Like a proud adventurer who had just scaled a mountain, Jim Burke stood atop a small, grassy mound of earth in Valencia, frequently wiping sweat from his brow and breathing deeply.
"Every weekend, every day after work, I worked to get this far," he said. "I must have hauled 20 tons of dirt in that wheelbarrow over there."
What Burke, 32, was huffing about were the small, grassy mounds he has built over the past 12 weekends on what used to be the dry, hard dirt that made up his front yard.
"This looks a lot better than just a flat grass lawn," Burke said. "I wanted a different effect for my front yard."
Transforming Barren Yards
In the barren front yards of scores of tract homes in the Santa Clarita valley, new and often first-time homeowners like Burke are turning tiny plots of earth into their personal Shangri-Las, complete with little rolling hills, fountains, winding pathways, pansies and even a pink flamingo or two.
Gone are the days of tossing handfuls of seed onto the ground and hand watering it with a garden hose. Landscaping for some new homeowners is serious business, where a touch of friendly competition seems to be a part of living the American Dream.
Take Valencia, for instance. In Valencia, where rooftops outnumber treetops, 500 houses were built in 1984 and 500 more are slated for this year. Time is running out for dozens of new residents who signed a homeowners association contract last fall stipulating that front yards would be landscaped six months after they moved in.
Emulating Other Homeowners
"You see so many yards here that look so good and you say to yourself, 'Gosh, I don't want my yard to be plain after seeing something that looks so nice,' " said Joni Hill, 27.
So, on street after street in these new housing tracts, cement mixers are churning, topless men dig ditches and rolled sod is stacked six feet high on sidewalks and waiting to be laid on front yards like carpet.
Those who are not working seem to be watching. Some stroll up and down cul-de-sacs coveting their neighbors' brickwork, or wondering whether the Bermuda fescue cost 59 cents or 69 cents a square foot. Others stop to chat about sprinkler fittings or the lack of rain gutters on their new houses.
"In three days I'll have a front lawn," said Steve Burkett, 30, who decided to pay $3,000 to have his front yard professionally landscaped. "It was going to be $6,500 for the front and back. We decided just to have the front done, where people can see it. We are going to throw seed in the back."
For his money, Burkett said, he is getting a fully automated sprinkler system and walkway lighting, an underground drainage system and some plants, a tree and grass.
"All it takes is one guy to start his landscaping. I guess we were all wondering who was going to go first," Burkett said. "You would feel kind of guilty if you were the last one.
"This guy was the first on the block," he said, pointing to the yard next door, with its brick stairs leading to the front porch, brick lamppost and freshly trimmed lawn. "I asked myself, 'How are we going to live next door to him?' So I just called the same landscaper.
"If something goes wrong," Burkett said, "I can blame them."
'Nobody to Blame but Me'
"If I mess up, there is nobody to blame but me," said Dan Gabler, who lives across the street from Burkett. Gabler sat in the dirt surrounded by circular wood molding that was going to be part of his new front porch until, he said, his measurements turned out to be "a little wrong."
"For me, this is the cheapest and only way I can do it," Gabler said. "I've been talking to people who spent $8,000 to $10,000 on landscaping. I can't believe it. I can do the same at one-third the cost."
Paul Kelso, 37, who had previously lived with his family in a maintenance-free mobile home park before moving into his $140,000 house, said he was not prepared to take on all the "yard stuff" involved in home owning.
"When you move in, all you get is a house and piece of dirt," he said. "I just put sod down. But even then you find out you're going to pay $50 for a wheelbarrow, $25 for a garden hose, $250 for a lawn mower. It's scary. It really is scary.
"I got a little, plain front yard," Kelso said. "I feel a little bad about it, but right now that's what I can handle. It took us 10 years to get here. But it will only be a matter of time before we can start building it up."