Drought tips from Balboa Park

    Succulents rock. Native is niftut plants picy. Mulch is the new green. These and other drought-survival lessons are in bloom at Balboa Park, where our 147-year-old landmark has a lot to tell us about how to weather our water-challenged present and what to expect from our water-wise future.

    “The park is the jewel of San Diego, and it is held up as an example to San Diego and to visitors,” said Lucy Warren, chair of the horticulture committee for the Friends of Balboa Park. “We want to maintain the beauty of the park, just with less water. And we want to show people they can do it, too.”

    Members of the Friends of Balboa Park began looking for ways to reduce the 1,200-acre park’s water-use footprint during the 2009 drought. Since then, the nonprofit organization has invested nearly $500,000 (none of it from public sources) on water conservation.

    Through the organization’s Water Wise Program, some inefficient irrigation systems have been retrofitted and computerized water controllers have been installed. The park now has its own weather station, which helps regulate irrigation, and engineering is almost completed on a water-capture system for the roof of Casa de Balboa.

    Then there is the matter of where the water is going.

    As the city of San Diego works to meet the state-mandated 16 percent reduction in water use, the people dedicated to San Diego’s most high-profile gardens are tackling the same questions facing anyone trying to balance aesthetics, money and the drought. What can stay? What must go? And what can I afford to put in its place?

    Turf in street medians in and around the park isn’t being watered, and neither is the grass in the three dog parks. Keeping the trees alive and well is a priority, and if a drought-intolerant tree like a coast redwood dies, the park tries to replace it with a tougher specimen, like the Torrey pine. Turf and other water-needy plants are also being swapped for water-wise landscaping.

    The goal is to cut water use without leaving visitors in the dust. And the tools in the park’s toolbox can help anyone with a yard get water-wise. Smarter landscaping, irrigation upgrades, better oversight on overwatering, and the courage to deprive your dog of a romp in the grass.

    “People expect the park to look and feel a certain way, and we want to maintain that,” said Casey Smith, district manager for Balboa Park operations. “The central core of Balboa Park, the historical district, recreation areas and large areas of turf that are used for special events, you shouldn’t see any impact there.”

    The famous grounds of Balboa Park are home to many well-used lawns, more than a dozen specialty gardens and some 350 species of trees. Thanks to the Friends’ smart-scaping efforts, it is also a living tutorial on how to make those tough drought calls. Starting with priorities.

    “If you really love your roses, there is room for that,” Warren said as she walked through the park’s famed Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, where water-wise irrigation has been installed. “But then you have to think about what you are watering all the time that you are not enjoying to the maximum. You have to have beauty in your life, but you also have to compromise.”

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