Steal outdoor design ideas at L.A.'s biggest garden tour

California’s drought is prompting more than turf removal and environmentally friendly plantings.

Sustainable gardens are changing the way we look at architecture.

In the case of Steven and Sarah Olsen’s 1925 Spanish Revival home in Manhattan Beach, their 4-year-old garden — which will be open to the public Saturday as part of the Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Garden Tour — adds a modern feel to the home’s old-world charm.

“It’s Spanish Mission meets postmodern apocalyptic Eden,” says Sarah Olsen.


The couple’s 7,500-square-foot lot originally featured sloping lawns and a semicircular driveway that took up much of the front yard.

Fed up with wasting water on grass, the couple began the turf removal process by sheet mulching the lawn — a process whereby material such as cardboard is placed on top of the lawn, squelching sunlight as the lawn dies.

They wanted to replace the lawn with a mix of their favorite California native plants, so they hired landscape designer Margaret Oakley Otto, whose Oakley Gardens specializes in sustainable gardens.

The Olsens would go on to remove the driveway in front and plant a lush assortment of colorful poppies, mallows, California lilac, Cleveland sage and Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, among others.


In the front courtyard, they kept a 10-foot-tall Torch aloe, climbing rose and Eureka lemon tree and added a fountain, manzanita, Coyote Brush and further mallows that flower year-round — Hanging Valley, Apricot and Louis Hamilton Apricot.

They ditched the long, sloped lawn along the side of the house in favor of California natives, Mediterranean plants and edibles. In an effort to reduce water runoff, Oakley Otto terraced the side yard into three levels and covered the steps with decorative rusty-colored Cor-Ten steel.

Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour 2016

Bright blooms of apricot mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), right, a California desert native that blooms nearly year-round, appear in colorful cultivars and frame a frog fountain in the courtyard of the Manhattan Beach, yard of Sarah and Steven Olsen.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For years the couple felt detached from the yard and craved more indoor-outdoor living. “We wanted to tame the slope so we can entertain outside,” says Sarah Olsen. “We wanted something that would draw us out of the house.”

The clean, defined hardscapes are covered in a mixture of crushed gravel and decomposed granite that cuts back on water use and keeps maintenance to a minimum. It also adds a Zen quality to the free-flowing gardens. “Having really nice hardscaping can be a nice balance to a native garden that is not manicured,” says Oakley Otto.

Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour 2016

The iconic California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), are the official state flower of California.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A noninvasive acacia provides shade on the tier closest to the courtyard. Also on that level are a native ironwood tree, a blue ceanothus that is dramatically espaliered against the garage and various sage plants. The lowest tier is dedicated to edibles with a raised-bed kitchen garden made from broken concrete. Figs, Meyer lemons, pomegranate and fava beans are planted along the perimeter.

Broken concrete from the driveway was also repurposed to build a banquette underneath the kitchen windows. The seating proves beneficial when the couple hosts parties in the garden for as many as 75 people. The couple is also delighted that neighborhood children are flocking to the garden now that their own children have grown and moved out. “We’ve been on the tour twice before, and every year someone comes and sits down and doesn’t leave,” Sarah Olsen says with a laugh.


Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour 2016

Designer Margaret Oakley Otto, left, and homeowner Sarah Olsen relax on a banquette made of broken concrete. The three-bedroom, two-bath home was moved from Miracle Mile to Manhattan Beach during the 1950s and was elevated on pylons, causing the home to feel detached from the yard. 

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Because most of the property slopes down, Oakley Otto knew she had to devise a plan for water runoff. She installed a permeable driveway and walkway and three underground infiltration pits that capture rainwater on-site. Additionally, the entire property is on a sophisticated Rachio smart sprinkler drip irrigation system that can be controlled from a phone. “It’s connected to a weather station so the controller knows not to water when it rains,” she says.

Although free and wild, the garden offers a soft and modern element to the home’s rustic hacienda feel and connects the home to the garden in a way that invites indoor-outdoor living. The garden’s thoughtful design enhances the home’s architecture — indoors and out — and enlarges the outdoor experience.

“I love sitting in my dining room and look out and pretending I’m in a lair,” says Sarah Olsen.

And what does Oakley Otto, who coordinated this year’s garden tour, hope that people take away from the garden? “Sarah talks about how kids love her garden. How they host huge parties all the time,” she says. “This garden demonstrates that you don’t need a lawn to appeal to people of all ages.”

Twitter: @LisaBoone19



The Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour

Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour 2016

The side yard is divided in to three tiers. The lowest tier is dedicated to edibles with a raised-bed kitchen garden made from broken concrete. Figs, Meyer lemons, pomegranate and fava beans are planted along the perimeter. 

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What: Showcases 41 landscapes in and around Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Price: Tickets are $25 for Theodore Payne Foundation members and students, $30 for nonmembers. Tickets for couples are $40 (two tickets) for members, $50 for nonmembers (pickup only). Tickets cover both days of the tour.

Info: Tickets are available at or by calling (818) 768-1802, Ext. 15. You can also buy tickets at the Theodore Payne Foundation, 10459 Tuxford St., in Sun Valley


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