WaterSmart makeover: Escondido yard is a handcrafted haven

In Jeanne Reutlinger’s world, gardening is an act of collaboration with friends and neighbors — meaning you don’t need much of a budget at all to create a prize-winning front yard. In Reutlinger’s case, her garden is the 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Contest winner for the city of Escondido’s water district.

Reutlinger, now 85 and physically unable to do much gardening these days due to a back problem, took on the landscaping project in 2019 when she moved into her Escondido home at age 81. It was two years after the death of her husband Ron, following more than 50 years of marriage. The couple had lived for many decades in Crown Point and, years before, had bought two rental homes next door to one another in Escondido. Their daughter Diana Simpson, one of the Reutlingers’ four children, now lives in the second home, and both women have roommates.

Jeanne Reutlinger, who is the WaterSmart garden winner, stands in front of her Escondido home.

Jeanne Reutlinger’s daughter and grandson helped in building her garden; she also gathered clippings from neighbors on her walks.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Upon moving in, Reutlinger took on the project of creating a lush but low-maintenance, low-water garden herself, with some help from Simpson and her son John, who lives on Palomar Mountain. It took her three years, putting to use all she had learned during her years of gardening at her Crown Point home and the mountain and desert cabins she and Ron had owned, as well as a childhood filled with gardening with both her mother and grandmother.

The inspiration

Reutlinger explained that when she moved into her Escondido home, the yard was full of weeds and neglect.

Before: The yard started as dirt and weeds.

Before: The yard started as dirt and weeds.

(Jeanne Reutlinger)

Reutlinger started filling it in with low-water groundcover, succulents, shrubs and flowers.

Reutlinger started filling it in with low-water groundcover, succulents, shrubs and flowers.

(Jeanne Reutlinger)

“It was baked by the hot sun and car exhaust from the nearby asphalt street,” she recalled. “Wanting to conserve water and create a natural, low-maintenance habitat, I had a forlorn lawn full of weeds and ruts.”

Reutlinger was already having her driveway extended, so she asked the man doing the work if he could put his Bobcat to use on the front yard to scrape away the weeds, old tree roots and debris, which he did. He also provided a nice mound in one area to elevate some of the future plantings.

Now that it was cleared and shaped, Reutlinger could get a better sense of what she wanted to do — but she had no designer to lay it out, nor any plans at all. What she did have was a goal.

“I wanted to do my own planting and create a colorful waterwise garden to attract butterflies and small birds,” she explained. “I am 85 years old and did the flower, succulent, small shrub and groundcover planting myself over the past three years. It has been a continual work in progress.”

Homeowner Jeanne Reutlinger shows off her garden after being chosen the 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Contest winner.

After: Homeowner Jeanne Reutlinger shows off her garden after being chosen the 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Contest winner for Escondido.

(Emily J. Mixer / city of Escondido)

The details

OK, Reutlinger has had help. Her grandson John helped her with the large plantings. And he contributed to the striking birdbath feature.

“I told him I wanted a wood stump as high as his waist to put my dish on for a birdbath,” she said. “He told me, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve had one sitting around for years.’ So, he brought it and it was just right.

“A couple of weeks later he told me he found another piece. It’s more like a branch, and we poked it down a hole at the bottom of the stump. The smaller attached branches extend over the birdbath. Birds perch on it, sharpen their beaks on it a little. There are sometimes seven or eight birds in there just flapping around and taking their baths, and I can see it all from my kitchen window.”

A homemade bird bath in the Watersmart winner garden in Escondido.

Reutlinger’s grandson provided a wooden stump to rest a birdbath on and another striking branch that extends over it to serve as a perch for visiting birds.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Reutlinger barely went to a nursery. Instead, she’d take walks around the neighborhood and if she saw plants she liked, she’d knock on the door and ask the residents if she could take clippings. Those clippings alone resulted in a lush groundcover of creeping myoporum, a perennial groundcover native to Australia. But it was time-consuming. She explained that she would sit on the ground and work a 3-foot-by-1½-foot area of ground, digging deep, adding soil conditioners, and watering well one day, followed by planting her starts and covering them loosely with the new soil the next day. And so it went until she made her way around the rest of the yard, keeping it moist daily, lugging her supplies with a old metal wagon.

Friends also contributed to her project, giving her birds of paradise and magenta bougainvillea, creeping rosemary and rock purslane. She also acquired a couple of Leyland cypress plants, red and yellow and pink lantana, a pink miniature rose bush, marigolds and California poppies. And Reutlinger’s favorite: giant yellow gazania daisies. In fact, the only original vegetation she kept were a couple of bushes against the house, below the kitchen window, and a massive juniper that had clearly been there for decades.

Where the mound had been created, Reutlinger placed the birdbath at the top, then added a variety of succulents, like jelly bean plants and mitre aloe, mixed in with the gazanias, zinnias, clouds of purple and white sweet alyssum, California poppies whose seeds she collects and flings throughout the garden, and flax lily standing above them. As a water-saving measure, she divided the mound into a few tiers progressing downward and installed curved scalloped brick edging to avoid runoff of water that came from rain or her hand watering. Throughout the mound and the rest of the garden are pieces of wood from Palomar Mountain that her grandson brought to her.

Gazania flower in a waterwise home garden.

Reutlinger got contributions from friends, including giant yellow gazania daisies, her favorites.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Reutlinger said the earth for each planting was supplemented with enriched potting soil to give nutrients and hold in the moisture. With a full sun exposure and a major street in front of the house, she said she had to be careful about planting some of the flowers close to the street since the asphalt from the street gives off a lot of heat. A bigger challenge, she admitted, are weeds and gophers.

“They’ve eaten a lot of flowers,” she said with a sigh. “I catch them with traps. Most of the weeds come after the rain, but I use a hula hoe to get rid of them.”

When it comes to Reutlinger’s passion for butterflies, she’s beyond dedicated. She basically has created a habitat of milkweed plants that volunteer around her front lawn and her backyard. At a recent visit, innumerable yellow, black and white striped caterpillars were fat and happy, munching on the leaves of the bushes, the seed-filled pods dense and about ready to burst open.

“I have been able to watch the full life cycle of the monarch from egg to growing caterpillar to chrysalis to beautiful adult butterfly right in my own yard,” she said.

A caterpillar on a milkweed plant.

Reutlinger has created a habitat of milkweed plants that volunteer around her front lawn and her backyard.
“I have been able to watch the full life cycle of the monarch,” she said.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The many birds with their cheerful songs that enjoy my birdbath in the mornings are a delight,” she added. “I get many compliments from my neighbors who enjoy the beauty and color that my yard has added to our neighborhood. It was once a bleak and barren corner and has now been transformed with a lot of love and enjoyment over the years into a waterwise habitat for birds and butterflies, and it gives smiles to all who pass by.

“Being outdoors in nature has many mental and physical health benefits that all of our bodies need. A garden is good for our soul and helps us connect with our Creator.”


Reutlinger’s costs for her garden have been minimal. Her daughter estimates that, at most, she’s spent $250. Since she got a $250 gift card to El Plantio Nursery & Landscaping in Escondido, she basically came out even.

Detail view of waterwise plants.

Reutlinger wanted a colorful garden that attracted pollinators.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s because I have been creative and have done most of the work myself,” Reutlinger explained. “It is easy to start plants from cuttings and saves money if one is patient and nurtures the little cuttings. I have planted California poppies, giant gazania daisies (which reseed themselves constantly), and marigolds every year from seeds I have collected and dried from the previous year’s flowers.”

Water saved

She had minimal savings, because the landscape before her project was mostly weeds, and there’s no irrigation installed. Any watering is done lightly with a garden hose — or rain.

A closer look: Jeanne Reutlinger

Plants used: dwarf jade (Portulacaria afra), creeping myoporum (Myoporum parvifolium), rock purslane (Calandrinia grandiflora), mitre aloe (Aloe perfoliata), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), flax lily (Dianella enssifolia), paddle plant (Kalanchoe tetraphylla), Leyland cypress (Cuprocyparis leylandii), magenta bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spectabilis), creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostrata), sea lavender (Limonium latifolium), lantana (Lantana camara), giant yellow gazania daisy (Gazania rigens), wax-leaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum), ‘Everest’ sedge grass (Carex oshimensis), Lady Banks’ pink miniature rose bush (Rosa banksiae), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), wild iris (Iris spuria) and bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

Estimated costs: $250

"Winner" sign in a front yard that won the WaterSmart landscape contest.

Reutlinger’s care and patience has transformed a once “bleak and barren corner” into a waterwise habitat for birds and butterflies.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Who did the work: Homeowner Jeanne Reutlinger, with help from her daughter and grandson

How long it took: Three years

Water savings: Minimal, because the space had gone to weeds until she began her project. But she waters by hand with a hose and planted low-water vegetation.


  • Don’t be shy about asking neighbors for cuttings.
  • Make sure you don’t overwater your plants.
  • Plant seeds and make sure to collect the seeds from your own plants so you can add to your garden.
  • Stay on top of pruning plants so they don’t overtake their neighbors. Then replant the cuttings or give them away to friends and family as gifts.
  • Make sure your potted plants have good drainage, even if you have to drill a hole at the bottom yourself.
  • Be patient with your new garden. Reutlinger says hers took two years before the plants filled in and it really started looking good.

About the series

This is the fourth 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.