Tolerant Beauty

From typical tract home and green lawn to a resilient oasis

By: Linda Bresler
Linda-Bresler

Linda Bresler is a landscape designer specializing in beautiful low-maintenance gardens with year-round color. A resident of Poway, California, Linda…

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Two years after planting the formerly blah front yard has quickly grown into a dramatic tapestry of saturated color and inviting plant vignettes anchored by Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’’ surrounded by Abelia ×grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’. Photo: Linda Bresler

Two years after planting the formerly blah front yard has quickly grown into a dramatic tapestry of saturated color and inviting plant vignettes anchored by Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’’ surrounded by Abelia ×grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’. Photo: Linda Bresler

I met James and Mary Collard when I gave a talk on colorful water-wise landscapes at the San Diego Botanic Garden. The Collards lived in a typical tract home with a green lawn, three palm trees, and another tree that was too large for their property. They were eager to completely change their landscape into something more exciting and drought tolerant. I assured them that they could have a resilient, water-wise landscape that would provide color and interest throughout the year. Their water bill—and maintenance—would drop drastically.

Before: a fairly typical suburban landscape complete with a thirsty lawn and uninspired, poorly sited plantings. Photo: Linda Bresler

Before: a fairly typical suburban landscape complete with a thirsty lawn and uninspired, poorly sited plantings. Photo: Linda Bresler

To begin, the lawn was removed using a sod cutter. The two queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffianum) growing next to the driveway and walkway, and an oversized gold medallion tree (Cassia leptophylla) were also removed.  Actually, the gold medallion tree is a beautiful, low-water-use tree, but this one was poorly placed and out of scale with the rest of the front yard. I advised James and Mary to keep the existing pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) that screened their front porch and provided privacy from the neighbors.

San Diego garden designer Linda Bresler’s vision for a colorful water-wise garden is decidedly plant driven.  Drawing: Linda Bresler

San Diego garden designer Linda Bresler’s vision for a colorful water-wise garden is decidedly plant driven. Drawing: Linda Bresler

 From plan to plot, the front garden begins its transformation.  Photo: Linda Bresler

From plan to plot, the front garden begins its transformation. Photo: Linda Bresler

With the front lawn removed, my first task as a designer was to think about how the homeowners would move through the space. I designed a stepping stone pathway from the public sidewalk to the home’s entry. A branch of this pathway leads to a gate at the side of the house and wraps around a mounded berm. Filled with colorful succulent plantings, this raised bed is the focal point of the front yard.

The sunny exposure supports a variety of perennials, succulents, and small shrubs with color drenched foliage providing year-round interest. Photo: Linda Bresler

The sunny exposure supports a variety of perennials, succulents, and small shrubs with color drenched foliage providing year-round interest. Photo: Linda Bresler

A full sun exposure allowed me to use a variety of plants that take on beautiful shades of red, orange, burgundy, and yellow, contrasting with the many greens of neighboring plants. This mix of colorful succulents included different forms of Aeonium, brightly colored Crassula, variegated elephant food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’), golden dwarf jade (Crassula ovata ‘Hummel’s Sunset’), various sedums that color well in full sun, paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae), and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’, as well as pretty, ruffled hybrid echeverias. I placed more structural plants, like smooth agave (Agave desmetiana ‘Variegata’) and red aloe (Aloe cameronii), among the colorful succulents. A bottle or ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) creates a tall accent in the mounded bed planting.

Paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae), smooth agave (Agave desmetiana ‘Variegata’), variegated dwarf jade (Crassula ovata ‘Hummel’s Sunset’), variegated elephant food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’), and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’.  Photo: Linda Bresler

Paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae), smooth agave (Agave desmetiana ‘Variegata’), variegated dwarf jade (Crassula ovata ‘Hummel’s Sunset’), variegated elephant food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’), and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’. Photo: Linda Bresler

This dramatic display of contrasting color and form is tough, resilient, and water wise. Photo: Linda Bresler

This dramatic display of contrasting color and form is tough, resilient, and water wise. Photo: Linda Bresler

I echoed this succulent plant palette in a narrow side garden that was also formerly turf. Small planting pockets in the front yard that receive more shade were filled with a combination of Aeonium ‘Sunburst’ and Echeveria. Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’, a small, burgundy-leaved, weeping form of the peppermint tree from Australia, is planted along the front yard’s property line surrounded by Abelia ×grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’, a beautiful low shrub that grows to just three feet tall and wide. ‘Kaleidoscope’ has variegated yellow and green leaves with pink new growth and blooms of small, white, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer. I love the contrast of colors and textures with the weeping burgundy peppermint tree. I also planted some chartreuse fluffy foxtail ferns (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’) to contrast with the dark-red leaves of the Agonis.  Foxtail fern grows two feet tall by three to four feet wide, adapts to sun or shade, and is extremely drought tolerant; I have it planted with succulents in dry shade at my home. (Note:  be sure to seek out ‘Myers’ asparagus fern, other forms are thorny and impossible to get rid of.) Pink, purple, and blue Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ planted next to the ‘Myers’ asparagus ferns contrasts in both texture and color.

Dwarf red bottlebrush (Callistemon ‘Little John’). Photo: Linda Bresler

Dwarf red bottlebrush (Callistemon ‘Little John’). Photo: Linda Bresler

Other low-growing, drought-tolerant shrubs planted in the now-exuberant landscape include dwarf red bottlebrush (Callistemon ‘Little John’), Viburnum obovatum ‘Densa’, a dwarf viburnum, Coprosma ‘Rainbow Surprise’, and Rhaphiolepis indica ‘Pinkie’. The only shrub that didn’t thrive was the Coprosma.

Since installing the plants, I have visited the Collard’s garden about every six months. Today, at two years old, it has achieved a lovely maturity. I was very pleased to learn that this landscape won the 2015 California-Friendly Landscape Contest for the city of Oceanside.