How a Tenant Swapped His Lawn for a Drought-Tolerant Family Retreat | Way of life
LOS ANGELES — Landscaper Paul Robbins had more than water conservation in mind when he removed the muddy turf and bamboo behind his Pasadena rental and created an inviting, low-water landscape.
“Our garden is very family-friendly,” says Robbins, pointing to the Victorian boxwood where his 5-year-old daughter, Ava, likes to swing. Next to it, a butterfly chair is strategically placed in the shade of a towering fig tree. “Audrey likes to sit there and listen to the stone water fountain,” he says of his 6-month-old daughter. “You can still have a lush, green garden with very little water. Drought-tolerant doesn’t need to look desert or austere.”
You’d expect an Englishman to favor thirsty annuals and perennials, but Robbins says he turned to drought-tolerant plants long before Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District declared an emergency. shortage of water and orders outdoor watering limited to two days a week. Even so, he thinks the gardens should refer to the wonder of living in a place like Los Angeles.
“When I create a garden, I want it to feel like Southern California,” he says. “I love citrus fruits and bougainvillea. They will make you feel like you are in a wonderful environment.”
When he and his wife, Charlotte, moved to Pasadena last year, they were thrilled to find a rental in a family-friendly neighborhood filled with single-family homes and stately live oak trees. They liked the neighborhood’s walkable streets and the fact that Ava’s school was a short bike ride away.
But Robbins had mixed feelings about the manicured lawn of the 1936 home – strewn across its block – and the backyard, which was lined with muddy grass, red bricks and bamboo. “I understand that people use bamboo as a screen because it grows fast,” he says, watching hummingbirds and butterflies flying around the garden. “But there’s a big downside to bamboo: it doesn’t attract any wildlife.”
After renting an apartment in Koreatown for several years, Robbins was also excited about the prospect of designing a garden for his family’s enjoyment.
“Even when we were in Koreatown, he filled our apartment with pots and plants,” Charlotte says with a smile.
Robbins adds, “COVID-19 has made people realize the importance of being outside. It’s amazing to have a garden again.”
With his landlord’s blessing, Robbins and a crew hand-removed 2,400 square feet of grass and bamboo from the backyard and installed a new garden over the next four months. Although Robbins did not request turf replacement from the City of Pasadena, which offers a $2 per square foot rebate for turf replacement with drought-tolerant and native plants, homeowners can request a rebate for a rental property, according to the SoCalWaterSmart website. Robbins estimates he spent $25,000 to $30,000 on labor, materials, and plants, but doesn’t regret investing his own money in someone else’s house because his family won’t be moving any time soon.
Shortly after removing the sod and bamboo, Robbins created a planting plan and traced it into the dirt with spray paint. He then added custom high-compost soil from Whittier Fertilizer and 3/8-inch Lodi gravel from Bourget Bros. “It’s the closest thing to Cotswold gravel,” he says.
Asked to weigh in on the decomposed granite vs. gravel debate, he says he’s always been a fan of gravel. “It’s more practical in the winter when it’s wet,” he says. It also has a soothing auditory element. “I enjoy the softness of decomposed granite, but I love the sound of gravel. My kids know when I wake up in the morning.”
He installed mostly Mediterranean plants in a limited palette, not only because they need little water, but also because he knew they would do well in the sandy loam soil of the house. His garden is a combination of his English roots and Southern California influences: hardy ‘Green Beauty’ boxwood hedges, ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ Pittosporum tobria shrubs and mass-planted Japanese holly are softened by blooming blue hibiscuses, vines, honeysuckle and jasmine. There are tall blooming Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear breeches, silvery green olive trees and fragrant coastal rosemary. It’s a magical environment that functions as an extension of the house, filled with shade, wildlife, and private alcoves, including a path to a rabbit hutch, which he waters by hand once a week.
Working with the house’s long-established trees, including Carolina cherry, fig, coastal oak, mulberry and pomegranate, Robbins added young holm oak (Quercus ilex), ‘Bonsai Blue’ jacaranda and multiple olives, some of which are in planters, to add shade and help refresh the yard in years to come. Despite the garden’s tidy appearance, Robbins notes that it mulches a lot and leaves the leaves to rot to prevent water evaporation and add nutrients to the soil.
Next to the fire pit where the family likes to hang out, he has set up an herb garden in a raised bed with easy access to the kitchen. In another thoughtful move, Robbins added vintage pots throughout the garden, many of which he had collected over the years and were left over from landscaping work, to help break up the mass plantings. “I’ve always loved jars,” he says. “It takes me back to Europe.”
The garden is anchored on a terrace which serves as an outdoor dining area. Robbins has transformed the empty front porch with potted plants that can handle the heat; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including fast-growing acacia, bougainvillea, citrus, cistus, jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’, Olea europea, Pittosporum crassifolium ‘Compactum’, and santolina. To top it off, he installed a trio of solar sails to provide protection on days when the temperature in Pasadena hits the triple digits.
Although the couple are currently unable to buy a home in the competitive Los Angeles real estate market, they consider themselves lucky to have put down roots in Pasadena. “We love this place and hope we can stay here for years,” Robbins said. “I’ve covered 2,400 square feet and we’re enjoying it every day. This weekend we’re having a family birthday party for 40 people. I can take a lot of plants with me when I go.”
And the garden?
“I’ll pass it on to the next family that lives here.”
Grass Removal Tips:
Ready to rip your lawn? Here are some tips from Robbins before you start:
• To get rid of Marathon, a popular grass in Southern California because it stays green year-round, rent a lawn splitter, turn the grass, and wait two weeks before cultivating the soil. Then add organic compost and new soil to your garden as needed.
• Install drip irrigation, which is a low-volume sprinkler system.
• Choose plants based on what grows well in your neighborhood and the type of soil you have. “For example, light, free-draining soils favor plants such as lavenders, sages, rosemary, and westringia. Heavier soils [favor] pittosporums, olive trees and agapanthus,” advises Robbins.
• Choose three to five varieties to plant in groups. This will make your garden stand out without complicated maintenance.
Plants used in this garden
• Carolina Cherry
• Coastal oak
• Victorian boxwood, Pittosporum undulatum
• Holm oak, Quercus ilex
• Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
• Japanese blueberry, Elaeocarpus decipiens
VINES ON BORDER FENCE
• Cross-Cruise, Grewia occidentalis
SHRUBS AND FLOWERS
• Bear breeches, Acanthus mollis
• Arbutus “Oktoberfest”
• Blue hibiscus, Alyogyne huegelii
• Boxwood ‘Green Beauty’
• Silverbush, Convolvulus cneorum
• Euphorbia (euphorbia)
• Gardenia jasminoids
• Vine (table grape)
• Japanese holly, Ilex crenata
• Jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides
• Small Ollie, Olea europaea
•”Wheelers Dwarf”, Pittosporum tobria
• Japanese mock orange variegated, Pittosporum variegata
• Rosemary (Tuscan)
• Dwarf coast rosemary, Westringia fruticosa (gray box)
• Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
• European olive
• Dwarf Karo, Pittosporum crassifolium “Compactum”
• Dorstenia gigas
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