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Home Tour: A Drought-Tolerant Laguna Beach Garden

Step onto the back patio of Lynn and Vaughn Eldstrom’s Mystic Hills house and behold.
To the left, the houses of Arch Beach Heights dot the hills, like a post-card from Europe. To the right are sweeping views of the Pacific ocean, cool and blue and glassy as far as you can see.

Yet the couple rarely stepped off the patio for a closer look when they first moved there in 2006.

Two flights of stairs dropped them from the patio onto a terrace that runs the length of their one-story Danish modern house, named “Villa Viking” when it was rebuilt after Laguna Beach’s  1993 firestorm.

The terrace, though, was nothing but grass. Thirsty grass. Grass that, even with regular drinks, browned in the summer from the hot sun.

They didn’t know what to do with such a backyard, but they wanted to do something.
Then about eight years ago their neighbor turned their yard into a contemporary water-wise poster child. The Eldstrom’s nabbed the landscaper: Dustin Gimbel, of Second Nature Garden Design. Their only instructions to Gimbel: Make the backyard beautiful, but not needy. Low-maintenance and low-water, please. A place they could sip wine with friends.

Today they have a mature garden that Dustin calls “soft contemporary with Mediterranean elements.”

The best part: It needs to be watered only once a week for five minutes in the summer and rarely in the winter. And it always looks good. Pad down the stairs, and instead of a lawn, a journey awaits. The final destination: a cement gas fire bowl at the far end of the terrace closest to the ocean view.

But getting there is half the fun. There is some interesting shape or color to inspect every step of the way. “It’s like having art in the house,” Gimbel says. “(Rather than) sit on the sofa and look at the art. The sofa can be the art.”

The first thing Gimbel did was tear out the lawn and lay a loose path of smooth square pavers. Swaths of the silvery South African ground cover dymondia have filled in the gaps, forming a soft carpet you can walk on. A smattering of ornamental grasses give movement to the garden, blowing in the ocean breezes and making shushing sounds. Sterile green pennisetum grass is Gimbel’s favorite because it doesn’t reseed. An After Dark Peppermint Willow also bends to and fro in the wind, leaves rustling.

But most of the plants here are succulents. An Aloe hercules rises on muscular trunks out of a massive blue glazed Vietnamese pot. Lynn’s pet plant is the Aloe dorotheae, which looks like a bright red starfish landed in her yard.

The shiny black rosettes of the succulent Zwartkop and the reddish-bronze rosettes of the succulent Cyclops perch on tall, fat stems, growing crookedly out of the ground like something Dr. Seuss might have cooked up.

To attract butterflies, Gimbel planted a clutch of purple-blooming lantana. Hummers stop by when the aloe blooms. And a drought-tolerant South African relative to the grape vine climbs gracefully up a wall, providing fruit for birds.

The terrace ledge itself is softened by creeping rosemary, which drapes over. Look down and you will see another terrace. And then another below that with a paved half-circle promontory. But it is a bit of a wild tangle where deer nap and the Eldstroms venture down there only to pick fruit from the tangerine, lemon, orange and grapefruit trees, all planted by the previous owner. Turning terrace No. 3 into a second seating area is their next project.
“I would love to get my hands on the rest of that hillside,” Gimbel says. For nighttime interest, he planted an olive green Mexican grass tree, with its stiff wiry spikes shooting 4 feet in all directions. He then installed a light at the foot of the massive terra cotta pot where the tree resides so it looks like a fiber-optic sculpture glowing in the dark.

The after-dark star of the garden, though, is the gas fire bowl, which actually has a name: The Wok. Filled with fire glass and surrounded by faux rattan seating (not so glamorous, but impervious to ocean air), it is where friends gather with wine and cocktails.

Or where Lynn and Vaughn curl up with coffee and binoculars in the afternoon sun. From here, miles and miles of ocean beckons, in soothing shades of blue and green and grey, as far as you can see. “It’s kind of a different show every day,” Lynn says.

Whales swim by. Dolphins jump. Sail boats drift past. And crew teams race. The couple have seen water spouts. And they’ve watched the sky fade to heartbreaking reds and pinks and purples.

On the Fourth of July they have seats for four harbor shows: Dana Point, The Montage, Laguna Beach and Emerald Bay.

“We never ever, ever get tired of it,” Lynn says. “It’s fun for us, and not in a boastful way. Our house is not glamorous, but to see our friends’ and relatives’ faces light up when they see the view.”

Every time the couple, real estate agents by trade, return home to Villa Viking from a trip, the first thing Lynn does is bend down and kiss the ground. “It’s that beautiful.”

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