The Dry Garden: A water-wise winner in West Adams


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The West Adams Heritage Assn. celebrates the preservation of historic houses, but earlier this month, a markedly modern installation in Jefferson Park shared its “best garden” prize. Look at the home of Marina Moevs and Steve Peckman, and it’s obvious why: Few gardens could do a better job accenting but not overwhelming their lovingly restored Craftsman home.

After having taken pains to strip, then stain the clapboard for a weathered, muted effect, the first criterion that Moevs and Peckman put to a local garden designer was to keep the plants low. Herbs would be welcome, but they didn’t want any specimens taller than 3 feet. Furthermore, they didn’t want to water -- or at least water often. Finally, they wanted to capitalize on a cash-for-grass program that offers rebates for replacing turf with a low-water alternative.


The designer, Renee Gunter of Urbanscapes, was so well-known among water-wise gardeners that when sprinkler restrictions were rolled out last year, ABC News went to her front yard to see what kind of garden was possible on a $10-a-month water budget. As it happened, Gunter was also a trusted hand among preservationists in the greater district encompassing Jefferson Park known as historic West Adams. The drought-tolerant front garden of the area’s landmark South Seas House is her work.

The challenge for Gunter with this new job was height. Her gardens had never kept such a low profile before.

Perhaps it was a client named Marina, or maybe it was the vaguely oceanic tint to the clapboard stain, but Gunter began thinking in terms of sea floor vegetation. After poring over the succulent collection at the Jungle garden center, she had a palette in mind dominated by lavender, milky greens and occasional dashes of orange.

“I started putting together a flat of plants and took them home to just look at them,” she said. “They were like pieces in a puzzle.”

Once she got a sense of how they might be grouped to the most dramatic effect, the next challenge was dealing with a space that was to be not only low, but also flat. As the build began, Gunter began moving earth to create subtle berms. She then intersected the garden with gravel paths, one of which she planted while leaving the other clear for access from the driveway. She topped weed cloth with three inches of Del Rio gravel, creating paths that serve as sinks to trap rainwater and prevent runoff to the ocean.

For more explanation of the design, photos of the finished project and details on the rebate Moevs and Peckman received for replacing their lawn, keep reading ...


During installation, Gunter followed drawings, but not religiously. She worked with the homeowners as they considered the garden from every conceivable angle. When Moevs suggested moving the gravel paths closer to the house, Gunter looked at her client and said, “You know, you’re right.” The change perfected the view from the most important vantage point. Seen from the front porch, the ruffle of Cleveland sage flowers gave way to successively dipping ridges of lavender, rosemary and succulents.

Although it was not on the clients’ list, wildlife habitually finds its way into Gunter’s designs, so it was no surprise to her when a continuous flowering cycle of fall and spring lavender, winter rosemary, spring sage and summer succulents brought a family of nesting hummingbirds to the Moevs-Peckman home. She also knew that the tawny flowers of Mediterranean santalino would lure summer butterflies. Yet, nearly a year since the garden was installed, what surprises her is how the senecio, a succulent known for its finger-shaped blue foliage, flowers so gloriously in July, adding a lacy fillip to the summer garden.

In switching from turf to succulents and herbs, Moevs and Peckman were among the earliest of homeowners (426 in the latest count) to take advantage of the LA DWP cash-for-grass program. After documenting the work, they got $700 from the water supplier for replacing water-hungry turf with a garden that needs only occasional refreshment from a hose.

Design and installation of the garden cost another $10,000. If this sounds expensive, that’s because it is. But it’s not half as costly as keeping a lawn. A controlled study by the city of Santa Monica put maintenance for a turf-based front lawn the size of Moevs and Peckman’s at $3,000 a year; care for a drought-tolerant alternative was estimated at less than a third of that. (Moevs and Peckman, pictured at right, said they spend virtually nothing on their garden -- even their city mulch is free.) But using the Santa Monica metric, their garden would pay for its installation in five years.

Meet the couple and one suspects that they would have paid for the change even if it didn’t save money. They regard Gunter as an artist and their front yard as a showcase. He is associate director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA; she is a painter. They care about the future and they care about style. Standing out in their garden one evening last week, he said, “It’s so beautiful, I go out to get the paper in the morning and just stand there.”

“He needs more time now,” Moevs said, poking him.

“That never happened with lawn,” Peckman added.

Renee Gunter may be contacted at; the stripping and staining of the clapboard was done by Steve Pallrand of Home Front.


-- Emily Green

Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here every Friday morning.

Photo credits: Emily Green


PHOTOS: Another fine low-water landscape design from Renee Gunter

ARTICLE: Another fine low-water landscape design from Renee Gunter