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A Nod to Water-Wise Landscaping ... An Old Garden is Redesigned with Drought -Resistant Plants

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

When interior design client, Sandi Hyman, asked me to don my exterior design hat, two ideas immediately came to mind. The first was to approach Sandi’s exteriors the same way I approach interiors. I would apply the same design concepts of scale, balance, color, texture, feasibility, usage, and space planning to her project. I would also incorporate a water-wise strategy.

Sandi wanted fresh, lush and cohesive designs for her 16,400 square foot front and back yards. She wanted a color scheme of purple, lavender, blue and rich cranberry. And, she also wanted to keep her Dogwood and Emperor Red maple trees, her dahlias (even though a few were yellow), her Asian and star jasmines, and most of her grasses.

Given these parameters, I drew scaled site plans and then dug into my box of color pencils. When possible, I kept current plants in place and filled in with more of the same to create a bigger impact. I saved other plants but moved them to more appropriate locations based on their common needs of water, sun and shade. For example, I collected the scattered hydrangeas and rhododendrons and reassigned them under the redwood trees parallel to the back yard fence. This provided a lush and colorful backdrop for the row of benches along Sandi’s bocce ball court.

I also gathered all the tall grasses and relocated them along the front yard fence. The height would mask and soft the fence and also frame the shorter salvia mystic blue spires that would eventually be planted in front of the grasses.

The brick pathway leading from the street to the front door served a functional purpose but also introduced and welcomed visitors to Sandi’s home. It, therefore, needed special attention. In addition to light fixtures, I flanked the path with lamb’s ears and purple May Night salvia. I chose these low plants so that the tall planters at the end of the path, and leading to the front door, would not be obscured. The silver lamb’s ears would contrast nicely against the purple salvia and also sparkle at night next to the activated light fixtures.

The plants so far followed the water-wise strategy. To further decrease Sandi’s water consumption, half of the lawn in both the front and back yards were replaced with concrete bordered with brick. The other half was preserved for aesthetics and to give Frankie Hyman, Sandi’s adorable Bichon, a place to romp and roll.

Once these initial steps were taken, I implemented my second idea - contact Gary Sampson at Van Winden’s Nursery. With my drawings in hand, Gary walked around the property with Sandi, Frankie and me and suggested additional plants to plug into the design This included more maple trees and a mix of Santa Barbara sage, salvia greggi, Red Hot Sally salvia, and lavender. (Salvia is a drought-resistant, long-blooming family of shrubs that attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and has a wonderful scent).

Gary was well-versed in these plants and their multi-syllabic Latin names. He was also patient and gracious as I butchered their spelling while taking notes.

While waiting for the new plants and trees to arrive, Sandi called on Nick Tallent of Wine Country Landscape and John Staggs of John Staggs Landscape Management to weed, prune, prepare soil, and revamp the entire irrigation system. They later implemented the design plans and, to Sandi’s delight, Nick continues to maintain her new, lush, cohesive, and water-wise garden.

A few water-wise guidelines:

1) Select trees, shrubs, ground covers, and other plants that naturally grow together and use about the same amount of water.

2) Water plants only when needed, not by the calendar. Water at night when evaporation is lower and the air is calmer.

3) Routinely improve and cultivate your soil. This helps it resist evaporation and retain moisture.

4) Mulch. A layer will keep soil cool on hot days and warm on cool days.

5) Plant trees. They help lower air and soil temperatures which reduces moisture loss.

6) Choose native plants as they adapt to your specific soil type and climate.

A few design guidelines:

1) While water-wise, it is difficult to create an attractive cactus garden. Cacti look out of place in the Napa Valley and most are mindlessly plopped into gardens without a plan. The results resemble a scene from an old episode of Tombstone Territory. Instead, look for lush and beautiful succulents (all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti) and create a well-planned garden.

2) Choose plants, fences, and hardscapes that relate to the architectural style of your home.

3) Keep container pots in the backyard. Any more than two large, matching pots flanking the front door will look messy and cluttered.

4) Save garden art, wind chimes and bird feeders for the back yard. The simplicity of a tidy, manicured and simple front yard will increase your property value.

Visit for more water-wise information, seminars and programs.

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