Bringing the ‘burbs to life

When we started, there were plants, a bird bath and bird feeders. The plants for the most part did nothing to feed the birds. Native insects likewise did not come here for fine dining.

With this makeover, that’s all changed. The bird bath is now a recirculating fountain. The bird feeders remain, but now there’s a veritable smorgasbord for visiting birds, with insects buzzing around a host of new native flowers.

We didn’t touch the concrete paths, other than to add a looping access path of flagstones set in sand and gravel to service the fountain and resupply the bird feeders. To make the design look as though it were done at once, gravel mulch strips align to the existing steps, flowing back into the plantings.

Perimeter plants were left in place for screening, the white birches remained for shade and habitat, but most of the other plants were ripped out. If a plant didn’t feed pollinators, help restore butterfly populations or provide nectar it got chopped. The result is a seasonal display of successive blooms that support local bee populations and feed migrating hummingbirds. As plants go to seed, they’ll support seed-eating birds. Some plants, like the milkweed, may even supply downy nesting materials.

We did not choose a purely native plant list, since some of the best plants for honeybees are not native (neither are these bees, for that matter). As long as all the plants in each group used the same amount of water and sunlight, the design would work.

Indian paintbrush, unlike most plants, does not get everything it needs from sunlight, soil and water. It needs a host plant: bush monkeyflower. Growing paintbrush alone is unlikely to be successful, but once paired with monkeyflowers there’s a good chance you can grow this native wildflower in your garden.

Partial plant list

Although the plants had to provide some function, that didn’t mean that they were thrown together haphazardly. They’re massed to form swaths of color, partially screen one area of the garden from another, and make the garden seem more private near the house.

  • Milkweed: restore monarch butterfly populations
  • Indian paintbrush: hummingbird food
  • Bush monkeyflower: host plant for paintbrush, hummingbird food
  • Annual wildflowers: food for native solitary bees
  • Mexican lobelia: hummingbird food
  • California fuchsia: hummingbird food
  • Lavender: honeybee food
  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe): hummingbird food
  • Penstemon: hummingbird food
  • Russian sage: honeybee food
  • Woolly sunflower: bee food
  • Coyote mint: butterfly food
  • Mugwort: background plant, interesting fragrance (leaves)
  • Grasses: keep some green while natives are dormant, add texture.
  • Sundrops: great color, and feeds bees, too.

It was also accepted by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Garden for Wildlife, meeting the criteria for food (pollen, nectar, seeds), water (fountain), cover (perimeter shrubs), places to raise young (perimeter shrubs and birch tree) and sustainable practices (no pesticides or nasty chemicals).

Although the style of this garden differs a bit from the surrounding homes, it seems to be accepted by the neighbors. It was certainly accepted by the birds and insects! It will probably need to grow in a few more years before the milkweeds get large enough to attract monarch butterflies, but other benefits were immediate. Ground-nesting bees moved in, probably taking advantage of nearby abundant food. Hummingbirds zip through the flowers, searching for nutritious nectar and probably insects to eat. Then there’s the impressive palette of color to delight passing people.




Extra curb appeal, please!

Making the journey to the front door more than a quick hike up a path adds interest, but also helps nestle the house into the landscaping.

The main path passes through low privacy screens, leading to an entry courtyard with a metal trellis accent and the front door. There’s a gravel driveway next to the concrete driveway for guest parking, hidden by a row of heavenly bamboo (nandina).

The design needed to work with a large tree. Although most think of shade, the other concern is giving the tree a healthy root zone and minimizing root damage during construction. Done right, the tree will thrive as will the new plants underneath. Another benefit: removing lawn reduces competition with the tree’s roots, giving it more nutrients.

Path lights flank the path, giving way to step lights mounted on the privacy screens. This creates a path of light leading to the front door.


Front yard living

There wasn’t much space for a patio in the back, the neighbors are friendly, so why not create a living space in the front yard? Hello, everyone!

While adults dine on the deck, they can watch the kids play on swings under the tree.

The wood is unstained sustainable Fijian mahogany, left to go gray where it’s in the sun. Using the same wood in different widths for the screen wall, decking and planters creates a unified yet dynamic look.


New Front Yard

Sometimes it just takes a bit of structure to pull everything together. This front yard remodel created a seating space, enhanced curb appeal and incidentally removed unused lawn that just wasted water. Nobody will miss it.

this phone panorama, although distorted, gives an idea of where we started. 

One goal was to create a clear, inviting pedestrian entry separate from the driveway. The new route also happened to give visitors a choice to turn right and hang out with friends in a hidden seating area or proceed to the front door.

The design kept the mid-century modern aesthetics of the house, using simple geometric forms and subdued colors.

The plant palette veers a bit towards the Southwest with a Desert Museum palo verde, yuccas, agaves, bulbine and other drought tolerant plants. It’s still growing in, and will look more unified as time goes by and the plants hide the bark.

The hidden patio uses decomposed granite bordered by aluminum edging. The privacy fence is horizontal ironwood (ipe), and the white wall is plastered concrete blocks with metal numbers showing the address. Paths are salt finish, integral color concrete, and the steps are a darker color for contrast.

Multiple shades of privacy for a front yard remodel

Low screen fences create a gradient of privacy as people arrive toward the front door. A new path draws people to the front door to pass through a threshold created by the screen fences, with side paths linking a new driveway, the side yard and a crushed rock additional parking space.

integrated lighting
integrated LED lighting on the screen fence
screen fencing
the fence appears continuous from some angles
stepping pads
stepping pads, awaiting planting

The project’s goals were to reinvigorate the front yard, increase curb appeal and increase the sense of privacy by making the screen fence seem continuous from the street.

Planting will come soon, and will unify the design from floating elements to an overall, comprehensive design.

Lawn gone? These plants will spice up your new landscape!

We’ve been visiting Mountain States Nursery’s booths at conferences around the Southwest, everywhere but Sacramento, dreaming about exotic plant shapes, colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes to try back home… 

After concluding that getting their plants in Sacramento was basically Mission Impossible, we walked into our local landscape trade show to see a Mountain States booth. Is it true? They’re here? Apparently, thanks to the drought people are finally getting interested in their plants, enough for the nursery to bring them here for us to create intriguing new landscapes.

Although they blamed the drought for the increased interest, you shouldn’t need a drought to fall in love with these plants. They’re interesting in many ways: form, color, ecological benefits… As designers, we like having a new range of accent and massing plants to play with – especially when we know they won’t look horrible after one of those 110° heat waves.

As new introductions arrive, the choices other than rocks and cactus for coping with the drought expand. We can create exotic floral displays, plant textures from fine to bold, new-age spiky for silhouetting against a wall or classically mounded forms that play well with the neighbors.

The best thing about high desert plants from higher elevations is that they take heat and cold. They can be fussy about drainage, but planting them on mounds generally suffices. No matter how hot it gets in Sacramento these things won’t fry. Not even in reflected heat and blazing sun.

If used with other Mediterranean plants with similar water requirements, you can create a colorful landscape that says, “exotic” more than “desert”. Use ornamental grasses, Calliandra, sundrops and desert willow for a soft look with seasonal color. Or mix palo verde, manzanita, bulbine and matiljia poppies (if you’ve got the space) for a bit more contrast of form. Use California fuchsia, white sage, Agave ‘Blue Glow’, blue gramma grass and Marguerita BOP penstemons to take it up a notch… Or create something architectural based on Agave ‘Blue Glow’, pink hesperaloe, Salvia chamaedryoides, ‘Emerald Carpet’ manzanita and Euphorbia antisyphilitica.

Although there were more plants than I remember, these are the ones I’d like to play with in the future. Some are new varieties of familiar friends; others are new and exciting things for experimenting.

Hesperaloe flowers used to come in coral. That was pretty much it, as shown in the photo. It’s a good color, but people like choices. Now, you can get compact red (H. ‘Brakelights’), yellow (H. parviflora ‘Yellow’) and pink (H. ‘Pink Parade’) – or keep the coral flowers. The yellow plants are clones – like in your favorite science fiction movie, only not as dangerous. The benefit is that the plants have close to identical growth rates, all else being equal, so you can mass them and get all geometric in your planting design, perhaps for a modern landscape.

Desert willows – Chilopsis
These small trees put on quite a show during their flowering season. The original species had long, drooping seed pods that people weren’t as fond of, especially in leafless winter. Producing seed pods also shortens the blooming season, since the plant’s efforts move from flowers to seeds. New varieties produce fewer seed pods for more blooms, and you can choose between the typical burgundy/pink/lilac flowers, deep burgundy, lilac pink and deep crape myrtle like pinks. Mature plants run from around 20 to 30 feet tall and equally wide. They tend to grow as multi-trunked trees and are well suited for patios in sunny locations, especially where reflected heat would stress other choices like Japanese maples.

A new hybrid calliandra – feather duster – was on display at the show. It did look a bit finer and more compact than either of its parents, but the real bonus was that it should survive in Sacramento. These plants may attract hummingbirds, although it’s not clear if our local hummingbirds would know what to do with the fuzzy things. Calliandras make a great semi-transparent shrub to combine for a layered effect with deer grass, emerald carpet manzanita and bulbine.

If you really feel this drought deserves some cactus, there’s a new cold hardy spineless gray prickly pear (Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’) that can be used as a background plant – it gets about six feet tall. I’m not a fan of pure cactus gardens because when I walk around the desert I don’t just see cactus: there are shrubs and other plants growing among the cacti. So, if I were to yield to my cactus desires, I’d 86 the hard to remove gravel and surround the cactus with native narrow-leaf milkweed, California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and Howard McMinn manzanita if I had the space.  Maybe I’d throw in some naked lady bulbs for deep pink amaryllis flowers backed by blue-gray cactus. Maybe I’d a bit of autumn sage, for extended color and happier hummingbirds. Then I’d throw in a bit of blue grama grass for extra fuzziness to contrast with the bold pads of the cactus.

Palo Verde
Desert Museum palo verde trees do seem to be catching on in Sacramento. We’ve used them in two projects so far. They don’t do as well as in Arizona or Southern California, but they still produce a nice show of bright yellow flowers floating over a translucent light green tree with green bark. The benefits of this variety are no spines, larger flowers and better cold tolerance than most varieties of palo verde.

They carry some hardy agaves, even smaller species – but it looks like Monterey Bay Nursery has a better selection for our area. Between the two nurseries, you should be able to enjoy Weber agave (the source of Tequila), A. parryi, A. blue glow, A. sharkskin and others. If you’re looking for some giant A. salmiana, let me know: I have a lot of pups coming off the mother plant that would be happy to move in with you and grow, grow grow. None of these is huggable; soft, spineless varieties can’t take much cold and won’t survive in the Sacramento area.

Five things to consider when removing your lawn

Removing lawn is a good thing if you live in an area where water is limited. You’ll save on your water bill, avoid breathing dust and smog from a mower and gain more color and interest. Here are some things to consider when removing your lawn to conserve water and create a more sustainable landscape.

transformed lawn
This space – except for the patio – used to be lawn. A new Bocce court, fountain and flowering shrubs transform it into something exciting and useable, with pollinators for bees and nectar for hummingbirds.

Five things to consider when transforming your lawn:

1. Irrigation System. You’ll need to update your irrigation system to work with the new plants. You can switch to drip irrigation, but you’ll need to install filters (Wye strainers) and in-line pressure reducers at the valves so the drip components don’t clog or have problems with excessive pressure. If you’re using broadcast irrigation, you’ll likely have to move and change heads and probably nozzles as well. The lawn might have used 4″ pop-up heads – too short for shrubs. You’ll need to change the pop-up bodies to at least 12″ and put irrigation nozzles on risers where they’re  in shrub areas so that the plants don’t block the water. Stream sprays are more efficient than spray nozzles and can be retrofitted onto your pop-up bodies (check that the threads are compatible first). They do need longer run times, however.

2. Keep sight lines open. If your lawn is in the front yard and you replace it with tall shrubs, you’re creating a hazard every time you pull out of your driveway. You need to see what’s coming, and approaching cars need to see you backing out. The solution is to keep plants low where views are needed, and keep the taller stuff at the back.

3. Light. Don’t plant things that will grow up and cover your windows. If you want to screen views to a room, plant your shrubs far enough away from the house that you’ll still get light in the room. Planting shrubs farther out also gives you a nice private garden view instead of a mass of green leaves pressed against a window when the plant grows.

4. Maintenance. Just because you’re not mowing does not mean you’re not doing maintenance. Your new garden will need periodic trimming, initial weeding and periodic general cleanup. You may want to check on more natural ways of pruning and trimming than the mow-and-blow standard of shearing everything into a ball.

5. Think new opportunities. Ideally, you’re not just removing lawn; you’re transforming your landscape into something more interesting. You can use mounds to create a bit more privacy, perhaps to create a small patio for visual interest or chatting with neighbors – the new space does not have to be entirely dedicated to plants! If you add mounds, you’ll improve drainage – and the mounds can envelop the patio area for more separation from the street. In the back yard, your former lawn can become a Bocce court, dining space, a lounge, herb garden, grove of trees for sitting in the shade, a sculpture garden with flowing ornamental grasses, a hummingbird garden…

Of course, if it’s design ideas you need, we can help! Check our ideas section for some transformations, get in touch and create some wonderful spaces for yourself!