonoma County Water Agency (Sonoma Water) and the University of California (UC) Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County to provide free at home garden consultations to residents of Sonoma County, California. Sonoma Water is a member of the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership (Partnership), a regional partnership of 12 local water providers in Sonoma and Marin counties in California that have joined together to provide regional solutions for water use efficiency. Garden Sense is part of a suite of regional water use efficiency programs offered by the Partnership. The overarching goal of the program is to provide assistance to residents who are interested in participating in landscape transformation rebate programs with retail water utilities in Sonoma County, and to provide them with the tools and information to take their projects through to completion and reduce outdoor water demand from inefficient irrigation systems, high water use plants, and poor landscaping practices.

The specific underlying goals of each Garden Sense consultant visit include providing:

  • How-to information about lawn conversion to residents of Sonoma County.
  • How-to information about converting sprinklers to drip irrigation.
  • Suggestions of low water-use plants that match site conditions.
  • A basic site-specific sketch that addresses the functional needs of the homeowner.
  • An assessment of the existing irrigation system.
  • General information and tips relating to sustainable landscaping practices such as composting, food gardening, keeping stormwater onsite, and firescaping.
  • Information about other regional and local water use efficiency programs available.
  • Referrals to local landscape professionals for residents that need additional assistance.

What need or problem are you trying to address with this program?

The Garden Sense program was designed to address the problem of residents that obtain preapproval to participate in a rebate program with a local retail water utility but do not follow through with the project and complete the rebate process. Water utility staff often do not have sufficient time to be able to interact with and educate participants one-on-one, and many residents do not have the resources to hire a landscape professional. The Garden Sense program was designed to provide residents with the confidence and information needed to complete a DIY project and/or prepare them to seek further assistance from a landscape professional. Feedback obtained from rebate program applicants indicated that residents often struggled with various aspects of a DIY landscape transformation project including technical irrigation issues, plant selection, and the basics of landscape design. Having a Garden Sense consultation with a Master Gardener that addresses the goals listed above can help to fill this gap and move residents in the direction of project completion, and ultimately reduced outdoor water use.

Describe how the program increases engagement with residential and/or commercial end users in your community to promote outdoor water conservation.

A Garden Sense consultation increases engagement with residential end users in Sonoma County by providing in person education about how to use water outdoors more efficiently focusing on irrigation efficiency, plant water use requirements, and water management. A consultation comprises a visit from a team of two Garden Sense trained Master Gardeners and lasts about 90 minutes. Each consultation begins by locating the water meter and educating the resident on how to read the meter, use it to monitor water use, and check for leaks. The consultants then perform an assessment of the existing irrigation system where they show the resident how to look for leaks, identify system inefficiencies, and convert spray sprinklers to drip. Finally, the consultants help the resident to identify opportunities to replace high water use plants, such as lawn, with ones that are climate appropriate and adapted to the specific site conditions observed. The consultants coach the resident on the process of sheet mulching as an easy and ecological way of replacing lawn and provide a sketch of how the new landscape might look as a starting point for the resident to complete their project. While there is a specific routine and intent to Garden Sense consultations, the consultants tailor each visit to the needs of the residents that they are visiting. Beyond the education and resources provided during the visit, consultants also connect participants with additional regional and local resources, such as those available through the Partnership and the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County.

Describe how the program incorporates education on smart technologies, efficient technologies, best practices, or programs related to outdoor water conservation.

During each consultation there are two smart technologies that consultants provide education on, rain sensors, and WaterSense labeled weather-based irrigation controllers (WBICs). Both of these technologies provide significant scope for water savings during the spring and fall shoulder seasons of the Mediterranean climate in California. On a case-by-case basis consultants provide education on other smart technologies such as pressure-regulating spray heads and highefficiency rotating sprinkler nozzles. Consultants provide education to residents with respect to best practices for the operation of the irrigation system including when to water, how long to water, and how to avoid runoff and overspray. Consultants also provide education on sustainable landscaping practices such as incorporating organic matter to improve soil structure and water holding capacity, mulching to reduce evaporation from soil surfaces and inhibit weed seed germination, and methods of retaining stormwater onsite such as rain gardens. Consultants educate residents on several programs related to outdoor water conservation including:

How was the program’s success measured?

As an educational and outreach program Garden Sense offers multiple benefits and success is measured in several respects. The volume and geographic spread of consultations is the first measure of success since it reflects that consultants have provided in person education and public engagement to residents of Sonoma County. Following each consultation a postage paid feedback postcard is left with the participant. Many participants provide direct feedback to the program through this method and the comments received and level of satisfaction indicated are a measure of how successful the consultation was from the perspective of the participant. At the end of each year a survey is sent out to program participants to ask specific questions about the consultation and any landscape transformation that may have taken place. The response rate for the survey has been over 30% overall. The questions asked in the survey include the following topics:

  • Participation in a rebate program.
  • Spray to drip irrigation conversion.
  • Lawn removal, and how much.
  • Replacement of high water use plants.
  • Change in attitude.
  • Customer satisfaction and comments.

The results of the annual survey are essential in measuring the multiple benefits of the Garden Sense program and are also a useful tool for the estimation of the outdoor water use savings generated by the program.

What are the results of the program to date?

From July 2014 to February 2020, 892 Garden Sense consultations were conducted. The geographic spread by city is broadly in line with population data. 295 survey responses have been received as well as many feedback post cards. Some of the highlights of the survey results include:

  • 167 (57%) indicated that they had removed lawn, 41 indicated that they plan to. 51 removed <500 square feet (SF), 40 removed 500-1,000 SF, 25 removed >1,000 SF.
  • 146 (49%) replaced high water use plants with low water use plants.
  • 149 (51%) replaced spray nozzles either with high-efficiency rotating nozzles or as part of a drip conversion. 27 replaced 1-4 nozzles, 61 replaced 5-10 nozzles, and 61 replaced more than 10 nozzles.
  • 221 (75%) reported changed attitude to water conservation. Others reported that they were already focused on water conservation.
  • 287 (81%) reported positive customer satisfaction. 43 could not have completed the project without the consultation, 196 found the consultation very helpful, and 48 found the consultation somewhat helpful.

Extrapolating the results for lawn conversion after each survey it is estimated that the Garden Sense program has resulted in the conversion of approximately 370,000 SF of lawn over the life of the program. It is estimated that this has saved approximately 26 million gallons of water over the life of the program. This estimation is determined by comparing water budgets for each year of the program for the different landscape types of turf with a plant factor of 0.8 and irrigation efficiency of 0.6 to low water use plants with a plant factor of 0.3 and irrigation efficiency of 0.9. The evapotranspiration used is from CIMIS station 83 in Santa Rosa, California. Savings are initially calculated for the year following the survey and are included in subsequent years since savings from a landscape transformation continue into the future. These calculation only account for the turf conversion aspect of the program and do not reflect additional savings due to other factors such as replacement of other high water use plants, other irrigation efficiency upgrades, and the impacts on watering behavior of a change in attitude with respect to sustainable landscaping practices.

What is the timeline for implementation of the program?

The Garden Sense consultation program is ongoing throughout the calendar year. Due to the nature of weather patterns in Northern California the busiest months are typically March to October which is in line with local landscape transformation rebate programs. There are many factors that can result in increased or decreased demand for consultations. To date these factors have included drought, deluge, two major fire emergencies, and now a global virus pandemic. It is planned that the Garden Sense program will continue to be offered and evolve over time.

What is the service area for the program (i.e., population size and/or geographic area)?

The service area for the Garden Sense program is limited to Sonoma County since it is offered in partnership with the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County. Sonoma County has a population of 504,217 (2017) and covers a geographic area of 1,768 square miles.

What are the costs associated with the program?

The Garden Sense program is funded by a contractual agreement with the University of California of $40,000 for a 2-year period. Contract costs include a part-time Garden Sense coordinator as well as program materials and supplies. All Garden Sense consultants that participate in the program are volunteers and are able to utilize the program to meet their ongoing volunteer hour requirements as Master Gardeners.