|A blend of drought tolerant plants in the Coray Garden
Even though I am best known for my stone mosaic work, my first love in gardening is working with plants. I aced my tests in Plant Materials in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon because I loved studying plants so much that the information just seemed to stick, which isn't the case with me for subjects like math. Give me Nature, beautiful Art, Architecture and Music and I'll be a happy man.
In the past year I have worked on two gardens where I was able to create an entirely new planting scheme from a blank slate, one in Portland, and one in Los Angeles. The Portland garden belongs to a good friend who bought a well built new row house in a large development in an inner city neighborhood. Each row house came with a rectangular patch of blank earth, covered in a blanket of bark mulch surrounded by a wood fence.
|The garden as a clean slate
|A view of the neighbor's gardens
The way we started out was funny, because my client had never gardened before, and now he had this patch of bark mulch with an air conditioning unit ceremoniously placed in a prominent position and a view of lots of other peoples homes. The site is flat, with a dry stacked basalt retaining wall on one side raising the fence on the eastern property line to 10 feet above the ground plain. We were out shopping for basic tools he would need to turn Tony in to a gardener, hoses, a shovel, a hoe, etc. when we wandered in to the garden section of a Home Depot. Most of what we bought came from the local hardware store rather than the big box giant, but I had to introduce him to a corporate garden center for some reason. The plants in one gallon pots at HD are usually cheap, and since there was nothing but bark in the garden we ended up buying some tough plants that would tolerate the crappy subsoil that had been dumped and spread behind his new house. We bought two kinds of Cistus, and Osmanthus heterophyllus variegata, 3 Yucca aloifolia 'Variegata', 3 Berberis thunbergii 'Aurea', 3 dwarf Russian Sage; Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Little Spire', and a Spanish Lavender. It was a starter garden for less than $100. I had opened a can of worms by doing this because he was totally dependent on me for direction. All of the plants were chosen for their ability to adapt to rising temperatures and dry summer conditions that are the result of a warming climate.
We could have just plunked these in to the existing soil but I was soon able to convince him that it was worth rising to the next level and preparing the soil. I suggested an easy gravel patio, but in the end he decided to commission me to build him a Pennsylvania Bluestone Patio with some pebble mosaic inserts to give the garden an elegant structure that would be beautiful to view from above and be easy to maintain. So I hired a couple of strong friends to cart in two cubic yards of yard debris compost up the steps and in to the back yard, which was mixed in to the existing soil around where the patio would be built. This was enough organic matter to turn the marginal soil in to a rich planting mix. Then they hauled in 2 yards of crushed 1/4 minus gravel for setting the bluestone slabs. We went to a stone yard and found a couple of nice pallets of stone for me to work with and hauled all of that up from the street and spread it out. So much of the process of building gardens is about hauling heavy things. The pretty parts are a small part of the equation.
|A crushed gravel base for setting a Bluestone patio, surrounded by amended soil and new plantings
|Cutting the bluestone slabs to fit
|Finished layout with holes for pebble mosaics
|A stepping stone path leads from the patio to the front of the house
The garden needed a focal point so I cast a stone mosaic fountain using a form I had built for other projects and scraps from trimming the stones for the patio. I poured a concrete base to set the fountain on with a pond liner filled with beach pebbles surrounding a concrete pipe that makes a reservoir on which I placed a nice glazed Vietnamese plant saucer I bought at a friend's import store. I covered the edge of the pond liner with beautiful quartzite boulders I bought from a local stone yard. They came originally from Northern Idaho.
|Installing a cast free standing fountain
|Installing the wiring
|The fountain creates a focal point in the garden, centered on the end of the patio
|Wooly Thyme and Golden Oregano soften the edges of the patio
The garden was able to establish a good root system over the winter in the well amended soil and the following year only required watering once a week, although it would survive on considerably less water than that.
|Contrasting ground covers and shrubs with complementary colors of foliage tie the garden together
|The garden at 14 months of age
|The Parthenocissus henryana has covered the fence and wall after 5 years creating a lush drought tolerant screen that swarms with bees when it's blooming.
|The garden has had a little refurbishment but most of the original plants have filled in nicely.
I've been working on the Los Angeles garden of Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub in installments for 7 years. Most of that work occurred in the large back garden while the front remained a traditional lawn with two messy Coral Trees and a thorny clipped Carissa hedge lining the wide front walkway, dividing the garden in to odd linear inaccessible sections. I had been suggesting we remove the lawn for years but they resisted as it would be a radical departure from the traditional look of the neighborhood, where green grass and clipped hedges are the norm. You would never know you are in a desert around here.
I had removed a narrow strip of grass along the sidewalk 4 years prior and planted it with a mixture of interesting drought tolerant plants. It drew a lot of praise from passers by but was never well groomed. I learned a lot about plant performance and how big things get from doing that section.
Because of the prolonged drought that has stricken the state, California is faced with a limited water supply that could reach disastrous levels unless dramatic changes in water conservation take place. This is the most populous state in the U.S. and water shortages are happening now. Some climate experts believe that the drought could be part of a cycle that could last for hundreds of years, like the one that caused the fall of the Mayan and Anasazi cultures over 1,000 years ago. And it just keeps getting hotter. So the city of Los Angeles has been offering a tax rebate incentive for the removal of grass. There is a website you can go to at: http://dpw.lacounty.gov/wwd/web/Conservation/CashforGrass.aspx although the examples in their photo gallery are not what I would call beautiful.
So when my clients sent me a message saying it was time to remove the thirsty lawn because it was embarrassing to have it under these conditions, I flew down to the City of Angels in early October. The Coral Trees the original designers had planted had grown in to thorny masses with a bed of snake like surface roots that threatened to heave the driveway and entry walk, so they were also removed. They were beautiful in flower but required major annual pruning and were just too big for the garden. The gardeners had scraped the grass off and done a superficial soil preparation by tilling the top 2 inches of the heavy clay soil, adding a little perlite but nothing else. The ground under this thin layer was hard as cement. The weather in October used to be pleasant but temperatures this year were still climbing over 100 degrees Farenheit. Nobody wants to do hard labor when its that hot so my crew disappeared after a day under of working with me. To inspire them I work like a mad man. As Brooke said later, I do the work for four people. My crew managed to do as little as possible and then didn't return until the last day of my 10 day work stint. So I did most of the work on my own, chopping out basketball size chunks of clay, which I moistened and later broke in to smaller and smaller pieces, that I mixed with lots of perlite and compost. It was brutal work that left me with blisters and a bad shoulder but I somehow managed to turn rock hard earth in to light, well drained soil. Hopefully it won't return to its original state with time as the compost decomposes.
The house I'm working around is a stately stucco dwelling with a glazed white brick first floor and balustrades on the second level, and a glazed tile roof. In order to make the brutality of working with such dreadful soil rewarding, I selected a dream fantasy collection of drought tolerant plants native to South Africa and Mexico and the Southwest, Cacti, Aloes, Agaves, Yuccas, Senecios, and Dymondia as a flat lawn replacement. I planted 6 Dasylirion longissimum (Mexican Grass Tree) in the wide parking strip, and two Bismarkia nobilis palms. These are dramatic sculptural plants of a fantastic nature. I was inspired by a trip to Lotusland, the fantasy garden built for the eccentric Polish Opera singer Ganna Walska in Montecito near Santa Barbara. Mass plantings there make for incredible drama.
I was going for Dr. Seuss in my vision. I found a nice specimen Aloe bainsii to use as the primary tree in the new planting, and 14 Aloe striata, which have orange margins on the wide fleshy leaves that illuminate in the late afternoon sunlight, as do the dozen small Golden Barrel Cacti I'm hoping will take to their new home. It was important to make the soil as light and well drained as possible for these plants to survive. I moved the big Aloe ferox plants that were too close to the sidewalk for comfort in my earlier planting. In a wide bed along the driveway I layered Night blooming Cereus cactus with Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire', Aloe striata, Golden Barrel Cactus, and bluish Senecio serpens.
I clumped Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata' and Yucca rostrata, which will eventually develop trunks to bring height to the plantings. The blue Senecio ground covers will tie all the sculptural forms together in a cohesive arrangement.
People walking by are often confused by what is going on here. At first they thought I must be replanting the lawn, because that is what is most familiar. Awareness of the drought isn't all that apparent in Los Angeles, where diversionary entertainment is the main industry. What I was doing finally resonated with a neighbor when he asked how often it needed to be watered and I told him once every two weeks once established. Many of the plants can survive on that now, while others, like the tiny Dymondia ground covers need frequent supplemental water until they are established.
I found a nice half pallet of beautiful pink sandstone slabs at a local stone yard and laid out a path running through the garden from the driveway to the entry walk and on to a bench. I trimmed the corners with a stone cutting saw so that they have soft pillowy shapes reminding me of paths from the Flintstone cartoons, and arranged them using intuitive Zen principals of placement. Before, the garden was always inaccessible because of the Coral Trees and the spiny Carissa hedges that divided it in to linear sections. Now you can stroll around the garden and take in the interesting variety of plants. I surrounded the stepping stones with flat growing Dymondia, which is nice because it is durable, drought tolerant, and doesn't grow over the edges of the stones.
I look forward to watching the garden grow in to a collection of fantastic specimens. It is hard to tell at this stage in the planting what it will grow in to as many of the spreading plants are small dots. The Senecio serpens grows more slowly than Senecio madraliscae which I started out using as the primary ground cover for its blue succulent stick like foliage. S. serpens requires virtually no maintenance to stay neat looking while S. madraliscae needs trimming. The Agave angustifolia 'Variegata' trio between the Tree Aloe and the path will form perfect round balls of sharp spines. For the most part though I tried to use plants that are less vicious to the touch. Round basalt stones help keep car tires in line with the driveway as people back down to the street.
We graveled the slope down to the sidewalk to keep mulch from washing down to the pavement and hold the slope. I thought about graveling the entire garden but time and budget and the fact that plants will eventually cover most of the ground made that seem unnecessary. I hired and trained a new gardener to maintain all of this on a level that was never achieved by the mow and blow crew that showed little care for a refined garden, and now there isn't any lawn to mow. Plus is will be one less noise filled hour when a crew doesn't have to do weekly lawn maintenance. My drought tolerant Lotusland/Dr. Seuss fantasy garden is in place. I'll add photos next year of its development. May it inspire others to take advantage of the many wonderful plant species that can grow in Los Angeles's mild climate, without requiring whats left of the Colorado River to keep it alive.
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
My clients recently sent me photos of the front garden in March, 2016, so this is how it looks 18 months later in Spring glory.
|A typical Los Angeles Garden surrounding an expensive home
|The original narrow strip of lawn along the sidewalk
|A dry garden replaces a strip of lawn
|An old photo of the lush green lawns, young Coral Trees, and Carissa hedges
|A clean slate
|The Aloe Garden at Lotusland. Aloe bainsii is the tree in the photo
|An image from the web of Bismarkia nobilis, two of which I planted in the wide parking strip
|Dasylirion longissimum and Senecio madraliscae in the Parking Strip
|An image of Dasylirion longissimum taken from the web. I planted 6 of these in the wide parking strip
|Night blooming Cereus Cacti, Firestick Euphorbia, Aloe striata, Senecio serpens, and Golden Barrel Cactus by the driveway
|Yucca rostrata and Yucca gloriosa along the slope
|Aloe bainsii, the Tree Aloe, with Aloe ferox and Aloe vera
|A new pink sandstone path runs through the garden from the driveway to a bench on the other side
|Crushed ornamental grey gravel mulches the slopes which will eventually cover with spreading plants.
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
|I haven't been back to see the garden in LA since completing it, but a friend sent me this picture. The garden is 10 months old.
|I fish eye view of the front 18 months later. The Dymondia lawn has filled in and the Senecios are spreading
|Aloe striata in bloom
|Firesticks Euphorbia and Aloe striata along the driveway
|The garden two years later, after the house had sold. Looks pretty good minus the security signs