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Plants

Ripping out his lawn made him a native plant fanatic

A man bends over to pet a medium-sized black dog in front of a house with wild-looking plants in the yard.
Georg Kochi and his dog, Tjumaq, in the frontyard of their Koreatown Craftsman home, which now has a wild landscape of native and drought-tolerant plants.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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For Georg Kochi, tearing out his Koreatown lawn has been as much about spiritual growth as water conservation — a deep and sometimes playful exploration into habitat, rebirth and decay on the property where he lived as a boy and returned decades later as a retiree.

The parkway in front of his house in St. Andrews Square, for instance, was full of wildflowers this spring, but the colorful flowers have turned into dry, dirty-blond seedheads and stalks interspersed with clouds of blooming buckwheat, juvenile coastal live oak trees and waves of native grasses. And Kochi is just fine with that.

“I love that brown color,” he says. It’s a form of wabi-sabi, the traditional Japanese aesthetic of appreciating the exquisite imperfection that comes from age and ruin, “like the normal wear and tear in a pair of jeans or the rustic forlornness of an old, aging teahouse.”

He has incorporated this look of ruins throughout his yard. A hose — his lone watering system — is loosely coiled around a large, smooth granite rock. Nearby, a collection of rusted iron parts is arranged in shapes on the sidewalk; his goal is to transfer the rust color to the concrete before he reassembles the collection somewhere else.

A man stands on a residential sidewalk
Georg Kochi is photographed at his Koreatown craftsman home.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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Rusty metal objects on a sidewalk.
For Georg Kochi, letting things rust in his yard is part of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I like to play in my garden; these are playful ruins,” he said. “It’s like my house is a 1913 Craftsman — a little bit shabby, but shabbiness has its beauty.”

Kochi, 69, a native of Los Angeles and a UCLA alum, spent many years studying tea culture in Asia during his 20 years directing the Asian Cultural Council’s Japan program in Tokyo. His parents were second-generation American, so he really only heard Japanese from his grandmother growing up.

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He took classes in Japanese as a child but didn’t really learn the language until he embarked on a “self-identity quest” in his 20s, and became the director of performing arts at the Aratani Theatre of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in L.A.'s Little Tokyo. That position led to his work with the Asian Cultural Council (formerly John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund), supporting cultural exchanges between artists in Asia and the United States.

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Kochi retired in 2010 and returned to Los Angeles to live in the house his parents bought in 1968. The landscape had the typical plantings of SoCal midcentury houses — the sego palms, birds of paradise and hibiscus his parents loved — and a 1,300-square-foot lawn that had to be watered and mowed.

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He started thinking seriously about removing his lawn in 2014, when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought, then the worst in recorded state history, and the Metropolitan Water District offered turf removal rebates — then about $3 a square foot, he said. (The MWD’s turf replacement rebates are $2 a square foot now but can be more in jurisdictions that add additional incentives).

A man's hand holds up an old photo of a house in front of the same house today
When Georg Kochi moved to his family home, he took out the lawn. Here he holds a photo of it from 1972.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A house with a yard filled with native and drought-tolerant plants
The frontyard of Georg Kochi’s home is a mix of drought-tolerant and California native plants, as well as a few “legacy” plants his parents tended after they bought the 1913 Craftsman house in 1968.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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“I did the math and realized if I took out my lawn, I could cut my [irrigation] water use almost entirely, plus the cost of having it mowed by a gardener,” he said. It made a lot of sense financially, so he paid a neighbor’s gardener $600 to dig out the sod and approached his new landscape the way he investigated other interests — with a deep dive, this time into Mediterranean climate plants and native plants.

He became a member and volunteer at the Theodore Payne Foundation to help with his landscape planning, and made frequent visits to the California Botanic Garden, the state’s largest botanic garden of native plants, and the estuary at Playa Vista, where he saw how native plants supported birds and other wildlife.

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“That’s why a native plant garden is so important,” he said. “It’s not just saving water in a drought; it brings back the native life and creates a holistic ecology.”

He wanted a palette of silvery greens, and planted a variety of native buckwheats, toyon, sages, mallows, wild rye and mule grass. Tall, sturdy stalks of basket rush (Juncus textilis) spill out of a planter near his porch, and a twisted Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) grows near the garage in a large wooden planter.

Georg Kochi's garden
Georg Kochi tore out the grass at his family home and started landscaping this waterwise garden.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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The long arcing canes of white sagesprawl across the driveway at Georg Kochi's Koreatown home.
The long arcing canes of white sage sprawl across the driveway at Georg Kochi’s Koreatown home.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Some plantings never worked, such as his California coffeeberry (Frangula californica ssp. californica) and Channel Islands tree poppy (Dendromecon harfordii). “I tried planting three or four but gave up after a while. They seemed very nitpicky about the soil,” he said.

The process was slow, he said, and it took about five years for the new plants to get established, but today the effect is rustic, almost wild.

But this kind of look “doesn’t just happen,” he said. “You can’t be nonattentive. ... You have to attend to the wild.”

That means frequent weeding — and recognizing your mistakes, Kochi said.

For instance, after the gardener took out the lawn, he rototilled mulch into the soil; then Kochi let it sit for a while before he began planting. “We didn’t do the usual practice of putting cardboard or plastic over it to kill the crabgrass, and I came to regret that,” he said. “It became my daily meditation to go out and look for crabgrass sprouts, especially in the parkway. The neighbors probably thought I was crazy.”

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A beautifully overgrown buckwheat covered in pink-tinged blooms rises taller than a man in his front yard
A beautifully overgrown St. Catherine’s Lace buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum) rises taller than Georg Kochi in his frontyard.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A honeybee rests on a mass of orangey-pink buckwheat blooms.
Several varieties of buckwheats bloom profusely in Georg Kochi’s garden, such as this California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), whose flowers are heavy with bees.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Then there was the miscalculation about how fast and big his new plants would grow. He decided to also add Mediterranean plants that do well in dry landscapes, such as dwarf olive trees and rosemary, but he didn’t realize how much faster they would grow than many of the California natives. The buckwheats are holding their own but the other natives are struggling against the encroaching olives, especially the slow-growing manzanitas.

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“I’m battling to keep them down, to provide the others with breathing space and sun space,” he said.

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His yard isn’t all drought-tolerant. He kept a few of the plants from his late parents’ era in corners of his front and back yards — including the soaring star pine his father planted by the street and the fruit trees his parents tended in the back, along with a small patch of segos, bird of paradise and hibiscus.

“Those are legacy plants,” he said. “They’re important because this is where your family was and they tell stories ... for instance, my mom planted that persimmon tree and it didn’t grow well, and then someone told her you have to torture it, so she took a shovel head and started knocking the side of it, and it finally flowered and set fruit. ... That story is embedded in me.”

The delicate seed heads of a Palmer's Indian Mallow (Abutilon palmeri) poke through a fence.
The delicate seed heads of a Palmer’s Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri) poke through a fence.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The legacy plants are part of the yard’s established growth now, which uses no irrigation besides the water Kochi provides by hand. He initially thought he would install a drip irrigation system once his native shrubs were planted, but a Japanese friend who is a professional gardener counseled him otherwise.

“He said, ‘Georg, just water your plants by hand and get to know them.’ And that’s what I decided to do,” Kochi said. “When you baby them, and feed them like a dog, you get to see what they need, like more light, more space or more water.”

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Once established, the plants don’t need much water at all, and the water savings have been huge. Admittedly, Kochi says, “I live alone with one dog, and I swim regularly at the USC Aquatic Center, so I don’t do heavy showers or bathing at home, but my last water bill was $30.07 for two months, so I think I have some bragging rights.”

As much as he reveres and encourages the rustic patina around his house — like his mulch of fallen leaves and twigs and a sculptural, weathered palm frond leaning by his front door — he’s also a student of rebirth, and the writings of environmental biologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose bestselling 2015 book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” inspired him to add to his landscape “spirit plants” — the four plants most sacred to native peoples of North America, he said: incense cedar, white sage, sweetgrass and Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis).

Apples weigh down a tree limb
Apples grow in the backyard of Georg Kochi’s home. He considers the tree a “legacy plant,” one put in the yard long ago by his parents.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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He believes these plants have powers to strengthen people as well as nature. For instance, his massive white sage plants are blooming now in long arching stalks he calls their efflorescence. Nearby, leaning against his garage, are two fat bundles of the sage stalks collected after their flowers were done and their seeds dispersed.

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These are basically sticks most people would throw in the green bin, but Kochi doesn’t see it that way.

“You don’t throw any part of a sage away; the dried stalks of white sage are as sacred as their leaves,” he said. The bundles of sage sticks are beautiful just by themselves, like haystacks in a field, “beautiful farmland forms — sculptures!” But he also cuts them up and puts them in the bottom of pots to nourish what he plants. “I can feel their powers going up through the new roots of another plant.”

A closeup of dried brown stalks of California native wildflowers.
Georg Kochi likes the dried brown stalks of spent California native wildflowers in his frontyard.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

He encourages his visitors to make a “healing bouquet” of branches from the four sacred plants. Let them dry out, he says, and savor their changing beauty and fragrance. Once the bouquet is dry, burn it and take in its essence, the way people do when they smudge to cleanse the air.

He discusses this matter-of-factly, expertly tying the bundles with banana twine he dyed indigo, a color he loves, but when the questions get too earnest, he laughs a little sheepishly and advises reading Kimmerer’s book. “I like to play and experiment,” he says. “Don’t take what I say too seriously.”

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 A man's hands hold a thin braid of sweetgrass.
Georg Kochi holds a thin green and gold braid of sweetgrass that he grew in his yard.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Kochi loves how his lawn-less yard has become a haven for pollinating insects and birds, but he’s also grateful for how his ever-changing garden gave him vital, creative work during the pandemic, when he was shut off from friends and family, and his only companion was his Formosan mountain dog named Tjumaq — a Taiwanese aboriginal word pronounced “CHEW-mack” that means “coming home.” (“She’s always waiting for me to come home, so it’s the perfect name.”)

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He’s incorporated his study of native plants into the things he learned about tea culture (he built his own tea room inside the house) and the works of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, an L.A. native like Kochi, who devoted much of his career to stone sculptures that over centuries would naturally soften and decay.

Kochi serves on the board of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure, Japan, where the late sculptor built a studio, and in a small way hopes to approximate Noguchi’s ideals of aging beauty in his yard. “I imagine him creating works for 10,000 years into the future,” Kochi wrote in a text. “He marveled at melting stone ruins, which likely moved him, like me, to no end.”

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So while water conservation was his initial motivation, Kochi’s turf-replacement project has become something far more personal. His untamed, hand-watered garden is part meditation and part legacy, and “may not be for everyone,” he wrote, “but everyone who does it will be wonderfully rewarded. I saved water, but my garden SAVED ME.”

A man looks out from a window
Georg Kochi looks out onto his garden.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

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Plants used in this garden

California native shrubs/flowers

  • St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
  • Santa Cruz Island buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens)
  • California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum var. fasciculatum)
  • White sage (Salvia apiana and hybrids)
  • Purple sage (a.k.a. desert sage, Salvia dorrii)
  • Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
  • Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)
  • Coulter’s Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)
  • Palmer’s Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri)
  • Casitas chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus ‘Casitas’)
  • De La Mina berbena (Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’)
  • Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)
  • Creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis)
  • Chuparosa (Justicia californica)
  • Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea ‘Coral Bells’) in pot
  • Povertyweed (Iva axillaris)
  • Coyote mint (Monardella sheltonii)
  • Theodore Payne Foundation’s California wildflower mix
  • California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
  • Penstemon (several varieties)

California native grasses

  • Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)
  • Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
  • Blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus)
  • Purple three awn (Aristida purpurea)
  • Buffalo grass (a.k.a. vanilla grass, Anthoxanthum nitens ssp. nitens)
  • Basket rush (Juncus textilis)

California native trees

  • Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia var. agrifolia)
  • Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius)
  • Burgundy desert willow (Chilopsis linearis ‘Burgundy’)
  • Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
  • Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
  • Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) in a large container

Drought-tolerant, Mediterranean climate plants

  • Creeping thyme
  • Dwarf olive
  • Creeping rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Creeping fig
  • Chardonnay grape

“Legacy” plants

  • Bird of paradise
  • Japanese boxwood hedge
  • Sego palm
  • Hibiscus
  • Star pine
  • Ornamental plum tree
  • Pittosporum
  • Oleander
  • Bougainvillea
  • Fruit trees (tangerine, persimmon and apple, varieties unknown)
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Helpful resources for waterwise gardening

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