Eco-minded planning led to a lush oasis in the desert.
Today, we live in the midst of a big, vibrant garden that's filled with flowers, a mini orchard, vegetables, a pond and more. There isn't a blade of grass in sight. And that's quite a change from the way it was when we purchased the property almost 20 years ago.
Back then, it featured an expansive lawn lined with perfectly trimmed hedges and a few fruit trees. That kind of yard might be ideal to some—but all I could see was a place that lacked life. Birds flew through it, but didn't stay.
What's worse was the fact that the yard took gallons of water and lots of chemicals to keep everything green, and the constant mowing and pruning wasn't much fun either.
Our area receives less than 11 inches of rain per year, making water a precious commodity that I didn't want to waste. And, as a master composter, I was more interested in recycling and enriching the soil than tossing anything out. In short, I was determined to do things differently, and my husband, Jay, was in complete agreement.
The first thing to go was the lawn, which I covered in grass clippings, mulch, newspaper, compost and black plastic. After about 3 weeks, the grass was gone and I was able to create a patchwork of flower beds lined with stone walls.
Once the walls were in place, I did some planting, but held off on completely filling the beds so I could continue adding compost and improving the soil. A year later, those beds were full of fertile dirt. It was hard to be patient, but the wait paid off when I added California poppies, geraniums, Joe Pye weed, nasturtiums, freesia and other beautiful blooms, and watched them flourish almost overnight.
There were a few plants that didn't take to one spot, so I'd move them to another. Over time, I learned to place new container-grown plants, still in their pots, out in the garden. Then I'd watch them for a week or two to see how they responded and looked amid the other blooms. This has saved me the extra work of transplanting many flowers, or worse, watching them die.
Composting and Conservation
At the same time I was working on the soil, I built compost bins so I could recycle any yard waste we created, along with herbicide-free clippings from our neighbors. I also introduced earthworms to my compost bins to speed up the process—and thanks to those creatures, I was able to churn out compost in about 10 days instead of 3 weeks.
To conserve water, we started to collect rain in barrels, and we actually found we could retain enough to fill a small swimming pool and pond 4 to 6 months out of the year. Then we took it a step further. We checked with the regulations of our local municipality, and devised a way to divert water from the shower and washing machine into the garden. There, it irrigates plants, including a pair of 30-year-old orange trees, or is stored for later use.
As time passed, our yard began to take on a lush yet completely natural appearance. I replaced the stiff, manicured hedges with rambling bougainvillea, lantana, nandina, a luxurious bottlebrush tree and romantic wisteria vines.
We also put in a meandering, stone-lined waterfall and creek that feed right into the small pond where I planted lotus and water iris. I've included other plants that require more water, too, like my cape tubular fuchsia. These beauties take advantage of the moisture in the fog that regularly rolls in from the ocean, which is about 1-1/2 miles away.
Fresh from the Garden
Vegetable gardening has long been a passion of mine, ever since I helped my dad grow tomatoes when I was young, so including one in my yard was always part of the plan. Compost and our warm weather help me grow a year-round bumper crops of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, melons and carrots.
Those same conditions ensure that my mini fruit orchard of apricot, pear, apple, plum and orange trees, as well as a variety of herbs, thrive, too. I rarely have to shop for produce these days because we're pretty self-sufficient.
Our conservation efforts have come in handy as well, especially when it was dry enough in our area to require water rationing not long ago. Unlike others around us who watched lawns turn brown, our yard continued to bloom, thanks to our water recycling system and the 68 rain barrels I now have installed throughout the property.
When I think back on what this place used to look like, I'm amazed and pleased. This once formal-but-bland property is now bursting with vitality. And, best of all, the birds are back.