WaterSmart makeover: Sweetwater-Cavanah – The San Diego Union-Tribune

WaterSmart makeover: Sweetwater-Cavanah – The San Diego Union-Tribune

When the matriarch of the neighborhood decides with her husband that it’s time to renovate the front yard’s landscaping, you know it’s going to have to be something special.

Nancy Cavanah, who lives with her husband, Ken, in Chula Vista, grew up in the house the couple lives in. They bought it from her mother back in 1988 and raised their son and daughter there. The kids even went to the same neighborhood elementary school as Nancy. Now, Ken’s brother Randy lives next door to them.

Nancy, a retired special education teacher who had also operated a home child care business, learned how to garden from her mom, who she said was an active gardener. Her mother died in 2013 at the age of 95, and Nancy, grieving her, decided with Ken to spend her fall break that year doing what her mother loved.

A home with a brown front lawn, which will be replaced.

Before: One reason the Cavanahs made a change was a rebate offered by the county for replacing grass lawns.

(Sweetwater Authority)

“It was my way to remember her and keep myself busy,” she said. “I could be out there and commune with nature with my mom.”

Another reason they decided to transform their yard was that San Diego County was offering a rebate as incentive to replace grass with drought-tolerant landscaping. At the time, their front yard was a very green lawn with Indian hawthorn shrubs under the windows and a sago palm in one corner by the sidewalk.

Fast forward to 2022, and the Cavanahs’ yard was named the WaterSmart Landscape Contest winner for the Sweetwater Authority. So, why did they enter the contest almost 10 years later? Nancy explained that they hadn’t known about it back then, and by the time they did enter the competition, they found that Sweetwater Authority actually wanted to show off an established garden to give people a sense of what drought-resistant landscaping had the potential to look like, once it had grown in.

The inspiration

Back in 2013, the Cavanahs felt there was no reason to have a lawn anymore. Nancy was no longer doing child care. No kids were playing on it.

A couple is handed a gift certificate in their front yard for winning a landscape contest.

Ken and Nancy Cavanah were awarded a $250 gift card for The Home Depot from Sweetwater Authority for winning the contest.

(Sweetwater Authority)

“We noticed other people doing succulents and drought-resistant gardens,” Nancy explained. “We would go to the San Diego Zoo and see all those colorful plants that didn’t need water, and then we just became environmentally conscious of our planet and wanted to make a difference. When we read about the rebate, we thought we should take advantage of the offer.”

The inspiration for their design was to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

“I just love hummingbirds, and that’s kind of how my mom comes to me,” Nancy said. “So, we started researching what plants attract them and butterflies.”

The couple pulled out the sprinklers, which hadn’t worked in years, figuring they could just continue to hand water their succulents and other low-water plants with the help of new rain barrels. They also decided to add a little hardscape in front of the house, which they’ve repainted twice in that time.

The details

The Cavanahs did all the work themselves, although they got design help from Lisa Schneider, an employee at Armstrong Nursery in Mission Valley at the time. They got an extensive plant list from the county from which they made plant selections at both Armstrong and Costco — and now Terra Bella Nursery in Chula Vista, which they hadn’t known about in 2013. Ken, a retired space management planner in San Diego County’s General Services division, is extremely detail- and research-oriented, so he spent a lot of time identifying how large various plants they liked would get and how much they’d spread out.

The flowering Haworth’s aeonium attracts pollinators like bees.

The flowering Haworth’s aeonium attracts pollinators like bees.

(Sweetwater Authority)

“You can’t just look them up and say, ‘Oh, that looks nice,’ ” he explained. “Because you don’t realize that it could grow to be 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. You can find that information online. That’s what I did. And I used AutoCAD software to design the front yard with circles showing how big each plant would get. So, if I thought we needed 10 of a particular plant, I would enter them in the CAD program so I could see how much space they’d take up when they were mature.”

That enabled the couple to make more accurate plant selections in their primarily orange, gold and yellow color palette, along with understanding the impact of the yard’s western exposure.

Lantana do well with the sunny western exposure.

Lantana do well with the sunny western exposure.

(Sweetwater Authority)

The Cavanahs grounded the space with two teddy bear magnolias. They kept the original sago palm and added a second one at the opposite corner where the sidewalk and their driveway meet. In the center of the yard is a grouping of small boulders that Ken’s brother Randy, a surveyor, picked up from the desert. Ken put down flagstone pavers purchased from RCP Block & Brick that are surrounded by Dymondia as groundcover. Nancy spent three months installing about 100 plants, from African fountain grass, kangaroo paw, coppertone sedum and Haworth’s aeonium to lion’s tail, fire sticks, curly jade plant and flax lily.

Just in front of the house, with the siding and fence now painted gray with black trim, is a bed of yellow- and orange-flowered Gazanias. In a second bed, which features a Cupid water fountain to attract birds, are Agapanthas, which also grow in front of the fence on the other side of the Gazanias. The couple have a small wrought-iron bistro table and chairs on a walkway of decomposed granite in front of the Gazanias. Along with rose-colored rock surrounding plantings near the sidewalk is recycled mulch that the couple gets from Terra Bella.

The lion’s tail is one of the plants needing pruning from time to time.

The lion’s tail is one of the plants needing pruning from time to time.

(Sweetwater Authority)

The Cavanahs installed a rain barrel by the front door that’s fed by two gutters. If there’s a hard rain, Ken will connect a second rain barrel between the front windows to the first barrel to take in excess water. And they put in a third rain barrel that receives the water from a new downspout installed on the south side of their second story. Nancy estimates that they water every 10 days or so, depending on the weather, although she said the magnolias need to be watered weekly. She uses a handheld moisture meter to determine what needs watering so she doesn’t overwater.

The couple has been struck by the ease of maintaining their garden.

“There is some maintenance,” Nancy acknowledged. “The fire stick needs to be pruned, as do the lion’s tail and the grasses.”

And, of course, they have to replace the mulch periodically.

A Cupid water fountain helps attract birds.

A Cupid water fountain helps attract birds.

(Sweetwater Authority)

Their low-water style of gardening is catching on in their neighborhood. Randy Cavanah has put in some succulents and native plants next door, as have others on their block. And a German television crew came out and interviewed the couple about their yard, according to Nancy.

“So, we’ve gone worldwide,” she said with a laugh.


The Cavanahs received $1,900 from San Diego County as a grass-removal rebate, and that became their landscaping budget. They didn’t pay anyone to help them, although they sometimes recruited their kids when they were home from college. More recently, they received a $250 gift card for The Home Depot from Sweetwater Authority as their prize for winning the 2022 contest.

A wrought-iron bistro table and chairs on a bed of decomposed granite offer seating by yellow and orange Gazanias.

The couple’s small, wrought-iron bistro table and chairs, placed on a walkway of decomposed granite, make a serene sitting area overlooking the yellow and orange Gazanias.

Water saved

They estimate they’ve been saving about $60 a month, although they acknowledge that it’s been a long time since they relandscaped and water bills have changed a lot.

A closer look: Nancy and Ken Cavanah

Plants used:
Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus)
Teddy bear magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora “Southern Charm”)
Fire sticks (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’)
Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos)
Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)
Lavender (Lavandula)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Dymondia (Dymondia margaretae)
Haworth’s aeonium (Aeonium haworthii)
Coppertone sedum (Sedum nussbaumerianum)
Chenille plant (Acalypha hispida)
Silver dollar plant (Lunaria annua)
Curly jade plant (Crassula ovata undulata)
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa)
Beautiful Graptopetalum (Graptopetalum superbum)
African fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum)
Central rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax)
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
Daylily (Hemerocallis)
Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus)
Flax lily (Dianella tasmanica)
African lily (Agapanthus)
Gazania (Gazania rigens)
Rockrose (Cistus)

Estimated costs: $1,936 (in 2013)

Who did the work: The Cavanahs

How long it took: Three months in 2013

Water savings: They estimate that they’ve been saving about $60 a month.


  • The biggest thing is to remind yourself that these plants really are low water. Don’t overwater them, or they’ll fail.
  • Do your research so you know what you’re getting into as far as the size of the plants. Click on images of mature plants. Also, take the time to learn what kind of maintenance they’ll need in terms of watering, pruning and deadheading. That way you can find the right balance between how much time you want to spend in your garden and what the plants require.
  • Look around your neighborhood to see what plants are thriving in your microclimate.
  • Be prepared to replace plants if they don’t work out. It’s a process.

About the series
This is the third in an occasional series on winners of the annual WaterSmart Landscape Contest, conducted in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority. To learn about entering the next contest, visit landscapecontest.com.

For details on classes and resources through the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program, visit landscapemakeover.watersmartsd.org. Landscape rebates are available through the Socal WaterSmart Turf Replacement Program at socalwatersmart.com.

Golden is a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.