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Get to know natives

Karen and Peter Veloz are living in sustainable luxury in the hills of Glendale. About two years ago, with the help of FormLA, a Los Angeles landscape design company that focuses on sustainability, they ripped out their back lawn and put in hardscapes amid a landscape of California-native plants.

The concept behind the design was to create outdoor living spaces, Karen Veloz said, and so the backyard features outdoor seating areas, a fire pit, barbecue and bar, wine cellar and infinity spa pool, or “spool.”

Hardscapes and native plants provide a sustainable alternative to water-guzzling, chemical-dependent lawns, said Cassy Aoyagi, co-founder and president of FormLA.

All of the plants in the yard are native with the exception of the small front lawn that was kept in place.


“If Cassy had her way, we would not have a lawn, but that was our one concession,” Karen Veloz said, explaining that they wanted to keep a small grassy area for the kids to play.

FormLA offers several alternatives to the classic lawn, such as native fescues and sedges, however they cannot hold up to the same amount of foot traffic as a classic lawn can, Aoyagi said.

FormLA uses both California natives and drought-tolerant plants from similar Mediterranean climates in its design, Aoyagi said.

“Native plants are my personal passion and because of that it’s our specialty,” added Aoyagi, who is on the board of the Theodore Payne Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of California-native plants.


There is an important distinction between drought tolerant and native, said Madena Asbell, who works in nursery sales at the foundation. While a drought-tolerant garden conserves water, a California-native garden reaps even more benefits.

Like drought-tolerant plants, California natives are also water efficient. Once they’re established, which can take up to three years, most native plants need little to no water and do not require chemicals or soil amendments to grow. Therefore, a native garden cuts down on water consumption and eliminates the use of harmful herbicides and pesticides, Asbell said.

But native gardens are also important because they provide a habitat for wildlife, Asbell said. Many insects such as caterpillars and butterflies are host-specific and need a certain plant in order to survive.

“Those sorts of relationships are so important for the survival of the plant and the insect,” Asbell said.

Non-native plant species can spread throughout Southern California, out-competing with native species. These invasive species do not provide a habitat for or benefit wildlife, and sometimes even cause them harm, Asbell said.

“One thing I like to remind people is that we’re not just about water here [at Theodore Payne],” Asbell said. “When you’re planting California native plants, you’re creating a habitat.”

In addition, people benefit from native gardens because they tutor us in nature’s ways, Asbell said. A native garden “can put people in closer touch with nature and our seasons as they begin to learn about the relationships between their plants and wildlife, and the natural life cycles of the plants,” she said.

Native gardening is site specific. There are more than 6,000 plants native to California, many of which can be planted in Southern California, Asbell said. To begin, the gardener must assess the climate and soil conditions of his or her garden and choose plants that will grow there. Sometimes this process comes down to the microclimates of the yard, where a plant may grow in one corner but not the other, she said.


At the Veloz residence, FormLA planted creeping red fescue and several types of native sage and currant, Aoyagi said.

In their second year, the plants in the flat areas are well established and hardly need watering, while those on the slopes still need another year of close attendance and watering, which is typical, Aoyagi said.

Karen Veloz said she and her husband are happy with the results, and chose FormLA because of the company’s philosophy and because they like the look of native plants.

“They’re beautiful but they’re understated,” she said.