Garden Design and Plant Selection

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Design and Install Your Garden Yourself

The FREE Landscape Design Templates, originally created for the Fire rebuild, but available to anyone, include eight scalable front yard designs that fit landscapes up to 2,500 square feet. Each landscape design is ready to permit and complies with the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance.

The Master Gardeners of Sonoma County offer a free consultation to any Sonoma County resident about their garden. While at your house, the Master Gardeners can provide you with a variety of information needed to create a successful garden. They offer how- to information about lawn conversion, converting sprinklers to drip irrigation, and choosing appropriate drought-tolerant plants. They will also provide a basic site-specific sketch that shows what your future garden will be.

Looking for WaterSmart landscape inspiration? Check out the gardens featured in the Eco-Friendly Garden Tour put on by the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership. The tour features gardens at homes, HOAs, and non-residential properties that utilize sustainable landscaping practices in Sonoma and Marin Counties. Explore the tour to learn about the plants, sustainable features, and garden supDone Editingpliers utilized for each garden.

When you’re ready to install your WaterSmart garden, check out the Santa Rosa Tool Library and borrow tools for FREE! The library includes gardening tools, plumbing tools, power tools and more, all available to those who live or work in Sonoma County.

Sheet Mulching

Sheet mulching is a simple, affordable, and sustainable way to convert your lawn to a garden using layers of cardboard, compost, and mulch. To properly sheet mulch, place a layer of cardboard directly on top of your existing lawn, which decomposes in place, then add a layer of compost on top of the cardboard, followed by a layer of arbor mulch. Plant larger plants before you begin and sheet mulch around them, and plant smaller plants after you begin by cutting holes directly in the cardboard to reach the soil. Sheet mulching is the recommended way to get rid of lawn because it is easy, inexpensive and helps the soil stay healthy while still removing the lawn and keeping sod out of the landfill as green waste. Find more detailed step-by-step descriptions and videos on how to sheet mulch, as well as other helpful sheet mulching resources, at the Lawn to Garden website.

Zero Waste Sonoma offers a rebate of 10% of the cost of compost and mulch up to $25,000. LEARN MORE

Find a Landscape Professional

Once you’ve decided to start a garden project, you may need landscape professionals to help you with the design, installation and maintenance.

Remember to get pre-qualified for your landscape rebate before starting work.

The City of Santa Rosa does not endorse specific individuals or companies, but we can suggest that you look at the following professional certification groups for landscape professionals to hire:

  1. Qualified Water Efficient Landscapers – QWEL professional certification provides landscape professionals with 20 hours of education on local water supply, sustainable landscaping, soils, landscape water budgets, irrigation system components and maintenance, irrigation system audits, and scheduling and controller programming.  In order to obtain the QWEL certification, an individual must demonstrate their ability to perform an irrigation system audit as well as pass the QWEL exam.
  2. California Landscape Contractors AssociationCLCA professionals must complete an irrigation audit, pass a written exam, manage at least one landscape site for a rolling 12 months and successfully complete a performance site review by CLCA administration.
  3. These local irrigation stores might also be able to provide suggestions for irrigation specialists:

Wyatt Irrigation: 747 Yolanda Ave.:

SiteOne: 180 Sebastopol Rd.:

Horizon: 344 Sutton Pl.:

Other landscape professional certifications include the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and ReScape Qualified Professionals, all of which have local landscape professionals who can help with landscape design.

How to Select a Landscape Professional

The key things you should consider when hiring a landscape professional:

  1. Is the individual a licensed C-27 landscape contractor? Use California’s Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board to verify that who you’re hiring is licensed.
  2. Do their references and portfolio of their past work inspire confidence?
    1. Are they local? Remember that local contractors are trying to pay their employees a living wage for Sonoma County and that generally, you get what you pay for.
    2. What services are they going to provide? Ask for a written plan and/or contract so expectations are clear prior to starting work.
  3. The EPA has additional questions that you might feel are helpful to ask a prospective landscape professional.

WaterSmart Plant Selection

Choosing plants for a new garden is the fun part! There are also many Sonoma County specific plant lists that highlight plants that will thrive locally.

  1. The California Native Plant Society offers free landscape designs with plant lists for our region to fit every design style.
  2. The Master Gardeners of Sonoma County have multiple plant lists including Sonoma County Superstars, plants for small gardens, plants that are avoided by deer, and more.
  3. The Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership has a free WaterSmart Plant Picker that allows you browse pictures of beautiful low water use plants.
  4. This list of trees that will thrive in Santa Rosa for our current and future climate, based on the climate change project models. All trees on this list are eligible to be used for the Cash for Grass rebate program. For more information about how to plant your tree so that it succeeds in it’s new landscape, visit ReLeaf.
  5. View these colorful and beautiful low water use and native plant groupings for your curb strip, garden area and welcoming house entry space. 
  6. A fantastic garden design tool is the Calscape Bay Area Garden Planner, which helps you find the perfect native plants for your garden in four easy questions and provides easy-to-use design plans.
  7. The Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) is a database that will tell you the water use classification of plants in the climate of Santa Rosa. Plants MUST be classified as Low or Very Low water use in Santa Rosa per WUCOLS in order to qualify for the  Cash for Grass program.

Artificial turf

Artificial turf is not consistent with a holistic landscaping approach and we do not provide a rebate for or encourage artificial turf for a variety of reasons (PDF).

Grow Food

Looking for low water use and edible plant varieties? Look at our low water use and edible plant list. The plants on this list also qualify for our Cash for Grass rebate program. The Master Gardeners show how you can grow a vegetable garden with less water. (Note: many edibles are not low water use and do NOT qualify for the Cash for Grass rebate.)

Problems with Weed Fabric and Rock Mulches

Good, healthy, alive soil is needed for plant and animal life. While weed fabric and rock mulches provide a useful barrier beneath pathways or a good option for creating fire-defensible space in the first five feet around a building, they create problems in larger areas.

  • Rock mulches radiate heat and can cause extreme temperatures around plants.
  • Weed fabric and rock mulches physically block earthworms and other organisms from cycling nutrients and creating healthy soil.
  • Weed fabric suffocates the soil, decreasing the flow of air, and this gets worse over time as it becomes silted up. Not enough oxygen gets to plant roots, and ammonia gas, phosphine gas, and hydrogen sulfide gas can build up in the soil.
  • Weeds grow on top – we've all seen old weed fabric with weeds growing in the dust and silt that collect on top of the fabric. And you can't just remove it and put in new weed fabric without damaging the roots of your plants.
  • Weed roots grow through the fabric, making it almost impossible to remove the weed roots when you pull the weeds.


Use organic mulches to save water, build soil, and make your plants happy! 

Firewise Gardening and Mulch

While mulch can provide water conservation benefits around our homes, mulch can also be combustible and residents in and around our Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) should learn the best mulch to use and where it can be placed around our homes.

Mulches fall into two main categories, organic and inorganic. Organic mulches usually consist of pine needles, wheat straw, pine bark nuggets, shredded cedar and redwood bark, and other recycled wood chips. Inorganic mulch consists of non-plant material such as rock, gravel, and brick chips, which can be categorized as hardscape. Hardscape can also consist of rocks, stones, bricks, and concrete pathways.

Using the appropriate mulch is key and planning out locations of plants or garden beds that will need the mulch is equally important. Avoid “gorilla hair” or other shredded bark mulches around homes, decks, fences, and other structures. Large bark chips are usually the best option for fire resistance. Fine (less than ¼”) or stingy mulches ignite, burn easier and can be difficult to extinguish when the mulch is greater than 2” in depth. .  

Homes built in the WUI after January 1, 2021 are required to have a 3’-5’ “Ignition Free Zone” and only inorganic, non-combustible ground covers or mulch can be used.

The City of Santa Rosa offers more information about firewise gardening recommendations here: The Master Gardeners of Sonoma County have compiled a list of resources for gardening with wildfire in mind.

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