Create your own garden paradise

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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.

native grass
Front yard of local, native plant garden with boulders and native grasses. (2003)

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.

Traditional front yard landscape
My house in 1999 a year after we moved in, landscaped with lawn, trees and foundation plants and flowers.

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.

Parkway garden
First bit of lawn removed from parkway strip. (1999)
Parkway garden
Following spring, more lawn to be removed this year. (April 2000)
Parkway garden
The parkway garden requires almost no care and no supplemental water. Trees shade the sidewalk. (April 2015)

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 Рmany of whom have visited my home during garden tours Рstep 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.

Front yard landscape
Front yard with native plants and vegetables along with a bit of lawn. Spring wildflowers put on a show each year. (April 2015)
Front yard now has just a bit of lawn with native plants growing on the edges.
Front yard now has just a bit of lawn with native plants growing on the edges. (April 2015)

2 thoughts on “Create your own garden paradise

  1. J.B.

    Just yesterday I was showing a colleague a picture of my yard in spring, complete with blooming Encelia, poppies, penstemon, buckwheat, sages, California bluebells, tidy tips, and many others. Their response? “Ewww, that looks wild like nobody lives there. Where’s the cultivation?” Apparently to some people a landscape doesn’t look right unless meddling by human hands is not only apparent, but the main feature. I imagine they are more interested in observing the extent to which humans are capable of manipulating the environment, perhaps a testament to the power of mankind.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      I try to remember – to each, his own. This, though, does not mean anyone can do anything. The importance of conserving resources and bringing nature back into our cities and suburbs cannot be denied. We are making progress – a garden like this would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and most of the 60s, and beyond.

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