Frequently Asked Questions

Landscape Guide to Water Efficiency
Learn about drought tolerant landscape design and efficient irrigation in Team WaterSmart's Landscape Guide to Water Efficiency

Quick links to FAQ:

Which Irrigation Upgrades & Soil Improvements are eligible and how much money can I get for each?

Irrigation Upgrades - Up to $475 for upgrades to existing irrigation systems through the installation and proper use of high-efficiency irrigation system components. For example:
  • Installation of a smart control automatic irrigation controller, a rain sensor, a soil moisture sensor, and/or a weather-based evapotranspiration sensor
  • Conversion of conventional spray/rotor irrigation zones to drip irrigation
  • Replacement of conventional spray/rotor emitters with matched precipitation (MP) rotators
Soil Amendments - Up to $100 for improving the health and water retention of existing on-site soils through the addition of high quality compost, topsoil and bark mulch. For example:
  • Enrichment of on-site soils through the application of nutrient-rich soil amendment products (e.g Sea Soil, compost, nutrient-dense top soil)
  • Top-dressing lawn areas to improve drought tolerance of turf
  • Adding organic mulch to protect amended soils and reduce evaporative losses
Dual-project Rebate - Up to $100: Applicants who are pre-approved for both Irrigation Upgrades AND Soil Amendments under the rebate program may be eligible for an efficiency bonus of up to $100 upon completion of their project.

What should my photos include?

To be pre-approved, photos showing existing areas that require upgrades described on the Pre-approval Application Plan Description(s) must be submitted. To receive your rebate for works completed, photos showing the eligible upgrades must be submitted with your Claim Form.

All photos should have an indication of scale (i.e. a person, landscape tie, meter stick, ruler, etc.). Pictures must include all upgrades completed as part of this rebate, clearly showing the same yard area depicted in the photos associated with the pre-approval application, including:

  • Photo(s) of all completed irrigation upgrades, such as new components installed to replace conventional components (i.e. smart controller, rain/weather/soil sensor, drip irrigation, MP rotator emitters).
  • Photo(s) of lawn/garden areas that received soil amendments. Please see the questions "How do I know if I need to amend my soil? How much topsoil and/or mulch should I be adding to my garden?" below for more information about required amendment depths.
"Before" and "after" photos of the site can be sent digitally through email to watersmart@rdn.bc.ca. Photos can also be mailed or dropped off to the RDN Administration office at 6300 Hammond Bay Road, Nanaimo, B.C. V9T 6N2.

Why is the RDN offering a rebate program for improving the water efficiency of established landscapes?

During the summer months, water use in the RDN doubles and sometimes triples! Most of this increased use is due to our outdoor water demand, primarily to keep landscapes green and fragrant during the dry season. Meanwhile, longer, drier summers and lighter snow packs mean longer watering seasons and less precipitation and snow melt to recharge aquifers and reservoirs during the summer months. In addition to outreach through the RDN's Team WaterSmart and watering restrictions, the RDN's 2013 Water Conservation Plan identifies the development of "a rebate program aimed at improving household water efficiency related to outdoor water use" as a priority measure for 2014 - 2016 (2013 Water Conservation Plan, p. 26).

Team WaterSmart has conducted hundreds of Irrigation Check-Ups throughout the RDN. On the majority of sites visited, the three highest priority actions for increased landscape water efficiency were:

  • Repairing leaks and retrofitting the irrigation system with newer, more efficient components to increase watering efficiency and scheduling efficiency;
  • Amending the soil to improve the soil structure and water retention capabilities; and
  • Adding organic mulch to the top of garden beds to regulate temperature and reduce evaporation.
See Team WaterSmart's "Top 10 Irrigation Tips" brochure for more information.

What are the benefits of improving the efficiency of my irrigation system?

Improving the efficiency of your irrigation system will help you to reduce your landscape's water consumption, while allowing you to deliver water only where you want it to go. This results in water savings and a healthier landscape. Not only will you save on your water bill, but you are working to conserve and protect our community's water resources to ensure a sustainable future in our region.

What are the benefits of amending my soil with quality compost, soil and organic mulch?

It starts with the soil; there is nothing more important to the success of a garden than healthy soil. The combination of minerals, soil organisms, and organic matter (compost) - or 'growing medium', as the combination is called in the landscape trade - will determine almost entirely the performance of plants in terms of survival, health, growth rate, and water needs. Nurturing healthy soil can double the rate of plant survival and growth, and cut landscape water needs by 50%. In part, this is because healthy soil acts like a sponge, holding water and nutrients in the root zone of plants. Furthermore, healthy, absorbent soil is a key part of property storm water management, as it increases your landscape's ability to retain water from large rainfall events. And yet, good quality soil is often one of the first things to be sacrificed to save money in landscape design and maintenance - that's NOT WaterSmart!

The addition of mulch can reduce water lost from soil through evaporation. It protects your investment in cultivating quality soil, by reducing evaporation, leeching, and erosion. Mulch also reduces weed growth and adds a finished look to a garden while providing nutrients to plants.

Together, healthy soil and organic mulch maximize the water-retaining potential of our landscapes, allowing us to maintain a healthy garden with less water.

Do I need a Building Permit to perform retrofits to my irrigation system?

No, a building permit is not required for the Irrigation Upgrades eligible under this program. However, if you are conducting the irrigation retrofits as part of a larger home improvement project and are unsure whether you will require a permit, please contact your local building department. If you are in the RDN, contact RDN Building & Bylaw Department at 250-390-6530.

Why do I need to work with an irrigation professional certified by the Irrigation Industry Association of BC?

To qualify for the Irrigation Upgrades & Soil Amendments Rebate, irrigation system upgrades must be completed by an irrigation professional certified by the Irrigation Industry Association of BC (IIABC). The IIABC's standards and guidelines promote water, soil, and energy conservation practices through efficient irrigation system design, installation, and management. IIABC Certified Irrigation Professionals have taken training courses on these topics and have passed industry-standard certification exams, making them knowledgeable about industry best practices and current efficiency technologies. Certified Irrigation Schedulers and Certified Irrigation Technicians - Level 2 have a higher level of training than Certified Irrigation Technicians - Level 1.

How do I find an IIABC certified irrigation professional?

There are many IIABC Certified Irrigation Professionals with different levels of training working in our region, please see the list below and/or visit IIABC's Membership Directory; to locate IIABC certified irrigation professionals in the RDN, refer to www.irrigationbc.com - click on "Find a Certified Professional Here" and search by Classification ("Technician") and Area ("Vancouver Island/Coast").

The following businesses have IIABC certified professionals on staff. For a full, updated list visit the IIABC's Membership Directory:

IIABC Certified Company* Location Phone Number Website
All Weather Landscaping Nanaimo 250-619-0872 NA
Aslan Ventures Inc. Parksville 250-954-5367 www.aslanventures.ca
Easy Living Landscaping Ltd. Nanaimo 250-753-7161 www.sustainablelandscapes.ca
Island EcoScapes Nanaimo 250-668-3655 www.islandecoscapes.com
Island Smart Irrigation Systems Nanaimo 250-667-4424 www.islandsmart.ca
MacDonald Gray Consultants Parksville 250-248-3089 www.macdonald-gray.ca
Pacific Ridge Landscaping Lantzville 250-816-8989 www.pacificridgelandscaping.com
Pax Landscaping Contracting Parksville 250-937-0293 NA
Precision Irrigation Parksville/Nanoose 250-586-7224 www.precision-irrigation.ca
Pro-West Services, Inc. Parksville 250-248-4448 www.prowestservices.com
Ridgeview Irrigation Nanaimo 250-756-7544 or 250-754-2220 www.ridgeviewlandscaping.ca
Rock City Irrigation Nanaimo 250-729-0688 or 250-713-5639 NA
Strain Landscapes Ltd. Nanaimo 250-756-0483 www.strain-landscapes.com
*make sure your service technician has IIABC certification

If you know of a business that should be on this list, please email watersmart@rdn.bc.ca.

For the Irrigation Upgrades, what are the required features of upgraded system components?

For a checklist of which features your automated irrigation system must contain to be eligible for the Irrigation Upgrades Rebate review page 2 of the Irrigation Upgrades & Soil Amendments Claim Form.

What is the difference between compost, soil, and mulch?

Compost is decomposed organic matter; it is effective in improving soil quality by providing nutrients, reducing erosion, and retaining moisture.

Topsoil is the upper layer of soil, usually the top couple of inches, where there is a high concentration of organic matter. Topsoil is often where we see earthworms living, and there is high biological activity in healthy topsoil.

Mulch is a layer of material that is applied to soil surface to reduce weed growth, regulate soil temperature and conserve soil moisture. Examples include woody mulches like bark mulch, and organic mulched like grass clippings, leaves, or straw.

Peat Moss is a partially decayed form of sphagnum moss from bogs; it is excellent for aerating and creating pore space but lacks nutrients and biological diversity that compost provides.

Sand is an inorganic granular material, made of fine particles of rock and minerals. Sand provides no nutrients and has no ability to hold moisture; rather it is very fast draining.

Where do I purchase quality top soil, compost, and mulch?

Soil marts, nurseries, garden centers, and home improvement stores offer a wide selection of topsoil, compost, and mulch products by the bag or in bulk. Many companies also offer delivery options. Sustainably harvested amendments that are free of weed seeds and do not leach toxins are good for your landscape and the environment. Ensure the all products you use on your landscape are watershed friendly!

There are several local retailers of soil, compost, and mulches including but not limited to:

Soil Retailers - Bulk Supply Shop Location Phone Number Website
Alpine Soil Mart Nanaimo 250-751-1089 www.alpinesoilmart.ca
Bob's Top Soil and Landscape Cassidy, South Nanaimo 250-713-3111 www.m-star.ca/topsoil.html
Cinnabar Valley Farms Nanaimo 250-758-7888 www.cinnabarfarms.com
Earthman Contracting Parksville & surrounding areas 250-248-2525 www.earthmancontracting.com
Kleijn Nursuries Nanaimo 250-754-4482 www.kleijnnurseries.com
Lussier Soil and Bark Nanoose Bay 250-758-1877 www.lussiersoilandbark.com
MacNutt Enterprises Nanaimo 250-714-1112 www.macnuttenterprises.ca
Milner Group Ventures Ltd. Nanaimo 250-756-0773 www.milnergroup.ca/compost
Sharecoast Rentals and Sales Nanaimo 250-758-2401 www.sharecost.ca
Soil Retailers - Bag Supply Shop Location Phone Number Website
Buckerfields Nanaimo & Parksville 250-753-4221 www.buckerfields.org
Community Composting (RDN wide) 250-884-7645 www.communitycomposting.ca
Cultivate Garden & Gifts Parksville 250-248-0093 www.cultivategarden.com
Dolly's Home Hardware Qualicum Beach 250-752-9833 NA
Greenthumb Garden Centre Nanaimo 250-758-0944 www.greenthumbgardencentre.com
Station Farm and Feed Parksville 250-248-8631 NA

If you know of a business that should be on this list, please email watersmart@rdn.bc.ca.

How do I ensure I'm choosing quality top soil, compost, and mulch?

It's important to be a savvy consumer when purchasing soil, compost, and mulch. The following tips will help you to choose a quality topsoil, compost, or mulch product.

Soil & Compost:

Optimum amounts of organic matter in a living growing medium produce garden soil or compost blend that:
  • feels soft and crumbles easily
  • drains well and warms up quickly in spring
  • does not crust after planting
  • soaks up heavy rains with little runoff
  • produces healthy, high quality plants
  • stores moisture for drought periods
  • has few clods and no hardpan
  • resists erosion and nutrient loss
  • supports high populations of soil organisms
  • has a rich, earthy smell
  • does not require fertilization
Growing medium is often a mix of topsoil and organic matter (compost), and sometimes sand.

Common problems to avoid when purchasing soil and compost include:

  • Topsoil that is too coarse (no silt or clay) or too dense (no sand).
    • A sandy loam is the optimum texture - this is a combination of about 40% inorganics (sand, silt, clay) and about 60% organics (nutrient-rich compost, soil, peat).
  • Topsoil that is weed infested. Seeds can lay dormant in topsoil for years.
    • Look for a topsoil source that is weed free.
  • Compost that is not yet decomposed - livestock manure often has both this problem. This robs the soil of nitrogen.
    • Decomposition (and weed) problems can be avoided with a proper composting process.
Purchase growing medium from reliable suppliers and contractors who can certify that the products meet the specifications of the BC Landscape Standard and local bylaws.

Quality soil and compost purchasing tips are taken from Team WaterSmart's Landscape Guide to Water Efficiency.

Once you've amended your gardens with good quality compost and soil, protect your investment by adding mulch on top of the soil. Mulch is simply something that protects the earth. It shades and insulates the soil, preventing against evaporation, regulating temperature, and protecting soil structure. Many plants and trees create their own beneficial mulch in the form of leaf litter and natural shedding which we often remove when we're "tidying up" our gardens. There are many types of mulch available for purchase, of which bark mulch is one type. Some tips for purchasing and applying mulch:
  • Look for mulch made up of a mix of fine particles as well as larger, more obvious pieces. Medium coarse mulches are a good option as they allow water through from the surface more readily and prevent soil crusting. In addition, the larger pieces break down more slowly, meaning you need to re-mulch less often (every 3-5 years, instead of every 2 years with fine mulches).
  • Bark mulch ranges in texture from fine to medium coarseness, and in color from light (wood chips) to dark (composted bark mulch). Keep in mind many mulches change colour with exposure.
  • Wood chips can be a good, inexpensive option, but be sure to inspect the product's quality before purchase. Take a look at the mulch pile, and if the supplier processes it on site, look at the raw product. If you see pieces of metal or nails and screws in and around the pile of mulch, or if there is no bark pieces at all, only a fine brown "mulch", those can be signs that the product is made from a treated waste wood product, rather than leftovers from raw wood processing. Please note, small rocks are not a sign of poor mulch, but commonly found due to the process of loading the material.
  • When applying mulch on top of soils, make sure each layer is watered before adding the next. So, if you were applying a layer of fine mulch, followed by a layer of coarser bark mulch around the roots of a shrub, you would:
    1. Water the soil around the shrub's root zone thoroughly.
    2. Apply the fine mulch and water it thoroughly.
    3. Add the coarse mulch on top and water it thoroughly.
  • Other mulches include leaf litter, grass clippings, or straw.
  • If you are choosing straw mulch for veggie gardens or strawberries, be sure that you are getting straw and not hay. Hay contains a higher concentration of seeds and could cause unwanted weed growth in your garden.
Quality mulch tips provided by Amy Robson of Nature's Choice Design

How do I know if I need to amend my soil? How much topsoil and/or mulch should I be adding to my garden?

Dig a test hole in typical areas of your yard. If the depth of good black crumbly soil is less than 150 mm (6") under lawn and 300 mm to 450 mm (12" to 18") for shrubs, you are likely using more water than you should. Rather than starting over with new plantings, it is possible to gradually add to your soil depth by topdressing with thin layers of growing medium and well-composted organic matter.

For grass areas: Topdressing should not exceed 6 mm (1/4") depth at a time. Once grass is established, stop removing the grass clippings from the surface. Mow regularly, and allow the clippings to decay into the soil, where they will recycle the organic matter and nutrients back into the soil organisms and the grass.

For shrub and groundcover areas: The minimum recommended depth per top dress application of topsoil or compost is 50 mm (2"). The maximum depth could be as much as 75 mm (3'').

For on-going maintenance once adequate soil depth is in place, use organic mulches like bark mulch to protect your recent investment in the soil by reducing soil moisture evaporation, minimizing weed germination, and providing a long-term supply of organic matter. Allow leaf drop to remain - this builds up a 'natural duff' like in the forest, building the soil, soil life, and recycling nutrients. Apply mulches at a minimum thickness of 50 mm to 75 mm (2" to 3"). Inspect depth seasonally and add as required to maintain minimum depth.

Approximately 6 mm (1/4") for lawn areas, and 75 mm (3") for garden beds is the required depth of soil amendment to be eligible for the rebate program. 50 mm (2") is the required depth of mulch in garden beds for eligibility to the rebate program. In addition, applicants must be top dressing at least 37 m2 (400 ft2) of landscape area.

How do I figure out how much top soil or mulch to buy for my yard/garden area?

Search online for a topsoil or mulch calculator like this one to help you calculate the amount of soil or mulch needed to cover your target landscape area to the desired depth. A helpful guide is that one yard of soil will cover approximately 320 ft2 to a depth of one inch. Here is a brief summary table that outlines approximate volumes of soil required for different sized garden areas.

Note: Garden area is calculated by multiplying garden length by width (e.g. 50 sq metres: 10 m x 5 m = 50 m2)

Soil Amendment Reference Table -
Purchasing Guide to Soil, Mulch, or Compost Amount Required by Application Area & Depth
Application area (size of lawn or garden) Recommended Depth of Soil*
2 inches or ~50 mm
(for garden beds)
1/4 inch or ~6 mm
(for topdressing lawn)
amount of soil/compost required
400 sq ft
(37 sq metres)
2.4 cubic yards
67 x 28L bag
0.32 cubic yards
10 x 28L bags
500 sq ft
(46 sq metres)
3 cubic yards
84 x 28L bags
0.4 cubic yards
12 x 28L bags
750 sq ft
(70 sq metres)
4.5 cubic yards
126 x 28L bags
0.6 cubic yards
18 x 28L bags
1000 sq ft
(92 sq metres)
6 cubic yards
168 x 28L bags
0.8 cubic yards
24 x 28L bags
*Recommended depth refers to the minimum amount of organic material (soil, compost, mulch) added to qualify for this rebate.

Can I apply to the rebate to help with the installation of a new landscape (i.e. as part of a new build)?

No, this program provides support for homeowners to improve the efficiency of existing residential landscapes only. However, it is recommended that new landscapes be designed and installed with water efficiency in mind, by utilizing efficient irrigation options, ensuring an adequate base of quality soil and mulch, and choosing low-water use or drought tolerant plant species. See Team WaterSmart's Landscape Guide to Water Efficiency for more information on water smart landscapes.