How to turn lawns into drought-resistant backyards for kids

Landscaper Paul Robin had more than water conservation in mind when he removed the muddy turf and bamboo behind his Pasadena rental and created a welcoming, low-water landscape.

“Our garden is very family-friendly,” says Robbins, pointing to the Victorian boxwood where his 5-year-old daughter, Zara, 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.

Charlotte Robbins and her daughter Zara played on a swing.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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 does not order outdoor watering. limited to two days per 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, olive trees and bougainvillea. They will give you the feeling of being 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 pedestrian streets and the fact that Zara’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 quickly,” he says, watching hummingbirds and butterflies flying around the garden. “But there’s a big downside to bamboo: it doesn’t attract any wildlife.”

Paul Robbins' garden before and after

Left: The backyard before it was redone. Right: After removing lawn and adding low water content plants.

(Paul Robbins; Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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 aware of the importance of being outdoors. 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 a turf replacement from the city ​​of pasadenawhich offers a $2 per square foot rebate for replacing grass with drought-tolerant and native plants, landlords can apply for a rebate for a rental property, depending on the SoCalWaterSmart website. Robbins estimates he spent around $25,000 $30,000 in labor, materials, and plants, but doesn’t regret investing her own money in someone else’s house because her family won’t be moving anytime soon.

The Paul Robbins Bridge before and after renovation

Left: the terrace before it was transformed during the renovation of the garden. Right: What the bridge looks like now.

(Paul Robbins; Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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 compost-rich soil from Whittier Fertilizer and 3/8 inch Lodi gravel Bourget Brothers. “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 like the softness of decomposed granite, but I like the sound of gravel. My children know when I’m awake 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, Tobria of Pittosporum Mass planted ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ shrubs and Japanese holly are softened by blooming blue hibiscus, vine, honeysuckle and jasmine. There are big flowers Acanthus molliscommonly known as bear breeches, silvery green olives, 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.

A garden

Robbins likes to add planters to break up plantings.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Working with the house’s long-established trees, including Carolina cherry, fig, coastal oak, mulberry, and pomegranate, Robbins added young holm oaks (Quercus ilex), jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’ and several 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 casseroles,” he says. “It takes me back to Europe.”

A statue in a garden

Robbins chose plants based on the sandy loam soil of the garden.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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 have a variety of shapes and sizes, including the fast-growing acacia, bougainvillea, citrus, cistus, jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue,’ Olea Europe, 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.

A family in a garden

Paul Robbins and his family enjoy the garden he designed in Pasadena.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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 for years,” says Robbins. “I’ve covered 2,400 square feet and we’re enjoying it every day. This weekend we are 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.”

Have you ripped up your lawn and replaced it with drought resistant plants? We want to hear from you.

Tips for removing sod

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 over, 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, salvias, 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.
Detail of a blue flower

Alyogyne huegelii (blue hibiscus).

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Plants used in this garden


  • Carolina Cherry
  • figure
  • coastal oak
  • blackberry
  • Victorian Box, Pittosporum undulatum
  • Grenade


  • Holm oak, Quercus ilex
  • Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
  • olives


  • japanese blueberry, Elaeocarpus decipiens


  • Honeysuckle
  • Jasmine
  • Tecomaria


  • Cruise, Western Grewia


  • bear panties, Acanthus mollis
  • Arbutus “Oktoberfest”
  • blue hibiscus, Alyogyne huegelii
  • Boxwood ‘Green Beauty’
  • Silverbush, Convolvulus cneorum
  • Euphorbia (Euphorbia)
  • Gardenia jasminoides
  • Vine (table grape)
  • japanese holly, Ilex crenata
  • Jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoids
  • Little Ollie, Olea europaea
  • “Wheeler’s Dwarf” Tobria of Pittosporum
  • Variegated Japanese Orange Mockup, Pittosporum variegata
  • Rosemary (Tuscany)
  • Dwarf coast rosemary, Westringia fruticosa (grey box)


  • Acacia
  • Bougainvillea
  • Citrus
  • Cistus
  • Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
  • Olive Europea
  • Dwarf Karo, Pittosporum crassifolium “Compact”
  • Santolina


View of a garden from a terrace.

A view of the new garden from the terrace. On the table: Dorstenia gigas from the California Cactus Center in Rosemead.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Useful resources for water gardening

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