water efficient garden

My Interview with Shelkie Tao with Water Efficient Gardens


How can we create water efficient lawns?

I had the opportunity to interview Shelkie Tao with Water Efficient Gardens. Shelkie works with her clients to promote water efficient gardens.  This is the transcript of our conversation.

Interview Transcript

Tony Green: Could you give me a little background about how you started water efficient gardens?

Shelkie Tao: I have been a product manager with hi-tech companies for a long time, for over ten years. So, it’s not in the gardening business.

But I have been very passionate about anything related with environment and going green. I am a firm believer we are facing very real and serious challenges to our environment. Climate change, global warming, these are real, these are happening. And every one of us should do something about it. So, in 2015 I developed an app, trying to help people better measure and manage their footprints on the environment. And I entered that into the Mountain View apps challenge, and won top ten for that challenge.

So, from there, I kind of got an idea about water, and about that we should do something in the garden business.

Because the lawns for many California families, is the number one user of water in the household. So, if we need to conserve water, that’s the area that you pretty much must address.

Tony Green:  So what exactly makes conventional lawns inefficient? Is it the irrigation  method? Or is it the size of the lawn?

Shelkie Tao:    It’s simply because the lawns, the grass, they are big guzzlers of water. They just take a lot of water. So, for 1,000 square feet of lawn, for one watering, it will take 623 gallons of water. So, in the hot summer days, if you water it like at  least every once, every two weeks, you are talking lots and lots of water.

Yeah. So, what surprised me was that not a lot of people knew about that fact. Last time when I went out to a business women lunch, and asked  people what do they think is the number one user, which is the number one user in all the household, very few people knew about that. When I mentioned  lawn, very few people knew about that.

So, yeah. So, it sounds like, but something, you can realize that it’s something  that we can get awareness out, people realize that it’s something that a lot of water can be conserved. And that’s what they can do about it.

Tony Green:    Now I would imagine a lot of that would be because you’re using non-native plants. Is there any way you can explain what a non-native plant is and how that  affects the water?

Shelkie Tao:  The grass, the lawns, they typically those are not native plants. They are just grass. A lot of them are not, there are some more drought tolerant grasses out there. But most of the lawns, they were planted last ten years, twenty years. At that time, nobody thought about water. So, they are just very water-guzzling, very thirsty kind of plants.

A water-efficient garden, it’s comprised of several key elements. And native plants are one of them. Native plants they grow up here, they’ve been adapted to California’s dry climate for millions of years. They adapt to the climate well in that they take all the water during the winter, and then they become, goes into dormancy in the summer, so that they can utilize all the water they get in winter very well, like where we are headed right now. And because California has always been dry, they adapt to this kind of environment very well.

But in addition to native plants, there are other key elements of a water efficient garden. For example, you need to have the mulch on the surface to keep the water from evaporating, and keep the earth moist. And, a lot of times the mulch themselves should be organic. So, over time they can compost and add to the richness of the soils. Which, again, is very important for helping keep the water in the soil.

Another element is permeable surfaces. That’s why we don’t encourage artificial turf for water-efficient gardens, because at the bottom of that it’s just a big sheet of plastic and no water can penetrate through it. So, everything should be permeable so the rain water can seep deep into the earth.

That’s why when you go out and see these, many times it’s covered by mulch. And sometimes people do the dry bed thing with the pebble stones. That’s another example of permeable materials, in that when it rains, like this time, the water can just go through those pebble stones and seep deep into the water.

There’s other elements, like the irrigation. The drip is big. So, for all the water  efficient gardens, a drip is the norm. No sprinklers should be used, because drip  can save up to 50% on water, compared to a sprinkler. And, because it’s not  a lawn, the drip can work the best, in that the tube can just extend to every  single plant’s root area. So, all the water can just go into that small area of the roots of one plant.

Tony Green:   So in other words the water is local to the root, so you’re only applying water that the root needs, not …

Shelkie Tao: Right. And there’s no runoff. Many times, when you go through watering lawn your wrong, you can see the huge, huge runoff, because it just keeps sprinkling out and the soil cannot keep that much water in such a short time. The drip, if you drip one drop, one drop, and if you just go very slowly so the soil can absorb, there’s no runoff from that.

Shelkie Tao: Yeah. So also another benefit of that is that because it only benefits that specific plant, it will not go of other areas where the weeds might take the roots’ water.

Tony Green:   Oh, okay. I hadn’t thought about that.

Shelkie Tao:    So, yeah, so drip is another big element. There’s another also important one, is the rain sensor. Like at this time we get a lot of rain, but many people just do the irrigation automatically. They have a timer. But if you have a rain sensor and hook that to the timer, then when it rains, it feels the rain and it will just cut off the scheduled watering. And that way you can save a lot of water too.

Tony Green:  Oh! I see.

Shelkie Tao:  So, yes. Native plants are one very huge element of the garden, the water efficient garden. But there are other factors as well.

Tony Green:  So, if I were interested in knowing what was a native plant, where I lived, how would I find that out?

Shelkie Tao: There are quite some resources out there. I think there’s an organization called CPNA, I can go back and give you an exact. It’s called California Native Plant Association, or something like that. They have a big database that lists all the, pretty much all the native plants in California.  And I think you can look it up by zip code and things like that. So, that’s a source.

Tony Green:  Oh. So, now that you’ve been getting a lot more rain recently, and even people saying that the drought is over, where do you see that changing people and their lawns? Do you see people going back to their old, bad water habits? Or …

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah. I do see that. I do have some people who were planning on converting their lawns, but then when the rain came they told me, and said, oh no, the lawns are turning green now, they don’t look ugly, so I’m not going to do it right now. So, I can see that. But, I think it is still important that we conserve water, right, even if we get all these rains. And still important that we convert all those lawns to water efficient gardens.

About the drought itself, as we mentioned last time, it’s just one good season. But in the future we don’t know whether they will continue to come. The drought might very likely come back.

Tony Green: Oh, it will, because historically over California, it’s always been droughts, hundreds of years.

Shelkie Tao: That, and also the population growth, and also the amount of expansion. So, we should always have this drought mindset and conserve water. And when you talk about conserve water, the lawn conversion is one piece of that, of what we just talked about.

Tony Green:  I think that the water restrictions should be permanent. In Australia, they’re permanent. In terms of the restrictions that the governor put in, I think we should make them permanent. I don’t want to see them undo, because you’ve undone the work that you’ve done, and time goes by and there’s another drought, and you’re going through the same things that you went through a few years ago.

Shelkie Tao:  Exactly, exactly. So if all these efforts stop, and people just go back to their lawns, it’s like, all this effort wasted. And the next drought strikes again, and we come back to exactly the same place where we started. I think we should all learn a big lesson from this drought, that it will come, and when it comes it can be very bad, and we all need to be prepared for that scenario.

Tony Green:  So just to make sure that I understood what you said, you mentioned that the turfs are basically not a good thing. That it would be better to have a mulch, more of a natural, so you can get the permeability of the water when it lands.

Shelkie Tao:  So the turf overall, because they take so much water, so to conserve, pretty much the much better approach is to put in a water efficient garden, where you have mainly native or drought tolerant plants, that you have a drip irrigation system, you have mulch, and you have permeable surfaces. With all these elements that make sure you capture all the rain water that fall into that piece of land, and then that can be most effectively utilized by the plants, which is with native plants.

And also, in addition to water conservation, a huge benefit of such a garden is that it is beautiful. It’s a nice view that everyone will like to enjoy. There are so many native plants that they can blossom at different seasons, times, spring, summer, fall, so that if you plan well, you can have a garden with all kinds of very pretty blossoms throughout the year.

Tony Green:  So are there native grasses?

Shelkie Tao: I think there are some grasses that are relatively more drought tolerant. And people, if they really want to keep their lawn, or at least keep part of the garden as a lawn, they can choose those grasses. Yeah, there are choices they can make.

Tony Green: Well we’ve kind of covered a lot of the questions. In the event that someone is really interested in learning more about a water efficient lawn, how could someone get in touch with you?

Shelkie Tao:  They are more than welcome to visit my website, waterefficientgarden.com. And they can also follow my blog or twitter account where I will very continually publish information about how to go about building and making a garden.

Tony Green:  And so what do you think stops people from having a more water efficient lawn? Is it just their habits? Or is it just that they don’t, or maybe they don’t care or they don’t know the right way to go?

Shelkie Tao: I think it’s more about the later. Quite some people when I talk with them, they wanted to do this. Because before this rain, a lot of lawns were yellow already, and it was an eyesore to many people, and they did want to replace it with something much nicer. But they did not know how to do it, how to start, where to start. They don’t know how to find an architect, find a designer and contractor. They don’t what the native plants that they can use, or what are out there. There’s this knowledge gap, that’s a word I learned from one of articles. This knowledge gap about how to build such a garden. A lot of people when they think of such a project, they will say, oh, what the cost will be, what time commitment.

Tony Green:  Oh yeah, sure.

Shelkie Tao:     And those complexities, they really balk at such perceived complexities a lot. And because they just do not have the knowledge, then they just stop doing it. So, some of the people, I were able to put out such projects for them, all of them, they’re responses were universal when I coached them and told them that, hey I can take care of all the design, all the paperwork for applying for the rebate, actually installing it, then getting the check for you after finishing the garden, then they were like- and I told them the cost, which they all feel is very reasonable, they were all like, this is great! That’s exactly what I want. I have a nice garden and then I don’t need to worry about all the paperwork.

Tony Green:  What is the rebate? I guess it’ll depend by county. But what is the rebate in Santa Clara County?

Shelkie Tao: There’s one, it’s issued by the Santa Clara County Water District. It’s one dollar per one square feet. So, for example, if you have a 1,000 square feet of lawn …

Tony Green:  A thousand dollars?  That’s not bad!

Shelkie Tao:   Actually, it was even better one or two years ago. It was like up to two dollars per square feet. I think down in L.A., some places are giving out like one, two or even three dollars …

Tony Green:  Now, is that rebate, I know a lot of Santa Clara it goes through the year, and they go through a certain amount that they have over the year, and then if you don’t use it within that year, you run out, then you have to apply for the next year. Because there’s only so much money that they allocate for the rebates every year.

Shelkie Tao:   Yeah, last year it ran out. So, I think the program stopped. But then they reopened it in July, when they got the new funds. And now they still have the funds, because the program is still on right now. You can still put in the application right now.

Tony Green:  Yeah, a lot of the industrial rebates kind of work the same way.

Shelkie Tao:   Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Tony Green: In terms of with the Santa Clara County. You need to apply, it’s on line and everything.

Shelkie Tao: Yeah. So, that actually makes the whole thing much more attractive. Especially when I mention it to the people I work for, that I work with, telling them that I could take care of all the paperwork and everything.

Tony Green:  Oh!

Shelkie Tao: So, I think that, to come back to your answer, is that I think the knowledge gap, and then a lack of very readily available solutions out there, to do this easily and conveniently is one of the reasons that as waterefficientgarden.com we would like to bridge that gap a little bit, to make that much easier for a lot more people to do this.

Tony Green:  Wow. Are there a lot of gardens down here. I’m looking around I guess, but in some places obviously, if it’s more spread out, you’re probably more grass; whereas if it’s more of a urban area, there would be less grass. And so, have you done any work far away from the Bay Area? Or just … ?

Shelkie Tao: Right now I’m just focusing on Bay Area.

Tony Green: Yeah, there’s a lot to do.

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah.

Tony Green: Right here.

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah, but definitely there’s a lot to do. I think one or two years ago, when the drought was at its peak, I think in the emergency regulations that the governor issued, he mentioned that we needed to convert 15 million acre of the lawns into the water efficient gardens. But I think by last year alone 117 million acre were converted.

Tony Green:  Wow.

Shelkie Tao: So, yeah, it’s proved to be very effective. People are getting the idea, they are on the band wagon. It’s just getting more people.

Tony Green:  Wow. Now, in terms of I guess new development, would be really important to, in terms of when they’re actually building new housing, to make sure from the beginning that they’re using the right type of garden. Because I’m sure it’s easier, it’s more work to go back at the end once it already goes in.

Shelkie Tao: Definitely. I think  Cupertino already requires for new construction.  I think before you start the construction you need to include the garden as part of your plan and submit it.

Tony Green:  Oh, okay.

Shelkie Tao:  So only those that meet the requirement. I need to go back and double check. But I think, yes, that’s the city that’s starting to do it right now.

Tony Green:  That’s good. So, you typically work with people at homes with gardens. Not so much big facilities.

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah. Not yet. But, yes, that’s another big opportunity area too.

Tony Green:   Because I know in a lot of the new buildings, they’re doing where they want to be net water and net energy from the beginning.

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah.

Tony Green:  And so especially, because I know from a commercial building side, that the reason people put in gardens is because it looks really nice, people like that. And obviously people like that, that’s the drive, that people will pay rent and all that. And so, that’s kind of an interesting, it kind of gives you a way to have everything. You know, you could have your beautiful garden, and you’re being water efficient. It seems like a no-brainer?

Shelkie Tao:  I think the companies, they are leading the effort too. I think they are in this number one, they want to be a leader in, they want to be viewed as a green leader, right. That’s good for their business. And number two, they do have all this land that they can do something about. Like if you go to Google, they replaced all their lawns with these native plants, which are tolerant plants, on their campus. It’s all native plants. They even won the, I think they won an award from Santa Clara Water District for what they did in 2014 or 15.

Tony Green:  Oh! Well if it’s good enough for Google maybe it’s good enough for everyone, huh?

Shelkie Tao: Exactly. And Apple too. Actually.

Tony Green:  Apple as well?

Shelkie Tao:  Yeah. If you drive just one or two blocks up here, you can see all those, they just did the side pieces, the strips, they are all planted with native plants now. So, that landscape is all drought tolerant.

Tony Green: So typically, a native plant, during a drought, it’ll still stay green through the drought? Or will it get less brown?

Shelkie Tao: I think if you, number one, it will still survive, right. Different from the grass, it will just go brown and dead. The native plants won’t. They will still be alive. The only difference is that they may not be blossoming as much compared to when they have full water, like this. But they will survive. And when they get the rain they will blossom. So, that’s the big difference. And the native plant is not just great for that perspective, and because they’re roots tend to grow very deep to get the water, that is very good for the soil as well. Because they …

Tony Green:   Oh! So that would be another added benefit?

Shelkie Tao:  Yes, definitely. Because compared to a lot of other plants, where the root might not go as deep, these, once again, they’re well adapted to this kind of environment, so they tend to, the roots tend to go very deep to get to the very little water that’s down there. So, in this process they can add to the organic matters, to the soil, and that can help retain the carbon in the soil and all this good stuff.

Tony Green:   Wow. Pretty interesting. So, you have any I guess words of advice or anything you want to get out there? Or, in terms of if someone is thinking about a water efficient garden, what would you tell them?

Shelkie Tao: Yeah, right. So, I think, number one, that’s a good start, to want to do something about it. It is important to help us all to conserve water. And number two, they can visit websites, like waterefficientgarden.com and try to find examples of designs and projects that have been done before to get some either inspiration or ideas. And if they like to, then waterefficientgarden.com can also provide the service to do the conversion.

Tony Green: So do you provide, I guess consultations and things of that nature?

Shelkie Tao: Yes, yes.

Tony Green: Okay, well then if you have a water efficient issue or problem, please, feel free to reach out.

Shelkie Tao: Exactly, exactly. Right. If you have any questions, you can go to the Facebook page and write your questions.

Tony Green: Okay, fair enough. I wanted to thank you for sharing your time and hopefully we’ll put this out there and people will realize that we need to think about water efficient gardens in the same way we need to think about conserving our water.

Final Thoughts

If you need guidance on how you can make you lawn more water efficient please feel free to reach out to Shelkie through her Water Efficient Gardens website.