San Diego Landscaping Requirements

September 6, 2023 ● Lawn Care

San Diego County is home to a vibrant community and plenty of desirable properties, but it’s also an area deeply impacted by climate change. As a result, landscaping in San Diego requires more planning and care than you might expect. 

Landscaping professionals can help you navigate these requirements and plan an environmentally-conscious, beautiful set-up for your home.

Key Takeaways

  • Landscape and irrigation system plans are required for new and existing projects that meet certain requirements.
  • Property owners are responsible for listing the vegetation, irrigation systems, soil, turf, and other components used in their plans. Proper maintenance of these elements is required.
  • Overall, landscapes must be designed to limit water waste, organic waste, and potential harm to the environment. 


San Diego County outlines some key requirements for existing and new landscaping projects. These rules are designed to protect the area’s natural environment and ensure that landscapes help rather than hinder this effort.

  • Landscape and irrigation plans are required and must be completed by a licensed landscape architect for commercial projects. Homeowners can prepare their own plans.
  • These plans must provide details about vegetation, water features, irrigation, and water pressure used in landscaping.

Landscape Water Management

Because drought conditions in California make water such a limited resource, San Diego has enacted specific irrigation requirements for landscaping projects. Creating an efficient water management system is necessary for creating or updating a landscape.

  • Landscaping plans are expected to group plants by water needs and include efficient irrigation systems.
  • Plans should also note the type of automatic irrigation controller a landscape will use and where its power comes from. 
  • Irrigation system plans should be detailed and explain the types of lines, fittings, and other components used.
  • Some projects need special water-use permission from local authorities.  Landscape water meters are required to track usage in larger areas.
  • As is true in other parts of California, a Maximum Applied Water Allowance (MAWA) is created for each landscaping project. This value represents the maximum amount of water an area may use for irrigation. It’s calculated based on the area, vegetation, and other details unique to each project. 


Beyond creating solid plans for irrigation systems, San Diego also expects property owners to consider how they’ll organize the rest of their landscaped areas. Some major requirements include those below.

  • New residential properties and some commercial properties are required to submit a landscape documentation package before work begins. This package will be used to determine the maximum water limits for the project.
  • The documentation package must include a project description, landscaping and irrigation plan, grading design plan, water-efficient landscape worksheet, and soil management report.
  • Regular maintenance of landscape features and irrigation systems is necessary. Property owners should create a maintenance plan and determine who will be responsible for ensuring maintenance is successful.
  • Plants may not be cut below six inches.
  • Trees and large shrubs must be pruned to provide clearance three times the height of the understory plant material. 
  • Overall, plant material is expected to be healthy and maintained in good growing condition at all times.


Failing to comply with any of the rules outlined by San Diego County is prohibited unless local authorities have granted special permission. But there are some specific stipulations the county clearly outlines to be aware of.

Landscape Water Management

Choosing not to heed water limits established by the county in one way or another can lead to legal trouble.

  • Using water for irrigation or water features in landscaping is prohibited without proper authorization.
  • Water use beyond the MAWA for a property is prohibited and may result in fines or other consequences.
  • All water features for a project may be at most 15% of the total landscaped area. 


Keeping plant life healthy and ensuring landscaped areas consist of appropriate amounts of soil, lawns, turf, etc., is key. There are some limits to what property owners can include in their landscaping. 

  • Irrigated turf may make up at most 25% of the total landscaped area for single- and multi-family residences. 
  • Turf that cannot be irrigated without causing runoff, overspray, or another form of water loss is prohibited from being used in landscaping. 
  • Some plant life species (such as paper mulberry or pampas grass) require high amounts of water to thrive or otherwise threaten San Diego’s natural climate. As a result, the use of these plants in landscaping is prohibited. 


Water usage and landscaping plan rules might not apply to these circumstances:

  • Public botanical gardens with certain plant life
  • Gardens smaller than 500 square feet
  • Historic sites recognized by local, state, or federal authorities
  • Environmental restoration projects 

Likewise, some unique circumstances exempt certain projects from the same regulations as others. Examples include those below.

  • Swimming pools, spas, and similar amenities are not classified as water features and are not subject to the same limitations.
  • Non-irrigated and more widespread turf use is acceptable in locations like golf courses, cemeteries, and ball fields.

Fire Code

In areas prone to wildfires, landscape and irrigation system plans should include fire safety steps. Beyond incorporating fire hazards into plans, homeowners and property owners can practice fire safety by limiting flammable materials. 

  • Pruning and thinning vegetation is one of the best ways to reduce flammable materials on your property. As a result, brush management is an expected part of landscape maintenance.
  • Brush management should reduce how much flammable material is present without disrupting plant coverage. Soil should remain protected.
  • Landscaping plans that may interfere with fire safety features, such as fire hydrants or emergency road access, should be reviewed by proper authorities for adjustments and approval.

Waste Reduction

San Diego County expects property owners to limit waste in landscaped areas and, when possible, find ways to repurpose it.

  • Organic debris and trimmings from pruning must be removed from the landscaped site.
  • Trimmings that aren’t removed must be converted into mulch and evenly dispersed throughout the area.

Overall, the county aims to keep landscaping projects up to these standards so that local water supplies, flora, and fauna are safe and supported. Long-term success for plant life depends on how well property owners plan their landscapes and water management systems. Trusting a professional to help you get the job done can save you a lot of time, hassle, and money.