With big garden dreams but almost no experience, a homeowner learns by doing as she transforms the landscaping in front of her Southern California property.

By Ashley Goldman
February 18, 2021
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Five years ago, my husband, Ross, and I bought our first home, a Craftsman-style bungalow in San Diego. The 1915 house was charming but needed work inside and out. As a home blogger who loves old houses, I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to do with the interior. But as a novice gardener on a budget, redoing the front yard that was filled with concrete scraps, overgrown weeds, and neglected plants would be stepping into the unknown. I did have a sense of my starting point, however: Being in the middle of drought-plagued Southern California, I wanted a beautiful, sustainable garden that could survive on little water and would benefit our environment. With those goals in mind, I forged ahead, determined to learn everything I could about plants and to give my front yard a makeover within a year.

We cleaned out the yard for a blank slate. The goal was to install plants in a way that complemented the home design and framed a welcoming entryway.
| Credit: Ashley Goldman

Developing a Drought-Tolerant Design

My initial design inspiration came from the garden at a local art museum. Filled with native plants but still lush, that garden showed me that low-water plants aren't all dry and desertlike. That's the vision I kept in mind as I designed our front yard. In January 2016, I took my first class on low-water landscaping (hosted for free by the city), one of many courses I wound up taking that year. It helped me build my list of plants that would thrive here and taught me to think about things like the grade of my slope.

April 2016: Out with the Old

I figured out which plants in our existing yard would go (bye, giant birds-of-paradise) and posted them online with an invitation for people to take for free whatever they could dig out themselves.

May 2016: Doing the Groundwork

Before planting, I prepped: I had a plumber check the health of our front yard sewer line, applied for a permit to plant a tree in the parkway, and hired a crew to grade the slope for a smooth surface and good drainage.

June 2016: Making Plans (and Changing Them)

I drafted garden plans, first freehand and then digitally. The biggest eye-opener was doing a Photoshop rendering with images I'd found online of my favorite plants. With the plants in the landscape at their mature sizes, my yard looked like it was on steroids. I knew I needed to scale way back.

July 2016: Reality Check

After months of researching irrigation options and pricing out plants at nurseries, I realized I was spinning my wheels. I hired a landscape team to guide me through the last steps and handle the install.

November 2016: The Big Day

We decided to install the yard in fall, which is prime planting time in California because temperatures are mild and winter rains are on the way. The crew wound up needing to jackhammer to make holes in our compacted and rocky soil, which we amended with gypsum. (To think, I'd planned on digging with my basic shovel.) We finished in time for the rainiest winter in recent memory. By early spring, we were already seeing flowers.

Once the plants matured, we installed lighting to accent them as well as the pathway.
| Credit: Ashley Goldman

Strategies for Picking the Best Plants

Going into the process, I had hundreds of plants on my list of favorites. By focusing on five priorities for my garden, I whittled my plant list down to a handful of finalists.

For the Bees

Bees are so important for the world's ecosystem and its crops, yet they're in danger. I made sure to choose native plants or ones that would thrive here, like yarrow and gaura, to help those pollinators out. I also never use pesticides in the garden.

For a Snack

Although I sometimes wish we had planted a community vegetable garden in our front yard, I am happy we snuck in some subtle edible plants, such as rosemary, fig, and lavender, in our decorative garden. We nosh on these (summer isn't complete without figs, Brie, and honey) and share them with our neighbors.

For Shade

Trees, like a strawberry tree, cool our home with their shade and add height to the landscape. On a broader scale, they reduce the urban heat island effect and provide necessary shelter for wildlife.

For Color

Cacti and succulents aren't the only low-water plants to choose from. I used drought-tolerant flowers that are beautiful in the garden and in a bouquet.

For Texture

I have a weakness for flowers, but I wanted to make sure there was something interesting to look at even when they weren't in bloom. I filled in with grasses for a range of texture year-round; some, such as pink muhly grass, bring color too.

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