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Find out how landscape designer Molly Wood melded environmental consciousness with personal flair for one Shady Canyon couple's backyard.

Find out how landscape designer Molly Wood melded environmental consciousness with personal flair for one Shady Canyon couple's backyard.

An outdoor room with breezy curtains awaits at the end of the yard

An outdoor room with breezy curtains awaits at the end of the yard


t is signature Shady Canyon as you drive up the hill lined with grasses, succulents and pepper trees and roll through the gate. It is Shady Canyon style still as you make the turn into a neighborhood of Mediterranean-esque homes with numerous interpretations of drought-tolerant landscapes along the street.
But when you step into the backyard of Karen and John Booty, drought-tolerant transitions into a livable design with a personality that says Molly Wood – Wood on the dry side, that is.

Wood, a landscape designer, has fashioned a scented and insightful garden with European touches and inviting spaces – a garden that drinks no more water than most of us use to fill a bathtub. It’s a wonder the Bootys don’t live outside except for the fact that they don’t have to. Their house is fashioned with so many windows that the couple can see their garden from all sides.

“It’s definitely all Molly,” says Karen. “She understands what a woman wants in a garden.”

Yellow kangaroo paws frame purple verbena bonariensis

Yellow kangaroo paws frame purple verbena bonariensis

What the garden isn’t may be more obvious than what it is. There is no muscular hardscape so over the top that it interferes with the idea of a garden. With a slight touch of flagstone for a patio, gravel for the walkways and a pergola that is substantial but doesn’t slap you in the face, you might imagine the garden has evolved over a few generations. It has a softness you don’t often see from the design community.

“My goal is to get my clients outside to enjoy their yards,” says Wood. “I include many spots for sitting and inviting destinations.”

Indeed. Bent willow mixes with weathered furniture in shades of gray. Stone blends seamlessly with wood. And not as an afterthought, but as a focal point, there are the plants – colorful, scented and full of surprises. Typical European plants such as climbing roses, Boston ivy, slender cypresses, and weeping pepper trees frame the landscape and give it structure. Iris that bloomed in spring gathers energy in its blades for the next season.

Wood says her favorite plants are kangaroo paw that thrive on neglect, and miscanthus because it goes through so many cycles – the way it pops up in the spring, blooms in the fall and catches the sunlight late in the day. Aeoniums are another favorite plant because Wood loves their graphic forms. Among these mainstream plants are other drought-tolerant selections such as verbena, bouncing its purple heads between the ornamental grasses. Succulents such as crassula and echeveria thrive in the cool shade under the trees.

Wood used these untraditional plants in traditional fashion, planting them in a symmetrical style reminiscent of Italian landscapes. There are also touches that Karen may not have even known she wanted but that Wood was sure to include. Scented thyme between the stepping stones only enhances the experience as you explore the different areas of the garden.

Gravel, with its decided crunch, leads to a side garden that is more about viewing with its intricate design of gravel and succulents. A “dry” fountain of grasses takes the stage with four equidistant trees planted for balance.

Exploring further you come to a side yard that leads to a secret courtyard garden – Karen’s favorite space. A dining area and seating for four are arranged around an outdoor fireplace that borrowed from Mission architecture in style. Four ornamental pear trees lend the space a European formality, but it is softened again with climbing roses and swaying grasses that catch the breeze.

It has a classical European framework with a totally new plant palette, says Wood. It’s old and new, and certainly succeeds because the Bootys enjoy their outdoors whenever they can.

Molly Wood Garden Design, (949) 548-1611; mollywoodgardendesign.com

Drought-tolerant plants and hardscape create a soft, languid look

Drought-tolerant plants and hardscape create a soft, languid look for the Bootys' garden.

Water-Wise Landscaping

The “Southern California Friendly Garden” combines the beauty of native and California Friendly plants with efficient water use outdoors, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Here’s a guide on how to make your garden kinder to the environment, from the water district’s Web site, bewaterwise.com. You can use it to discuss garden improvements with your landscape designer and maintenance crew:

1. Use less-than-thirsty plants in your garden. Keep turf grass – the thirstiest plant of all – to a minimum. Look for plants that are well-suited to regional and local conditions.

2. Group plants thoughtfully. When selecting trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, and annuals for your garden, look for those that naturally grow together and use about the same amount of water.

3. Use water wisely. Water plants only when needed, not by the clock or calendar. Water at night, when evaporation is much lower and air is calmer. Avoid runoff and overspray.

4. Improve your soil. Routinely cultivate your soil, incorporating organic matter such as compost. Doing so improves the soil’s ability to resist evaporation and retain moisture. Aerate heavy or compacted soil around trees.

5. Mulch. A two- to four-inch layer of mulch also evens out temperature extremes, keeping soil cool on hot days and warm on cool days. It also prevents soil from crusting, allowing better water penetration. Take a cue from nature and choose one of many organic mulches that add great visual texture to your landscape, such as shredded bark or chips, wood grindings, compost, aged sawdust or even low-growing ground cover. Inorganic mulches, such as gravel or rock, let the most water in and are frequently used with plants susceptible to crown rot.

6. Plant trees. Trees help to lower air and soil temperatures, reducing plant and soil moisture loss.

7. Group container plants. Arrange containers so they shade one another. During droughts or periods of drying winds, place them in the deepest shade they can tolerate. Wet the entire rootball; double pot by setting small pots inside larger ones with a layer of sand or gravel between. Top-dress pots with a layer of mulch over the soil.

This gravel and succulent courtyard requires very little water.

Photo by Jordan Carmack

This gravel and succulent courtyard at the Bootys' house requires very little water.

Getting Started

Wondering how to get started to make your garden more California Friendly? You don’t have to do a major renovation. Here are some ideas that will save water, improve plant health and reduce run-off – all California Friendly.

Tune-up your irrigation system
An irrigation system that has leaks, broken parts and isn’t working properly can be the biggest water-waster of all.
• Make your own repairs or hire someone to do them. The California Landscape Contractors Association can help you find irrigation contractors in your area.
• Create a watering schedule tailored to your garden and set your controller. Adjust the time with seasonal weather changes and turn it off for rain.
• Use a garden moisture meter to water your plants deeply enough for the roots to grow deep into the soil. The soil in the root zone should be moist, not saturated.

Aerate your soil and lawn
Over time, soil compacts and forms an impenetrable surface. Aeration breaks up the hard surface so the water can soak in to give your plants more oxygen, nutrients and water. And you’ll see less water running down the street.
• For planter beds, use a hand tool to gently turn the surface of the soil. Be careful working in the root zones so you don’t damage your plants.
• For lawns, use a manual coring aerator (available at home improvement stores) or rent a machine – either one is easy to use. Water one-to-two days before you plan to aerate to moisten the soil so it doesn’t compact around the holes. Make two-to-three passes over each area, with holes about three inches apart.

Mulch your plant beds
Water quickly evaporates from bare soil. Mulch minimizes water loss, helps control weeds and returns nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. Keep it replenished – it will help your garden look terrific.
• Spread a two- to-three-inch layer of mulch in plant beds and around trees. Keep mulch away from the base of shrubs and trees to prevent decay and disease.

Irrigation upgrades
Irrigation technology is rapidly advancing to meet the needs of California Friendly gardens. If you’re ready for a little more challenge, consider upgrading your irrigation components for high-tuned efficiency and performance.
• Install a Smart Controller that automatically adjusts the watering time and frequency based on soil moisture, rain, wind, evaporation, and transpiration rates or plant type. Check out some of the Smart Controllers that are on the market. Rebates are currently available for single and multi-family residential, commercial and municipal sites. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation and initial set up.
• Change spray heads in lawn and shrub areas to low-precipitation multi-stream rotators. The rotators use up to 30% less water than traditional spray heads because they apply water more slowly and evenly.
• Use bubblers, drip irrigation or low-volume spray heads in planter beds. Drip irrigation may be a good choice in shrub areas where kids and pets aren’t likely to accidentally disconnect a drip line.

Plant changes
Ready for a new look in your California Friendly garden, but not ready for a total makeover? It’s easy to change plants in a small area. Be sure to match sun, water and space needs.
• Create a hydrozone in one area of your yard. A hydrozone is where all the plants have similar water needs so you can water efficiently.
• Select California Friendly plants that have low water needs; leaf and flower color you like; and won’t grow too big for the spot.
• Work in soil amendments to build in nutrients and improve water percolation.
• After planting, be sure to mulch and adjust your sprinkler controller for the valve that will water your new California Friendly area. Remember, most new plants need a little more water until they get established. Once they get growing, turn the water down to only what they need.

A fountain inspired by California missions in the Booty landscape

Photo by Jordan Carmack

A fountain in the Booty landscape inspired by California missions

Evaluate Your Site

Every successful garden needs a thoughtful site evaluation. The following list will help you get started:
• What type of soil does the site have (sandy, loam, clay loam, clay)? The soil type will determine (1) how to prepare the soil for planting, (2) how to water the garden, (3) what type of plants are best suited to the site.
• Where is the sun and shade around the site? How does it change throughout the year? This will determine the plants best suited for specific areas of the garden.
• What about the climate of your location? It will influence your plant selection. Group plants according to climate zone preference.

Ask Yourself Some Questions

• What do you like the most in your garden?
• What do you like the least in your garden?
• How do you want to use your garden?
• How much money do you want to spend? (It is estimated that home property values can be increased five to 10 percent with an attractive, well-kept and/or colorful garden that fits well with the home.)
• Visit nurseries and botanic gardens to see plants small and large. Not many plants in nurseries are appropriate. Be selective. Look for California native and Mediterranean plants that are drought tolerant or low-water using.
• Refer to plant guides that show the mature sizes of the plants that interest you. Be careful. Plants may become too large for your property, causing you to work too hard or spend money to keep them confined to a smaller space.
• Drive the neighborhood to see what plants do well (keep in mind the different sun and shade patterns around your home).
• Is my current garden too much work?
• How can I improve curb appeal?
• How can I improve property value with a landscape makeover?
• What plants should I keep in the existing garden?

Starting with a blank slate: Considerations for new home sites
• Is there a slope?
• Where to screen for privacy
• Look to add shading (on the south and west side of the home) for energy savings
• What are the best viewing areas of the garden (from inside and on the outside)?
• Where to put play areas (kids), pet areas (dogs), entertainment areas, BBQ, vegetable garden or fruit trees, etc.
• Where to build patios, decks and hardscape
• Where to create an outside storage area
• Who will maintain your yard (you, hired gardener, etc.)?

Put It On Paper

You don’t need to be an artist to do a simple sketch of your home lot – and it is a tool that will really help you visualize what should go where in the garden. This step also allows you to test your ideas on others, say at the garden center, family members, etc.)
• Divide the yard into different areas:
• Sun areas – Good for flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, and dries out more quickly.
• Shade areas –- Limits the types of plants to choose from, dries out slowly and stays wet longer.
• Screening for privacy – Need upright plants
• Shading windows or hot spots – Determine if deciduous trees (trees that loose their leaves each winter and allow the winter sun to penetrate) or if evergreen trees fit better
• Lay out areas for hardscapes (patios, decks, planters, walkways).
• Assure easy access – Make moving around the garden, to BBQ or storage area easy

Mexican sage adds a subtle touch of purple to the Bootys' garden

Mexican sage adds a subtle touch of purple to the Bootys' garden

Placing Plants: Where And Why?

Placing trees:
• Trees grow and deliver shade, which makes growing many plants beneath trees difficult. Plan for garden changes as trees bring shade.
• Trees have deep roots and need infrequent, deep watering. Don’t place trees in turf that wants water on a regular basis.

Placing turf grass:
• Plant turf where it will be used for playing. Otherwise, turf is better to do without because it takes weekly labor time and is the highest water-using plant in our climate.
• Avoid placing turf under trees. Trees want less water. Tree roots will come to the surface when planted in turf (raising the risk of blowing down in high winds), and trees shade turf when most turf wants full sun.
• Use turf in the backyard where it is most likely to be used for recreation.
• If you have existing turf areas and don’t use it for recreation, consider native and other low water use, lower maintenance plants.

Placing shrubs (native plants, roses, flowering plants, hedges, perennials, annuals):
• Place the plant(s) in the proper “exposure” (sun, shade, filtered sun).
• Place the plant(s) in similar water use groupings (low/drought, medium and high).
• Place plants in areas that are large enough for their full growth habits.
• Place plants with compatible flower colors.
• Place plants in locations where they won’t need to be pruned to “fit” or be kept from obstructing views.
• Place plants so they can grow naturally, i.e. without pruning to keep them in a certain space so they don’t grow into each other.
• Place plants in groupings of the same plants.
• Place flowering plants, such as bougainvillea, etc., in the full sun to promote flowering.
• Place native plants in dry or low water-use areas or where there is no irrigation system. It will take some water for the first year for them to establish their root systems.
• Place native plants on separate irrigation system zones (valves or stations) so they are not over-watered, which is the primary reason native plants die.
• Place annuals in areas of higher water application.

Planning The Irrigation System

• Plan for separate valves (zones or stations) for each different area in the garden. (This will increase the number of valves, zones or stations, but it will help you to save plants from over-watering, save on home damage from consistently wet soils and increase your ability to manage the landscape efficiently).
• Plan for low-volume spray or drip irrigation on slope areas (otherwise too much water output by sprinklers will run off, erode the slope and produce weak and unhealthy plants).
• Plan for drip line irrigation on native plants (many natives do not like water sprayed on their leaves).
• Plan to “match” irrigation heads (e.g., water output for a full circle head is twice the output for a half circle head) on each valve (zone or station).
• Plan to direct water spray away from house siding, sidewalks and structures to avoid mold, water damages and erosion.

Planning For Maintenance

Potted plants

Different gardens will require different levels of maintenance. Some examples include:
• Native garden – Low water use, once per year pruning (cut back on some plants), no fertilizer need, no chemical need, little weeding (with mulch), no soil amendment
• Color garden – High fertilizer, consistent watering, consistent plant changes, consistent tending (such as cutting spent blooms), high soil amendment
• Rose garden – High fertilizer, consistent watering, consistent cutting, potentially high chemical use, consistent weeding, high soil amendment
• Perennial garden – Moderate water use, moderate fertilizer need, consistent care (cutting, weeding, etc.), high soil amendment
• Turf garden – Weekly mowing, high fertilizer need, high water need, high soil amendment need

The bottom line for planning your garden:
• Recognize the climate and that water will be limited now and into the future.
• Understand the microclimates around the house (sun, shade).
• Know your soil type and amend if needed.
• How much time do you want to put into your garden?
• Large slope areas are best left for native plants that require little water, chemicals and pruning.
• If over watered, gardens contribute to polluted urban runoff (make your garden a runoff free zone.

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