They transformed a sad, junk-filled yard into a DIY native plant wonderland

Jeanette Marantos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

LOS ANGELES -- At the top of a roller-coaster hill in Highland Park, Thomas Zamora and his husband, Raul Rojas, enjoy two spectacular views — of the Pasadena hills to the east and of the meandering expanse of native plants, succulents and vegetables in a backyard that once was nothing but dirt and junk cars.

It's been an evolution of nearly a decade, say Zamora and Rojas, but today, their backyard boasts a deck rimmed with pots of colorful succulents and wide water-permeable paths of flagstone and river pebbles, lined with fragrant plantings of California native trees and flowering shrubs. There's a raised bed full of vegetables, a potted lemon tree and a few red-blooming Australian grevilleas and South African leucadendron left over from the early days of their landscaping journey "because the hummingbirds love them so much," Zamora said. "They fight over the flowers, so we couldn't stand to take them out."

But almost everything else in the backyard, along with the terraced planters out front and the parkway, is devoted to California native plants, a passion inspired by the Theodore Payne Foundation's Native Plant Garden Tour in 2015, when the couple saw what beautiful gardens others had created from native perennials, shrubs and wildflowers.

"That started us on our journey of 'Frankensteining' our landscape," Zamora said, laughing. "The tours helped us get ideas for what elements we thought would look great in our yard. It wasn't a formal process, because we did things ourselves. We found things we wanted, and places to fit them in, and just sort of winged it."

They winged it so well that their home is now a regular part of Theodore Payne's Native Plant Garden Tour, being held on April 13 and 14 this year. (Tickets are sold out online, but at publication time were still available for purchase in person at the foundation's office in Sun Valley, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for $55 (children under 16 are free).

The couple's garden is alive with bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators, and there are chairs and even a flower-shaded bench for visitors to sit and admire the view. The space exudes serenity and invites wanderers —and is clearly a labor of love for both Zamora and Rojas. "Every Sunday is garden day and we enjoy the process," Rojas said. "It's a place for exercise and meditation ... our happy place. And who does the weeding? Us!"


On their tidy potting bench, a butter knife rests in a pot, at the ready to tackle any unwanted sprouts. "The best weeding tool is a butter knife," Rojas says confidentially. "My grandma taught me that; you just jab the knife in at the base of the root and pull the weed up by pinching it between two fingers."

Clearly the technique works, because weeds — the bane of most gardens, including native plant landscapes — are visible nowhere in this yard. The plantings are jumbled but meticulous — almost Disney-esque — with brimming pots of succulents on the front porch and overflowing terraces of blue-blooming rosemary, a Mediterranean plant, along with native plants like evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium ), island alum root (Heuchera maxima), fragrant blue pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans), bush sunflowers (Encelia californica) and island buckwheat hybrid (Eriogonum x blissianum)

It all looks perfect, down to the beautiful tangle of poppies and other native wildflowers in the narrow strip of parkway. But the process offered plenty of challenges, Zamora and Rojas said. "We've learned a lot along the way," Rojas said.

Both men are California natives whose families enjoyed gardening and being outdoors, but they grew up around more traditional plants like roses, fruit trees and succulents. Plus, Rojas laughed, his parents kept him busy pulling weeds as a child.


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