California’s drought is over — for now. But residential water use will be restricted in a few years, so many are staying ahead of the curve and retiring browning lawns for something prettier and more drought-tolerant. We spoke with four Toluca Lake homeowners who have done just that. Take a look at their yards on the following pages for inspiration on what you can do — with as much or as little effort as you’d like.
The Result of 20 Years “Just Talking Plants”
When Amber Denker set out to overhaul her front yard’s “one big grassy hill,” she combined her artistic sensibility with her decades of gardening knowledge.
“I’m aware of color,” she says, so redoing her yard was like “painting my environment.” The 20-year Toluca Lake resident decided on a color scheme of coral, lime and orange, and she planted yellow variegated lantana on the parkway by her palm trees. She selected and bought the plants herself, going as far away as Ventura. “I’m too picky. I have a vision. I can’t entrust that vision to someone else,” Denker says.
But it was her gardener, Jaime Dominguez of Valley Glen, who “did the real heavy lifting,” she says. The yard took two years to complete, and Denker draws enormous satisfaction from it. “I just like looking at it. It’s calming to sit down and drink a cup of tea or gaze at it.” Passers-by also like the yard. “They compliment me,” she says.
The colorful yard, on Talofa Avenue, is separated by two paths — one hardscape and decorated with tile, the other decomposed granite. Drought-tolerant plants include palo verde trees, smoke trees, milkweed and euphorbias, some of which her husband calls “Dr. Seuss-type plants” because of their “bizarre shapes.” Bees love the palo verde blossoms, butterflies the milkweed and hummingbirds the coral coloring of many of her plants, she says.
A turf removal rebate from the Department of Water and Power a few years back “totally spurred” Denker to use “all the knowledge that I’d absorbed from 20 years of just talking plants.” The rebate saved her “about $8,000, because it’s $1 a square foot of grass,” which included the parkway. She would have stayed within her $8,000 budget if she hadn’t opted for the hardscaping, which involves mortar, bricklaying and tile and cost $12,000, she says.
No need to overthink how to put in a drought-tolerant garden. “Just do it. It’s just dirt and plants,” she says. “You can bury your mistakes pretty quickly or easily. If the plant dies, put in something else.”
A Garden — and Gardener — to Envy
Two years ago, Nan Christian grew tired of her grass turning ugly from the lack of water. She told her gardener she wanted something else. “I said, ‘Make it beautiful,’ and he did.”
What Mino Nakano, her gardener of 30 years, did was plant bright pink succulents, Calandrinia spectabilis and kalanchoe “Oak Leaf” on one corner of her property, creating an eye-catching tableau. During the three weeks he was putting in the new areas, Christian says, “the neighbors all stopped and talked to him. They could see it coming in stages, and they loved it.”
White roses have replaced the unsightly grass on the parkway. “I told him I wanted roses because my neighbor behind me has the roses coming up, so I thought it would be nice to have the roses [extend from my parkway, too]. The whole block then ties in with the white roses.”
The price for the beautification? Christian doesn’t recall, except that “it’s pricey and well worth the expense.”
Plus, she no longer has to worry about watering the grass, which “you’d have to feed several times a year and put in the grass seed. This [the roses] is much easier, maintenance-wise,” she says.
The biggest challenge was “getting the drip system to work correctly,” she says. “My water pressure isn’t even. We had to adjust where I get more water pressure in one place than another.”
Christian left everything — the design, the type of plants, the drip irrigation — up to Nakano. Her fellow Toluca Lake Garden Club members “all liked to come over to look at it and get ideas. But they didn’t have Mino,” she says. Nakano isn’t accepting new clients, she adds.
Work by an “Amateur Gardener”
After a lot of research and a “huge amount of work” that included their own labor of shopping, digging out the old lawn, more shopping, laying down new soil, planting and hauling six trailers of mulch, Susanne and Ken Hayes turned their “boring lawn” into a visual centerpiece studded with color.
All she really wanted was “to save water” and have flowers throughout the season, Susanne says of her intent in replanting her yard. The DWP’s rebate program, which saved them $7,500 of $14,000 in expenses, also motivated her. She threw herself into the project — digging, planting and hauling — assisted by their gardener and his family, who installed the drip irrigation and planted plants, and Ken, who helped with shoveling and hauling the mulch.
Susanne, a self-described “amateur gardener,” filled the yard with drought-tolerant plants such as succulents, lavender, Mexican sage, manzanitas, and crawling and coastal rosemary.
This wasn’t the desert landscape her husband feared it would be. “When I think of California native, I think of Palm Springs and the desert. But’s that not what happened. Susanne found these native California plants that bloom and are really colorful. It’s much more vibrant than I expected it to be,” Ken says.
His only disappointment is the drip irrigation system, he says, because it’s hard to tell how much water is needed and when repairs need to be made. With the plants being drought tolerant, “it might take several weeks before you realize that the plant is doing well or not,” he notes.
The couple also discovered that a dry-climate garden isn’t maintenance free. A certain amount of mulch and wood chips is needed to prevent weeds from coming back up, Susanne says. Mulch and wood chips are organic, Ken says; they break down and need to be replenished about once a year.
Still, that seems minor compared to the joy the garden brings them. Its scents — particularly the lavender and rock rose — and sounds from the birds and bees relax Susanne. “When the lavender and Mexican sage are blooming, the bushes are literally buzzing,” she says. Hummingbirds, finches and honeybees gather in her yard, especially attracted by the manzanitas.
The yard is quite a draw. “Neighbors were very impressed Susanne would do all this pretty much herself. We got a lot of compliments when we were finished,” Ken says.
To get Denker’s list of resources, learn where Christian likes to go for seminars and pottery containers, and find out where the Hayes family gets their mulch and wood chips for free, read “Gardening Tips to Defy the Dry.”