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They cut their water bill by 90% and still have a 'showstopping' LA garden

Lisa Boone, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

LOS ANGELES -- Looking out the front windows of their northeast L.A. home, Kyle Anido and Katie Cordeal say their front yard is barely recognizable from a year ago when it was a lawn.

"It's crazy to see how lively the garden is now," says Anido, a 37-year-old camera operator. "There is so much bee activity."

"It has absolutely exploded," adds Cordeal, 38. "It's pretty incredible what has happened over the past 12 months. And we haven't even watered the yard this year."

The colorful ecosystem, which thrives without sprinklers, amendments, fertilizers, gardeners and gas-powered lawn equipment, is not lost on the couple's 2½-year-old son, Owen.

"Bees!" he yelled with delight from the front porch, pointing to the pollinators feeding on the native California flowers in his front yard.

"Owen loves bugs," Anido says of the boy's vibrant playground.

When the couple purchased their first home in 2021, the front yard was an uninspired swath of Bermuda grass, an oddly placed palm that real estate agents hastily planted for staging purposes and white gravel.

After renting an apartment in Brooklyn, the couple felt intimidated by the prospect of caring for a home and yard and decided to keep the previous owners' gardener. They did this, they say, because it was easy, but the noise and environmental pollution from the weekly "mow and blow" proved difficult for Cordeal, who works from home as a film and television production accountant.

"We would have to close all the doors and windows because the gas-powered leaf blower was so loud," she says. "I hated the gas smell."

Interested in conservation and drought-tolerant plants, the couple contacted garden designer Sophie Pennes of Urban Farms L.A. after viewing her before-and-after turf transformations — and lawn rants — on TikTok.

"I identified with what seems to be Sophie's primary drivers — to support biodiversity, revitalize natural ecosystems, and conserve water," Cordeal says. "Also, I could tell she is educated and passionate about what she does, and I enjoyed her dry humor."

While this year's record-setting rainfall may feel like an excuse to reconsider the argument for removing thirsty turf, that's ludicrous, says Pennes, who specializes in edible gardens and California native gardens.

"Tearing out your lawn is about so much more than saving water," the landscape designer says. "You don't need to be a scientist to see the negative impact of lawns on the native habitat in any given city or ecology. It's obvious when you're walking through a neighborhood, and you stand in front of a grass lawn, and then you stand in front of a native garden: you can see the wildlife. We need to engage in the places where we live."

 

After agreeing on a plant palette that included lots of color, wistfulness, texture and tall grasses, the couple hired a landscape contractor to remove their lawn by hand. They then sheet mulched the front yard — smothering it in wet cardboard — and waited for three months.

When it was time to plant, Pennes installed repeat groupings of three, including ceanothus, Canyon Prince Wild Rye and penstemon. "I wanted to have a bold effect when things were in bloom," she says of the homeowners' request for a colorful landscape. "I didn't want it to be casual; I wanted it to be showstopping."

A year later, the front yard is what they had hoped for. From the street, the 1937 residence appears modest, a two-bedroom house with two large picture windows. But the garden is indeed a showstopper. "It is such a magical walk to the front door," Cordeal says of the lupine, poppies, penstemon and sage blooming on either side of the stairs up to the house.

Pennes designed the garden so that something is always in bloom regardless of the season. The purple Showy Penstemon is starting to fade, for instance, but the clarkia flowers are ready to open. On the parking strip, Hollyleaf Cherry and hardy Canyon Prince Wild Rye counter the pink clarkias and California bluebells. "Canyon Prince Wild rye has such a beautiful gray-green color that pops against the backdrop of the gray house," Pennes notes.

Non-native plants include African Basil, "which the bees love," Cordeal says, as well as Meyer lemon and Hass avocado trees, which the couple feed with water from their bathtub through a graywater system installed by Greywater Corp. Pennes also planted Mexican marigold to help repel pests and attract wildlife. "The finches love it," Pennes says. "As soon as you put the plants in, the butterflies and birds find them. It really is an 'if you build it, they will come,'" she laughs.

The couple estimates they paid around $14,900 for the transformation, including the design, labor, plants, trees and mulch. After removing 1,150-square-feet of lawn in the front yard and the parking strip, their $5,750 turf replacement rebate from the Department of Water and Power brought the total down to $9,150. Over the past year, the couple also saw their water bill decrease by 90%. "Our June/July 2022 water bill was $210.99," says Cordeal. Their bill for June/July 2023 water was $24.28, including the extra water used to establish the 1-gallon plants.

But they are not stopping there. They are in preliminary talks with Pennes to overhaul their excessively hot backyard.

"We want to remove most of the concrete," says Cordeal. "We want a veggie garden and another fruit tree that can use graywater. We want a lot more foliage in general to cool the backyard. We also need to figure out lots of play space for our two boys, but we're not sure what ground cover that will be."

You can be sure it won't be artificial turf.

"My biggest enemy is plastic turf," Pennes says. "Even if I get the opportunity to tear it out, it ends up being plastic garbage in a landfill."

Cordeal says the beauty of the garden is more than just visual.

"Our front yard is an environmentally friendly site," she says. "It's so nice to look outside and see all the color and wildlife. I have a chair right by our front window, and when I'm nursing my 3-month-old, I can stare outside instead of at my phone. It's a joy."


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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