Eight years ago, Kathy and Andrew Russell's frontyard was like many of the gardens in their Brentwood neighborhood — monopolized by grass.
But after Kathy retired from UCLA Medical Center as a surgical nurse, she had the time to tear out the lawn and rethink the plot as something more environmentally friendly.
The yard sat empty for a year as she contemplated what to plant.
"Kathy was a thinker," says landscape designer Shayne Naudi, who helped the couple update the small frontyard. "She was an advocate for native plants and studied books for a year."
As a result, when it came time to landscape the yard — open to the public as part of the Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Garden Tour — native plants were a priority.
"That was Kathy's thing," Andrew says of his wife, who died last March. "She was into ecology and energy conservation. When she would walk the neighborhood, she would carry tongs to pick up trash."
While they pondered gum plants and penstemon, the couple added an arbor and teak fence around the perimeter of the frontyard, installed irrigation and painted the exterior of the house a coffee tone to cut down on the heat that reflected from the original white facade.
The first planting was in May 2008, and today the 1,200-square-foot garden is alive with birds, butterflies and bees thanks to the milkweed, lilac verbena, monkeyflower and buckwheat that were planted to attract wildlife.
While some may think of native plants as untamed trail-side plantings, the Russell's landscape is profoundly romantic. "This is a very cottage-like garden," says Naudi. "We wanted something pretty, soft and native."
Part of the romance comes from abundant color derived from poppies, golden yarrow, fuchsia, snapdragon and the enormous primrose that has migrated from another spot in the garden.
Blue and white ceanothus adds shade to the contained space, while climbing clematis vines and California wild grapes add privacy from the sidewalk.
A manzanita and blue ceanothus have been espaliered against the walls of the house, furthering the cottage sensibility. "Pruning allows you to see how gorgeous things can be," says Naudi.
The parking strip is especially dramatic thanks to Santa Barbara daisies, grasses, poppies, lush silver-toned David's Choice ground cover and a striking desert-tolerant blue Palo Verde tree that gives the house a physical break from the busy street.
Although the garden has struggled with soil disease and some drought issues — Russell says he waters with a drip once a week — the garden is a success thanks in large part to Kathy's yearlong research.
Today it serves as a memorial for an avid gardener and native plant lover and as an inspiration for neighbors and tour-goers. "This garden is very special in terms of remembering Kathy," Andrew says.
"She was the kindest person I ever knew," adds Naudi. "She was concerned for humanity. Every time I'm here, she is with me."
Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour
What: More than 40 L.A. gardens on a self-guided tour.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday (San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys) and Sunday (L.A., Westside and South Bay)
Tickets: $30 for members of the Theodore Payne Foundation; $35 for nonmembers. Tickets include admission to all gardens both days and a printed guide.
Info: (818) 768-1802; nativeplantgardentour.org