Starting at Home : When It Comes to Saving the Environment, Julia Russell and Her Los Feliz Bungalow Show How One Person Makes a Difference

Times Staff Writer

“It’s just a little house with a front yard and back yard,” says Julia Russell of her California bungalow, tucked into a row of similar houses on a quiet street in Los Feliz.

Yet the little redwood bungalow is a major philosophical statement for Russell, an environmentalist and citizen activist who believes that “if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

The problem, as Russell sees it, is people’s inability to see the connection between everyday life-style practices--from driving cars to using aerosol spray cans to throwing away garbage that has nowhere to go--and the gradual destruction of the planet’s air and water. “We exist on this Earth as part of a seamless whole in which everything is connected with everything else,” she says. “Therefore change has to begin with our personal actions.”

That very few may actually follow her into an ecologically sound tomorrow has not deterred Russell from transforming her own house into an Eco-Home, as Russell has named it--a place where lawns need little water, energy is solar, garbage is recycled to compost and naturally pest-resistant gardens shower their bounty on the occupants’ dinner table.


In the process, Russell’s little bungalow--which, from the street, gives no hint of its ecological import--has become something of a beacon, drawing inquiries from as far away as Japan and New Zealand, and forming the nucleus for a volunteer network of city dwellers who feel the need to do something about smog and gridlock. In recent years, Russell’s project has spawned a newsletter, which is circulated to 250 subscribers, and a small cottage industry of instructional pamphlets, audio primers, books, slide shows and consulting services.

As Russell tells it, she has gradually (often “fumbling and bumbling”) modified the 1,100-square-foot home she moved into 10 years ago to include model systems for ecological living in the city, a transformation that shows “anyone can do this in California.” The process, she adds, has caused her to significantly alter her own life style.

“My message,” says Russell, 52, “is that such changes can be life enhancing, not grim sacrifices, as people often suppose.”

With its drought-tolerant lawn, bower of fruit trees, ornamental organic vegetable gardens, trio of compost bins and solar-paneled roof, Eco-Home is now going public on a modest scale. Starting this week, tours will be offered by reservation on Sundays and Tuesdays to individuals and small groups who want to see first-hand how they might be able to conserve food, water and energy (for information, call (213) 662-5207).


“We’re starting to describe this as ‘new city living,’ ” Russell said last week, plucking an apple-pear from a low-hanging branch as she led a visitor on a sample tour of her demonstration house and gardens.

“This lot is only 51 feet by 137 feet,” she said. “I never would have believed you could grow so much in a little space. We’ve been so conditioned to a certain way of living, that most of us don’t realize what the options can be.”

A tour of Eco-Home and its ecological systems is, in essence, a tracing of its owner’s own pilgrimage. A transplanted New Yorker who thought that California’s trees and flowers “looked like heaven” when she moved here in 1966, Russell, now divorced and the mother of two grown sons, launched her conscious exploration of the ecological options when she moved into the house, during the 1978 drought.

“I started to do research, and became aware of the whole sordid story about how we got our water, importing it from other bio-regions, sometimes to their detriment.”

50% of Water for Grass

She learned that 50% of the residential water used in California goes to keep landscapes green, so Russell designed a climate-appropriate garden, now known as “Xeriscape” in the landscape world, which doesn’t require watering in summer, to replace the water-guzzling lawn.

So her front yard is bordered in bushy hedges of rhus integrifolia and pittosporum, flanked by oleanders. A large almond tree bursts into masses of white flowers in the spring, and rosemary and other herbs border a lawn which now is covered in dead-grass mulch (“California gold,” Russell explained) over a bed of rye grass and blue grass that will provide a winter lawn.

“Some of the plants are from other Mediterranean climates,” she said. Algerian ivy cascades down the front of the redwood house, which is framed by two graceful golden medallion trees.


So drought tolerance was achieved. Next, Russell explained, she focused on the energy needed to run a home, “because energy production is one of the most polluting industries. Simply generating it, not to mention the extraction process if coal is used, is, in general, very damaging.”

She first installed a solar hot-water system (“the angle of the roof was just about ideal for the solar panels”), then last year put in a photovoltaic system for solar powering the overhead lighting fixtures in her house.

Agriculture and Pollution

Russell’s third challenge was to tackle agriculture: “I discovered it is a highly polluting industry with its use of pesticides. So we have a compost system and grow everything organically.”

(That wasn’t as simple as it sounds and one of Russell’s Eco-Log newsletters, which have chronicled her trial-and-error progress toward ecological balance, is an essay on the pitfalls of getting to know a compost pile.)

To demonstrate the results, Russell led the way from her front yard, past a strip of fruit trees alongside the house to an idyllic back yard, a tangle of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers. There are no orderly rows of oats, peas, beans and barley growing in the Eco-Home garden. Instead, brick walks encircle zigzag beds of squash, spinach and asters, collard, cabbage, lettuce and beets.

“The garden imitates nature, and is planted with a diversity of species,” explained Russell. “That discourages pests, which tend to attack things that grow in large numbers. The only pesticide I use is Basic H, which is a diluted, biodegradable soap. It helps with aphids, which sometimes really make a problem.”

The entire garden was planted in sheet-mulch technique that essentially creates an earth blanket with layers of biodegradable material--mulch, cardboard and leaves--that gradually decompose into soil. A drip irrigation system minimizes evaporation.


Everything is utilized: leaves and food waste go into a triad of compost bins, fruit tree prunings are bundled and burned for firewood. “Part of the process,” said Russell, “is to see how many ways I can complete the circle, the way nature does.”

There are economic benefits. Russell, a vegetarian, has cut her grocery bill significantly. “We have 15 varieties and fruit and nut trees and more than 20 vegetables,” she said. “By adjusting my diet somewhat, I get 80% of my food here in the summer and about 50% in the winter.”

“When I started this whole project,” she recalled, “I felt that we were heading for some serious environmental problems. But most people thought I was a little bit bonkers. Now the relevance is becoming more clear.”

William Roley, who teaches environmental studies at Saddleback College, sees Eco-Home as an effective demonstration on a grass-roots level. “It shows that people can start with limited knowledge and accomplish things,” he said. “I am all for it. The real bottom line, of course, is how many people are willing to make these changes. The key is participation.”

There is no doubt, Russell said, that the various national and global environmental crises (from waste-strewn beaches to Greenhouse-level warming temperatures) that made headlines this summer have stirred up new citizen concern over the future of the planet.

“I have been getting more and more calls from teachers, and others who have heard about Eco-Home through the Green (ecology) movement network,” Russell said. “I got a call the other day from someone in Australia.”

In the process of building her personal environment, Russell has created the Eco-Home network--a community of like-minded people who have helped develop the systems that make the place special. Russell’s garage (she sold her Pinto runabout and bought a three-wheeled Schwinn bicycle several years ago) has been converted to a meeting house, library and bookstore, the headquarters for a veritable cottage industry of ecological education.

In addition to tours, Eco-Home offers newsletters, tapes, side shows, and consulting services. And for the ordinary citizen who wants to be part of the solution, the organization can supply descriptions of how to build a sheet-mulch garden, a Xeriscape lawn, compost (including compost for an apartment balcony) and a “lot of books on gardening in small spaces.”

Development Fund

A support group was formed recently to provide Eco-Home with a six-month development fund, and much of Russell’s income now comes from work with the project, including publications and the sale of produce from the gardens. Yet, Russell said, she runs into cynics who wonder why anyone bothers with organic tomatoes when the Earth’s entire ozone layer is imperiled.

“It’s difficult to understand what kind of impact one person can make in the world,” she said, “and I can understand that. Certainly my doing this is not going to heal the whole world, but the effect is constantly growing. I have been building toward this for 10 years.”

Lois Arkin, director of Cooperative Resources and Services Project, an organization that helps people form cooperative business, began working with Eco-Home three years ago; first, purely out of intellectual interest. Now, she says, it is personally enriching. “What I’m finding every day,” she said, “is that people are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the future in terms of the environment and they are very divided. Either they just feel totally hopeless, and many people do, or they are starting to make some move. I realize it sounds like a cliche these days, but it is important to be doing something in your own personal life to demonstrate an alternative way of living. Eco-Home not only does this, but with a whole network of people.

“Julia gives me a lot of hope.”

Her early motivation, Russell said, was a feeling of “unquiet desperation” at what seemed to be the fragmentation of everyday life. And as she changed her house and its relationship to the Earth, she said, something else happened.

A Life in ‘Harmony’

“It was a dramatic change for me. There is a deep level of security that one begins to feel as we start to live in harmony with the life support systems.

“You being to feel safe and connected. I think lots of stress today comes from the (unarticulated) knowledge that we must live with the consciousness of an outlaw, against the environment.”

Russell acknowledges that her own life style would hardly be practical for most people, but sees Eco-Home as providing ideas for ways to enter the ecological circle. “For some, installing some of this alternative technology would be the most meaningful and least threatening. Or they can start with recycling . . . the city is behind recycling and it’s very helpful.

“Anywhere people want to start, I say, ‘Great!’ ”


SYSTEM INSTALLATION COST Xeriscape front lawn with Equivalent to any drought-tolerant plants other landscaping Naturally insect-repellent Minimal fruit, vegetable and herb garden grown in sheet mulch Recycling via compost bins, Minimal recycling centers Solar panels to heat water $3,500 Solar photovoltaic $4,500 indoor-lighting fixtures Underground drip irrigation $350, if for food gardens self-installed

SYSTEM ECOLOGICAL BENEFIT Xeriscape front lawn with Reduces water use drought-tolerant plants 30% to 40% Naturally insect-repellent No weeds or pesticides; fruit, vegetable and herb conserves water, which garden grown in sheet mulch is applied beneath mulch Recycling via compost bins, Turns solid waste into recycling centers useful products Solar panels to heat water Reduces energy consumption by about one-third Solar photovoltaic Reduces kilowatt hours from indoor-lighting fixtures 5,664 to 1,855 per year Underground drip irrigation Reduces water use for food gardens 30% to 40%