Walking on a quiet street in a Los Angeles suburb, my eighty-year-old father and I approached a lovely adobe home. As we walked along, I noticed that he was slowly shaking his head as he simply stated, “It’s not for me.” I was showing him a garden in my neighborhood that I was especially fond of. Paths wound through trees, shrubs, boulders and benches in this small, lawn-less yard. The plants and the look were a bit dry, Californian. My father who grew up in New York City and raised his family in the suburbs was accustomed to a lusher, neater look. I should not have been surprised, but I was. This garden served as a model for what I wanted in my yard. It was natural, quiet, and yet full of life. It reminded me of the nearby mountains I so love.
For years I tried to see that garden through my father’s eyes. I just could not understand what he was seeing. Nevertheless, I did not let my father’s opinion change what I wanted in my garden. To me a beautiful garden is full of life. Lizards, birds, squirrels, butterflies, and insects of all kinds are invited to share the land around my home. Actually, I consider myself the guest on land that belongs to them. As a good guest I do not spray poison, spew exhaust, or overwhelm with noisy motors. I walk quietly and listen to those around me. This was the starting point for my garden transformation.
We moved into our 1910 Craftsman home in Southern California in the late 1990s. The yard was ordinary, mostly lawn, trimmed with border beds of water-loving impatiens. There were five mature trees on the property: three avocados, a deodar cedar and a native coast live oak. Those in front provided cooling shade that made air conditioning unnecessary, except on a few very hot days each year. The backyard was fully shaded by the oak and avocado trees. I had an idea of what I wanted but I had no idea of how to get it.
I wanted something that was uncommon in my neighborhood, and other than the adobe house, there were few examples to follow. Furthermore, we had recently moved to Southern California from the East Coast, and I had little understanding of the strange climate we found ourselves in. As newcomers the afternoon sun in July was especially brutal. Though we drank lots and lots of water, we felt parched. Interestingly, in those early months I obsessively checked the weather forecast: Sun, sun, sun, sun, morning fog and sun. The first few years were an adventure in this strange land with its bizarre weather.
It was daunting to consider changing our garden, but I knew I would. In order to become a Californian, I needed to understand how plants and animals, including people, could live in this unfamiliar environment. I scanned the yard and decided the place to start was the parkway on the east side of our corner lot. This long strip, six feet wide and 86 feet long, was easy to mow, though edging and watering were tedious and time-consuming. There was only one tree at the south end of the parkway, so the bed received full sun until late afternoon.
With energy, enthusiasm, and unbridled optimism, I expected to remove the lawn and plant the strip in one season. However, since I was digging out the grass, designing the garden, and planting it myself, by necessity I chose a gradual approach. The digging was hard, and I was impatient, so I dug out about ten feet of the strip and rewarded myself with a trip to the garden nursery. Armed with a book on California native plants for the garden, I began my education. The plants I selected at home from the book were rarely available in the commercial nurseries. Non-native plants with brightly colored flowers were ever so tempting, but I stuck to my guns, choosing the less showy locals. It was fascinating, overwhelming, and genuinely fun to peruse these new garden possibilities. I made a lot of mistakes in those early days. I lost quite a few plants, but with time both the plants and I began to thrive in this land of summer drought.
It has been 18 years since I dug out the first piece of lawn on the parkway. Now there is almost no grass at all in the entire yard. People have asked me why I have weeds growing in the parkway. A landscape designer once referred to my garden as being a hodgepodge. However, others – many of whom have visited my home during garden tours – step through the gate, look around, and take a deep, slowing breath. I created my garden for my family and myself; nevertheless, it is nice to know that there are others who get it.