Photos: When a glamorous garden gets a drought-tolerant makeover

Over the last several months we’ve spotlighted a variety of lawn-to-drought-garden makeovers. Today, we’re bringing you a makeover that is unique given its size:

What are you supposed to do when you’ve got 1.5 acres of thirsty lawn?

Granted, this is a dilemma that most of us could only dream of having. But it’s a challenge that faced a Pasadena couple who wanted to reduce their property’s water footprint in response to California’s drought.

The couple’s solution? Rip out half the lawn and plant meadow grasses, ferns and low-water perennials.

Here is their makeover, as told to us by their landscape architect:


The landscape in question surrounds the 1907-built home designed by noted architect John Austin (he also designed Los Angeles City Hall and the Griffith Observatory). When the current homeowners purchased it, they turned to Los Angeles-based Rios Clementi Hale Studios in 1997 to design the landscaping.

And when it came time to give the garden a drought-tolerant makeover, they once again turned to Rios Clementi Hale.

“The homeowners still wanted a lawn for flexible open space,” explains associate Mike Cheng. “Our approach as designers and landscape architects is that we don’t see lawn as the ultimate evil.”

The firm removed more than 50% of the lawn, reducing 18,400 square feet of Marathon sod to 9,200 square feet. (Yes, the homeowners received a turf removal rebate from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California which at the time was available to anyone who lives within the coverage area.)

In its place, they planted a wide variety of meadow grasses such as Pennisetum “Fairy Tails”; “Bunny Tails”; “Fireworks” (fountain grass); Carex praegracilis, a short, native Californian sedge; and porcupine grass, among others.

The designers specifically stayed away from invasive plants such as Mexican feathergrass, opting for ferns instead: Pteris cretica “Albolineata,” Microlepia strigosa (lace fern) and Blechnum spicant (deer fern).

Next to the basketball court, a vegetable garden was planted inside a multi-colored corrugated steel planter. “One of the interesting things about the planter is the color palette changes depending on what side you are on,” says Chen. “One side is green and the other is bright magenta.”

California natives in red, yellow and purple tones were added to the existing flowering perennial beds, including Penstemon beardtongue, milkweed and Achillea millefolium (yarrow).

Water-thrifty Mediterranean plants that attract beneficial insects, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds add to the mix, including lavenders, Salvia microphylla “Hot Lips,” Kangaroo Paw and pincushion flowers. “We stayed away from camellias,” Cheng adds with a laugh, referring to the super thirsty plants.

To further curb water waste, the designers upgraded the existing irrigation system to a Web-based SmartLink network by Weathermatic. The new irrigation system got results: It immediately helped reduce water usage by 31%.

When it comes to drought-tolerant gardening, Cheng says his office puts an emphasis on native materials. “We are on board with that,” he says, “but we try to look at Mediterranean plants too. It should be a good balance between a garden that is low water and a landscape that satisfies the visual desires of the client.”

“It’s really about creating a beautiful landscape,” adds Cheng. “And not just pulling out the lawn.”

If you’d like to submit photos of your drought garden makeover, please do so at Bonus points if you include “before” images taken from the same angle as well.

Twitter: @lisaboone19

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