A first-person account of one couple’s adventure transforming their garden

Written by LISA RULE   Photos by JOAN PAHOYO

“What do you mean you want to move? I love our house.”
I was digging in my heels with Jim, my husband of 32 years.
“It’s too much to deal with . . . we spend too much on water.
You know the rates are just getting higher.”
He wasn’t budging. And then he said the words that started it all:
“How about if we rip out all of the grass and plant a water-wise garden? They’re doing rebates!”
And with that, our journey to water-wise living had officially begun.

***

Jim built all of the garden structures and has placed his copper and wood sculptures in various spots around the yard.

Jim built all of the garden structures and has placed his copper and wood sculptures in various spots around the yard.

Jim had actually suggested a water-wise garden earlier but I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a cactus or succulent yard.

I’d knew I’d be happiest with plants reminiscent of California meadows. In my imagination, waves of colorful grasses would sway in the gentle breezes with scattered flowering perennials providing color. So now we had the dream but no idea how to bring our idyllic sanctuary to life.

I must have missed the planting gene that was handed out to the green-thumbed women I know. We were stumped. So we went to a landscape designer, who provided a wonderful plan for the whole yard.

The downside was it came with a six-figure price tag. Ouch. We are the original owners of our property and, having bought the house with literally dirt surrounding it, we already had invested quite a bit in the landscaping. We weren’t willing to spend that kind of money a second time.

The backyard was a wide expanse of thirsty lawn before we began our project.

The backyard was a wide expanse of thirsty lawn before we began our project.

Then came Plan B, courtesy of Jim.

“We can do this ourselves. Tell me what you want and I’ll do it. We could use the exercise,” Jim said, gallantly offering to turn my garden dream into reality.

I applied for our rebate with the water district in December 2014. In just the backyard, 2,200 feet of lawn would be replaced. The district would give us $2 per square foot for the lawn we replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping. But to utilize the rebate, we had to complete the project in 120 days.

That was challenge number one. Plants weren’t ready to be released from the growers to the retailers in January. We couldn’t get our first plants until late March. Thankfully, the water district granted us an extension.

We talked extensively with Paul Saito of Nordic Nursery in Newbury Park about plant selections. We have known Paul and Nordic Nursery’s owner, Glenn Izard, for over a decade and their advice was invaluable. After that talk, Jim and I decided on several features.

The overall plan was to create multiple destinations in the backyard. There would be interesting hidden surprises, groupings of meadow plants, places for Jim’s copper and wood art and relaxing spots to sit. We wanted a spot for a hammock and Jim had always wanted a Japanese-style bridge.

The existing iron gazebo was moved and now serves as an entrance to the secret garden.

The existing iron gazebo was moved and now serves as an entrance to the secret garden.

The Japanese bridge was something Jim always wanted to have in his garden.

The Japanese bridge was something Jim always wanted to have in his garden.

The plan would require quite a bit of building on our part. And when I say “our part” I mean Jim’s part. Jim built all the structures himself out of redwood. I was just his faithful minion.

We knew we wanted to utilize our existing iron gazebo and give it new purpose. We moved it to a new spot in the yard where it would serve as the entrance to what we call our Secret Garden. We planted climbing white roses at each corner of the gazebo and used rock rose, salvias, two rose trees and a variety of other plants to create a vegetation barrier to the garden. The enclosed garden, a work in progress, will have a floating deck for yoga and meditation,

Autumn sage introduce rich splashes of color to the garden.

Autumn Sage

Gaillardia introduce rich splashes of color to the garden.

Gaillardia, above, and Autumn Sage, right, introduce rich splashes of color to the garden.

with wind chimes—essential for the right mood—and pink and white erodium to create the feel of a meadow.

We placed Jim’s Japanese bridge in the main garden. He repurposed our old, broken hammock stand it on the bridge.

My desire was to have a hammock. We had one at our old house and I have fond memories of long afternoons cuddled up in blankets when our daughters were little, reading stories and watching the wildlife.

I searched Pinterest and found plans for the perfect hammock structure for Jim to construct. Unfortunately, the plans were in millimeters, which Jim had to convert to inches. Plus the plans didn’t include a template measurement for one of the curved support rafters. Who says you don’t use math after high school?

But the structure is wonderful and, even without a hammock in place, it’s a great spot to set up a buffet table, bartender or a band. Of course, that would require us to actually host a party—unlikely for homebodies like us—but it’s there if we need it.

Nordic Nursery's Paul Saito was invaluable to our garden project, helping us with plant choices.

Nordic Nursery’s Paul Saito was invaluable to our garden project, helping us with plant choices.

Originally we planned a straight path from the gazebo to the hammock. But, after talking to a random stranger about paths, we decided to adopt his theory. “I don’t want to turn around when I’m on a path. It’s an interruption,” he had said. “Make the path circular and you don’t ever have to stop your train of thought or your walking.” This rounded, connected pathway aligned perfectly with the curved, free-form hardscape we had planned, so we created a circular path out of jellybean pea gravel.

We also wanted raised redwood planting beds for fruit trees. Jim made them in a hexagon shape to mimic the shape of the gazebo. He built one larger than the others so he could include a seating bench.
Our June 9 deadline has come and gone. Today we have the beginnings of the garden I imagined. Jim and I will spend many relaxing evenings tending our new plants. Most important, we are still married, not something to be taken lightly after such a long, involved project together. But Jim was amazing. He dropped his friends Ben & Jerry and lost 20 pounds along the way.

I, of course, lost nothing. Well, that’s not completely true. I did lose my fear of chain saws and power equipment. I mastered the compound miter saw for simple cuts. And together we gained a beautiful and water efficient sanctuary.

Lisa Rule is publisher of  Beyond the Acorn and has officially been dubbed Mulch Queen.


Plant List

African daisy (Osteospermum)
Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac)
Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)
Blue my mind (Evolvulus)
Climbing white iceberg rose (Rosa iceberg)
Coastal gem (Grevillea lanigera)
Coral bells (Heuchera)
Cranesbill geranium ‘Tiny monster’ (Geranium incanum)
Double delight tea rose (Rosa andeli)
Dwarf philodendron (Philodendron xanadu)
Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata)
Gold coin daisy (Asteriscus maritimus)
Grace Ward (Lithodora diffusa)
Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora)
Landmark lantana (Lantana camara)
Larkspur (Delphinium)
Love and Wishes Salvia (Salvia)
Marina strawberry tree (Arbutus marina)
Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima)
Mexican sage dwarf Santa Barbara (Salvia leucantha)
Orange sedge grass (Carex testacea)
Pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Provence & Goodwin creek grey lavenders (Lavendula)
Redstem filaree (Eurodium cicutarium)
Sage leaf rock rose (Cistus salviifolius)
Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus)
Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae)
Silvery sunproof lilyturf (Liriope muscari)
Snow in summer (Cerasitum tomentosum)
Summer snapdragon (Angelonia)
Sunset gold (Coleonema pulchellum)
Variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’)