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Before & After: A gloomy lawn becomes an enchanted garden that slashes the water bill

Before & After: A gloomy lawn becomes an enchanted garden that slashes the water bill
A garden makeover transformed the approach to David Zabel's Hancock Park home. (Nick Dean)

Bigger was not better for one L.A. family’s expansive, but isolated, front lawn — so they turned it into an enchanted garden for kids and parents alike.

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“We loved the house when we bought it,” said David Zabel of their 1920 Hancock Park home, but “the front yard was always very disjointed and disconnected from the house. It wasn’t particularly beautiful.”

A sea of turf grass — about 3,000 square feet — backed up to a wall of overgrown trees that hid the home from view. The yard was inaccessible from the house, and the house was uninviting from the curb.

“At night, it was very dark and a little gloomy, and of course it used a lot of water to keep it looking decent,” he said. Worse still, visitors had to walk up the driveway to get to the front door, which the Zabels considered inconvenient and unsafe.

The family wanted to reclaim the space, make it more usable and inviting, and less thirsty, but couldn’t conceive how to do it. Then they saw a similar yard transformed by landscape designer Nick Dean; they called him in and didn’t look back.

The only thing the Zabels wanted to keep was a 90-year-old Australian tea tree that had grown horizontally into the yard. Dean not only saved it, he made it a focal point.

He built a footbridge over the tree, with gnarled branches for railings, creating a path to a new courtyard and fountain. Under the bridge he planted wavy grasses (Festuca glauca Elijah Blue) to simulate a stream and built a hidden picnic table from reclaimed wood on-site, to create a play area for the couple’s two daughters, then 7 and 9.

“It’s a little bit magical and enchanted,” Zabel said. “He’ll find stuff that’s lying around — ‘What do I have here?’ — as opposed to scrapping stuff. We wanted it to feel like it had been there always.”

The project took about two months to plan and another four to five to complete, which they did with the help of an $8,700 rebate from the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Their total budget was about $50,000.

“The less-fun part, obviously, is when they’re tearing out everything,” said Erin Zabel, a former baker and now full-time mom. “You’re starting to think, ‘What did I do?’ ”

The couple said they knew little about plant varieties before they started but guided Dean on shapes and colors. Butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Mexican cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) turned out to be favorites, Erin Zabel said, and “we love the parrot’s beak” on the Lotus berthelotii.

She offered this advice to someone considering a lawn makeover: Find plants you like to look at even when they’re not flowering.

David Zabel, a TV writer and producer, noted that he grew up in New York City “in a really urban environment.” Now, after 11 years in this house, “I feel like I’m in a botanical garden.”

“You’re replacing a very manicured kind of conventional turf look with something that feels more natural and meadow-like. Which is very refreshing,” he said. “It invited hummingbirds and butterflies and other pollinators to our yard — that was kind of an awesome thing.”

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Moreover, the couple estimate they’re saving 10% to 13% on their water bill.

“We were spending more money on something that was less beautiful,” Erin said. Now it’s “a garden that has space we can live in and the kids can play.”

David Zabel's Hancock Park home after a garden makeover by landscape designer Nick Dean.
David Zabel's Hancock Park home after a garden makeover by landscape designer Nick Dean. (Nick Dean)

Your turn: Show us your garden makeover

You can find more images of the Zabels garden online at latimes.com/home. If you’ve transformed a water-sucking lawn into a water-sipping paradise, share it with us via email at home@latimes.com. Please include “before” and “after” photos taken from the same spot, and we may consider spotlighting your garden in a future Saturday edition.

Here are some of the plants used by the Zabels:

Arabian lilac (Vitex purpurea)

rock rose (Cistus Pink)

autumn sage (Salvia greggii Pink)

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)

Chiapas sage (Salvia chiapensis)

germander sage (Salvia chamaedryoides)

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha)

tricolor sage (Salvia officinalis Tricolor)

marine blue sage (Salvia Marine Blue)

purple hopseed bush (Dodonaea purpurea)

Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis)

Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemonii)

society garlic (Tulbaghia variegata)

society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)

wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys)

azure bush germander (Teucrium azureum)

lavender (Lavandula Goodwin Creek)

concha California lilac (Ceanothus concha)

lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus)

ascot rainbow Spurge (Euphorbia Ascot Rainbow)

coast rosemary (Westringia morning light)

kangaroo paw (Anigozanthus tequila)

kangaroo paw (Anigozanthus yellow)

dwarf olive (Olea Little Ollie)

catmint (Nepeta Walker's Low)

catmint (Nepeta faassenii)

yarrow (Achillea Paprika)

yarrow (Achillea Terra Cotta)

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)

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