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.




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.

Sketching to quickly communicate concepts

We do a lot of sketching during our first on-site meetings with clients. The process is to listen to what they want, ask questions to learn about their lifestyle and evaluate site conditions. Once we have ideas, we sketch them quickly and roughly to show what can happen.

These images were taken from sketch consults, representing the progression of quick thumbnail to more fleshed-out concept. Sometimes smaller projects get modeled on the computer to quickly produce multiple views in perspective. Sometimes things remain very rough, just to illustrate and evaluate an idea, get feedback and continue concept development.

Some of these projects replaced lawn with usable spaces and water conserving plants, so it was important to show how removing lawns can make for better curb appeal and more interesting front yards.

As you can see, it’s not a question of hand drawing vs computer imaging. The two processes overlap into a seamless workflow that uses all conceptual images to produce and illustrate a design idea.

Please click on the images to view the presentation…

Removing your lawn to save water?

Thinking of replacing your lawn? Take advantage of the situation to add color, interest, variety – and eliminate having to push around that lawn mower!

Hot lips sage

The Central Valley misses being a desert by only a couple of inches of rainfall per year – in a normal year. During the current drought, we’re well within the definition of a desert. Not the best place for a lawn more suited to cool, wet Northern Europe!

Since we’re in a Mediterranean climate, we don’t get enough rain to sustain a water-loving landscape in summer. High temperatures, low humidity and no rain make it impractical to store rainwater, if any.

The key to saving water while maintaining interest is to choose plants adapted to our climate – hot and dry in the summer, cool and wet in the winter – and our soils, typically heavy clay that does not drain well.

Before ripping out your lawn, you might want to consider why it’s there in the first place. Typically lawns are either play areas or what artists call “negative space”, a uniform color that sets off other elements, like a uniform color in a painting.

If you’re removing lawn, you might be able to add new functions to the space it occupied: sitting areas, hummingbird gardens, paths, vegetable areas, herb gardens.

You can add mounds, since you won’t be mowing your new plants. This lets you gain separation from the street, along with turning a flat landscape into something more interesting. The mounds can be accented with sculptures or rocks, too.

If you want the “negative space” look, there are some alternatives.

  • You can use native sedges such as Carex praegracillis for a grassy, green look. They’re taller than turf grasses, but the up side of this is you don’t have to give them as much water, and you can even integrate other low plants like yarrow and bulbs for a more meadowy look.
  • A local sod company has developed a blend of native grasses that can be put down the same as typical sod for an instant less-thirsty lawn. Once established, these grasses should use significantly less water than a traditional lawn, as long as your irrigation system is properly programed and in good working order.

If you’re creating more of a garden, plan on a mix of plant shapes and species, plant them in masses and think about the look you want to achieve. Remember to use low plants in sight lines from your driveway, limiting taller shrubs to areas where they won’t block views of oncoming traffic.

  • Trendy and modern designs can integrate agaves, desert spoon and red yucca with low shrubs and ornamental grasses. You can incorporate crushed rock paths, boulders, sculptures and l0w-voltage lighting to create something dramatic.
  • More English style gardens substitute water-loving shrubs and perennials for water-wise alternates: California fuchsia, native sages, ornamental grasses, lavenders, rockrose… all can create the effect of an English border without high maintenance or water needs. Bearded iris (and native iris) use little water since they grow during our normal rainy season, going dormant during the dry months.
  • If you’re looking for something more ecological, many California native plants can work well. You’ll have a variety of evergreen flowering shrubs of various sizes, perennials and grasses that often attract hummingbirds, feed native bees and are food plants for native butterflies. If you want to help Monarch butterflies rebuild their population, add some native milkweed into the mix – the plants are becoming more and more available.
  • Annuals and bulbs can work in more out of the way spaces. Although you can mix in some native grasses – like purple needle grass – for a bit of green year round, these plants will set seed and die, leaving you with a straw-colored landscape until the next season’s rains. Weeds can be a problem here, since they tend to blow in and smother your wildflowers over time. Despite the disadvantages, these gardens can be oases of color in spring, featuring California poppies, Farewell to Spring, baby blue eyes, Blue-eyed grass and others. The poppies and blue-eyed grass will go dormant over summer and pop up again with the next season’s rains; the other annuals will grow back from seed if all goes well. Mixing in native bulbs such as brodaiea creates even more variety.
  • Sometimes water conserving landscapes have an image of cactus, rocks, gravel and dust. True, most deserts have bare soil, gravel and rock – but they’re also a mix of plants, of which cacti are normally not the majority. So if you want to go the cactus route, mix them in with water-conserving sages, ornamental grasses and other plants requiring little water. Use agaves as accents, cacti as flowering plants. Avoid giant species like prickly pears and Century plant (Agave americana) unless you have a lot of room – and keep them back from paths where their spines won’t be an issue. Also, if you’re planning a succulent garden, pay close attention to frost tolerance and hardiness. A lot of these plants will freeze solid, especially aloes and newer hybrid agaves.

Done right, your new landscape will be much more interesting than the lawn it replaces, and be something you’ll cherish even after this drought is over.

This is one of those times that a design consult might help get you moving in the right direction. We can give you ideas for style, suitable plants, options and more. If you’re interested, please contact us to schedule a consult at your project site! (or click here for more information about consults).