How the Environmental Center of San Diego, Surfrider Foundation, and
A Keystone Species Launched Our Homeowners’ Association’s Eco-friendly Initiative

Story and photos by Ilene J Klein

Start where you are
Use what you have
Do what you can
Arthur Ashe

Our homeowner association’s path towards a native plant demonstration garden began – well, unusually. It took an event – let’s call it “squirrel-gate” – to organize like-minded neighbors to lobby for environmentally friendly habitat and wildlife practices.

The “Squirrel-gate” Backstory

Three California Ground Squirrels set up camp earlier this year along the fringes of our four-acre park. Traps were planned to rid the cheeky critters from the area. Instead, twelve poison-filled containers lined the ground’s perimeter.

A handful of residents concerned about the harmful effects of pesticides on our pets, children, and wildlife swiftly mobilized to submit a successful petition to our HOA Board for the boxes’ prompt removal. Instead of going our separate ways as in the past, we petitioned the Board again, winning approval to form an advisory committee on best practices in environmental stewardship.

The Setting

Our community is located within the Los Peñasquitos Creek watershed. Over two hundred townhomes sit across the street from its lagoon and wildlife sanctuary, surrounded by critical habitats for migratory and resident animals and endangered, threatened, flagship, and keystone species.

Gracing our property are flowering plants, berry-laden bushes, and rare Torrey Pine trees. While native plants are few, most are drought-resistant, the result of our Landscaping Committee’s efforts to preserve the beautiful gardens valued by residents and conserve water. The Advisory Committee was formed to augment that group’s efforts. Our goal: a community committed to protecting the natural beauty of our surroundings and ensuring a healthy ecosystem for generations to come.

Enter the Environmental Center of San Diego and Surfrider Foundation

Our group sought to learn about pesticide impact on wildlife, the watershed, and ways to reduce habitat fragmentation through native plant gardens. Pam Heatherington from the Environmental Center of San Diego (ECSD) helped kick things off and invited Mitch Silverstein from the Surfrider Foundation to be her co-presenter. Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Garden Program and ECSD’s track record of protecting the environment through strategic partnerships made them ideal speakers for our first meeting.

Pam and Mitch provided informative resources like the San Diego Sustainable Landscape Guidelines, A Watershed Approach to Landscaping, and practical tips for getting started. Their presentation built a convincing case in support of native plants. Our HOA Board president found the comparison between the root base of lawns vs. native plants particularly “compelling.”

Shortly after, the Board president identified a site for our first native plant demonstration garden. Additionally, the Landscaping Committee chairman and its Board liaison agreed to make it happen. Our group went from wondering, “how are we going to do it?” to believing, “we can – and should – do it!”

Where We Are Now

Planning for our first native plant demonstration garden is underway! Through Mitch, we met with the Executive Director for the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon Foundation, who offered help with grant applications supporting our efforts. We’ve drafted eco-friendly criteria to guide decisions about planting, irrigation, and protecting the watershed for upcoming Board approval. Next up? Working with our landscaping company on native plant selection.

Sharing Our Lessons Learned

  • There’s no need to wait for a “squirrel-gate” to begin. A few committed individuals, a persuasive petition, and an open-minded HOA board get the ball rolling.
  • There’s talent in your own backyard. We met neighbors experienced in conservation, renewables, community gardens, wildlife, and related skills.
  • Involve decision-makers early on and often. Inviting HOA Board and Landscaping Committee members to our meetings helped gain early buy-in for a native plant garden.
  • Think big but start small. Evolution, not revolution. We expect that showing the beauty and benefits of native gardens to our community will build significant support for more ambitious projects in the future.
  • Finally, DO reach out to experts like the Environmental Center of San Diego and Surfrider Foundation. Partnerships like theirs are what make the seemingly impossible possible!