My parents live in a natural beauty oasis tucked in the urban metropolis of Los Angeles. Located on the coast and blessed with ample open space, Palos Verdes offers rolling hills, acres of trails and rugged cliffs. Despite the cooler temperatures and maritime fog, it is arid like the rest of Southern California. The native landscape is predominantly coastal scrub, a beautiful tapestry of soft greens, yellows and browns. In spring the hills green up for a bit, then turn gold. I always appreciate seeing the dry, sunny hills after winter in Seattle.
Given the climate, I’m frequently surprised by the landscaping. We read about political battles for water rights in the agricultural Central Valley, yet many LA locals still seem to be in denial about their arid climate. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen and read about several inspiring native and dry gardens there. Yet, expansive emerald green lawns and thirsty plants still frame many of the houses. When my mom decided to buck this trend and become more drought tolerant, I was more than happy to sign on to the project.
First – a little background on my parents and their garden. The property is 3/4 of an acre and borders a canyon of protected open space. It sits high up above the Pacific with an expansive view of the Santa Monica Bay, Malibu and West Los Angeles. My parents are English, so it follows that my mom has been a life long gardener. Not a sit around, drink tea and talk about roses gardener, but a dirt under the nails spend all afternoon weeding gardener like me. When my family moved from Seattle to Palos Verdes in the early 80s, our new garden pretty much consisted of “meat ball” shrubs and lawn. My mom systematically removed most of the grass and offending shrubs over time – in small enough pieces that it was gone before my dad realized there was a campaign against it. The lawn was replaced with an English garden. Billowy perennials, roses and arbors created a small replica of the home she left many years ago. The CA heat proved much kinder to the roses than Seattle’s soggy springs. While they were thirsty and high maintenance (and sometimes downright mean), roses were the backbone of the garden and my mom adored them.
The change began in the back garden. At this point, none of us knew how far it would go. It all started with my mom’s trip to visit me and attend the NW Flower and Garden Show in February 2010. After hearing John Greenlee speak about the evils of lawn, my mom headed home with a mission to tear out the last bit of lawn and create a drought tolerant, bird and pollinator friendly garden on the canyon side of her property. I volunteered to design it. In place of the lawn, I designed a stone and decomposed granite path that winds around the space and offers areas to pause. The center island bed became an ebullient naturalistic planting. My mom finished the surrounding beds using many of the same plants and a few new goodies like native Coyote Brush - Baccharis pilulari and the native Verbena lilacina ‘De la Mina’ at the canyon edge. For more details, see the posts “dry garden” and “dry garden part deux”.
Just as we finished planting this area, there was talk of completely redoing the front pool gardens where most of the roses resided. My parents were looking at significant hardscape work – removing the concrete and replacing it with stone. It was time, the aging concrete had its issues and the pool was due for a resurfacing. Despite this, I was skeptical – it seemed like a huge upheaval. I was even more skeptical that my mom would be able to part with the roses. I was wrong. Over the winter, the plans solidified and they decided to go for it. My mom pulled out nearly 30 roses before they had a chance to bloom – so she would not change her mind once she saw the flowers. Despite protests from her friends, she forged ahead and stuck to her guns. The best roses were gifted to friends and drought tolerant plants were salvaged. Only two plants remained in place. A loropetalum that we arborized and a camellia original to the garden when we moved there nearly 30 years ago. In the 11th hour before planting, my dad confessed an attachment to it so it stayed. Once the garden was cleared, I put together some mock ups. I flew down and we interviewed stone masons. While there, I sprayed out the hardscape lines adding new connecting paths and a little extra room to the pool deck. My parents wanted to keep the footprint pretty much the same, so no radical changes to the layout occurred. In the end, they were able to mortar the stone over the top of the concrete, which kept the concrete waste out of the landfill. Seven weeks of dusty work later they had gorgeous stone floors around a salt water pool with a Pebblecrete finish.
Then came the plants. The timing was perfect as I was just slowing down from my busiest season ever. I relied solely on photographs, a site plan and Photoshop to develop my planting plan. The planting palette was chosen to echo the other garden with the difference being more structure. The back garden was designed to be naturalistic. Since the pool gardens frame the entrance, I wanted to show a bit more restraint in this area. All plants were chosen for drought tolerance in the site’s maritime climate (Sunset Zone 24). Knowing more about how Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) is naturalizing in California’s wild areas, I opted instead for the sterile Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ for soft movement. I’ve never used this grass so I’m curious to see it mature (thank you Sunset for featuring this grass as an alternate to Mexican feather grass in a blog post). The color palette echoed the back gardens with hues of chocolate, apricot, wine, silver blue and deep violet. As always, foliage color, form and texture were favored over flower color.
We discussed irrigation in depth and they agreed to try Netafim drip irrigation. While the goal would eventually be minimal supplemental water, the plants needed support to become established. I was thrilled as I knew drip would use much less water and be a better choice for the drought tolerant plants than sprinklers. The soil was prepped by first loosening the compaction that occurred during the hardscape construction. I then added an ample base of sandy loam and a top dressing of compost after planting. We needed a good drainage layer above the native black clay to keep the drought tolerant plants happy during the brief, but sometimes heavy, rainy season. Irrigation lines were buried under a thin layer of the sandy loam before mulching to improve moisture retention.
We made a road trip out to Asian Ceramics in Duarte (it was very hot!) and found some gorgeous Vietnamese rustic pots for the final touch.
Below are detail shots and a few before and after photos. The before shots were taken in December and after my mom knew the garden was going to be renovated…so not a depiction at its prime. In the afters, the plants are young and I leave ample space for growth, thus the bare ground. Over time, the plantings are designed to soften the hardscape edges and will, of course, fill in as layered heights. In the next six months, I will head back down to finish a few smaller areas and will take more photos at that time.
Before and after from the same angles. In the last after, note the house exterior is still in progress with repainting, replacement of front door and exterior lighting.
During all this, we had an ongoing discussion about house color. A few years ago, I encouraged my mom to be thinking of using softer, earthy colors instead of the standard white that so many of the Spanish style homes down there have. For one thing, my parents have a solid mid-century ranch. While it does have red tile roof for fire protection, the rest of the house is decidedly un-Spanish. White can be glaring under the strong Southern California sun and the color does nothing for the plants it backs. The house needed to echo the stone’s warmth and provide a backdrop to show off the foliage. After much deliberation over the phone (each with a Benjamin Moore deck in hand), samples were tested and we arrived at a combination of mellow tones in a muted gold (house), nutmeg (cabana accent wall) and mocha (trim & fascia). Benjamin Moore colors: fairway oaks, autumn leaf and fallen timber. Screen color is way different than paint, but below are Bennie Moore’s online swatches:
Initially, the fence at the property line was painted the gold too. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was wrong. It reflected too much light and made the space seem smaller. My dad painted over it with the mocha and the change was fabulous. The fence suddenly receded, making the space feel more expansive. The delicate grasses and powder blue foliage came to life. It is amazing how background color affects a garden and it is an important consideration in design. I only got to see half of the house painted – but what a difference color makes!
showing the two colors on the fence...
late afternoon sun makes the house color glow...
mocha warmth quietly setting off the plants
house partially painted
The final touch was the furniture. We ran out of time to shop during my last visit – so I canvassed the online retailers. We selected Restoration Hardware’s Catalina deep lounge chairs for the cabana and arm chairs for around the outdoor fire with cushions in Grass. We opted to not go “matchy-matchy” on all the furniture, and my mom is going to be on the lookout for the right coffee table. Existing wrought iron lounge chairs will be powder coated the same dark bronze as the new furniture and there are new cushions to match on order. I think these chairs made the trip from Seattle 30 years ago and definitely earned a spot in the new garden.
Restoration Hardware's Catalina lounge chair, photo courtesy RH
We had so much fun working together on this project – I am really thankful that I was able to create this space with my parents. I was limited to my off season due to a full schedule of garden installs here, and completed the work between summer 2010, winter 2010 and summer 2011. Since I was designing remotely, my parents identified contractors and shouldered nearly all of the install oversight, particularly for the hardscape. In addition to the general design & plant palette, I sprayed the lines, rounded up the plants, did plant layout and was present for planting. A true family effort.
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