*I gotta preface this. I’ve been sitting on my posts for the past few weeks because I don’t at all want to contribute to a “business as usual” vibe and be all “yay for my house!” while children sit in detention centers alone in fear and their asylum seeking parents live out a nightmare. It’s one thing when human rights violations are happening on the other side of the world, but when they occur inside your nation AND ON YOUR BEHALF, it’s a whole new level of sickening. These families, not our house projects, are the ones constantly on my mind. Many hours of the past weeks have been spent reading, learning, thinking, praying, giving, and acting. If you have intentionally zoned out from the news and retreated to your bubble, I get it. This stuff is heartbreaking and it’s easier to go about our life and let the people in charge handle it. Except, the people in charge aren’t handling it. This is a disaster at every turn. Here’s the latest in a nutshell. Although a judge has ordered that children be reunited with their parents, very few have. They are spread out all over the country. And organizations on the ground report staggering numbers missing parents. And even when children have been able to communicate with a parent, this is what separation sound like. This is what reunification looks like. I can’t read/hear/see any of this without imagining my own children, who could easily be in this situation if fate would have landed us in other lands. And I know what I’d want the people of privilege and freedom and voice to do. Citizens, humans, we need to get these kids reunited NOW. I urge you to speak up, to donate (we gave to Together Rising, but many other worthy organizations here), and to demand just immigration policies for our nation and for the world. I don’t have a huge platform but a good handful of you show up here every time I post (thank you!). Today, I would much rather you click on through, educate yourself, and snap to action than read about my inconsequential front yard project. Our family is not business as usual and I hope yours isn’t either. xoxo Jenny
Landscaping the front yard was our big summer/fall project last year and it was mostly finished by the end of the year. I actually photographed it last December but it happened to be the week of those horrible fires and the light was just too apocalyptic and sad to share. Then Spring showed up with 26 million weeds which took me, our resident weed puller, a few months to sort out. But I’m here now, only 6 months late! I haven’t shared much of this massive project yet, so I might get a little lengthy as I cover some ground. Much like our backyard landscaping, I’m really really proud of this DIY project because plants and yard stuff is not something either of us are naturally drawn to. But we did it 100% ourselves and saved a ton of money. I have a plant list and budget breakdown at the end, if you are curious.
A brief history: Our front yard came to us with a patch of thirsty grass with a crumbling and steep drop off and an assortment of random flowers and bushes. We stopped watering everything when we moved in and let it go for a few years while inside projects demanded attention, turning the yard into a ratty weed/dirt patch (sorry neighbors!). This is on a very good day after rains turned weeds green:
When the time came to tackle the front, we knew we needed some sort of wall along the top of our slope to delineate each section and offer more usable, flat square footage above (you can see the gentlest part of the drop off above). The border wall was born. We added a swoop of flexible composite edging on our driveway side to finish the rock/mulch separation where there is an awkward elevation change but we still needed definition.
Next, we ripped up all the irrigation and nearly every plant. We put in all new drainage across the top level before covering it with a thick layer of weed cloth and float rock.
Then I spent a good six months slowly finding plants, planting them, and moving them around until it felt right. I tried to work in a few existing plants in an effort to save money and labor (you can kind of see my attempts to integrate them in this post), but in the end it wasn’t worth the effort. We ended up keeping nothing besides two crepe myrtle trees on the slope, our huge beloved dragon tree in one corner, and our huge palm tree in another. It was scary to have such a huge blank canvas to fill up with plants and money, but once we actually got rid of things we didn’t like, it made it much easier to design a landscape that we truly love, that we are able and willing to take care of, that better goes with the look we are going for, and that fits into our low maintenance/low water needs. More about plant selection and specifics way down at the end.
Next, we mulched the slope areas with gorilla shred. The sea of brown isn’t my favorite, but the slope is steep and we need something that will stay in place and couldn’t find a better solution. The lower and upper garden beds have black mulch, which I love the punch of color it brings and wish I could somehow do black on the slope…though I recently saw a similar slope in black rubber mulch that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I may look into that further on down the line.
With our driveway and garage entrance in the back, our rambling ranch’s length is overly emphasized from the front. Our slope landscaping provides enough lushness that the top doesn’t need a ton of plants, but we did need something big to break up the long monotonous expanse of house frontage. We settled on building a decorative screen. It was originally supposed to hide a terribly placed electrical box floating in the middle of a wall, but I last-minute moved it. And then loved it so much that I decided we definitely needed a second one to cover the electrical box the original one was supposed to. Screen #2 coming soon.
Time for so many photos.
Our slope was very much inspired by the slope landscaping at Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach, CA. I fell in love with it last Spring when we were there because it is very colorful and graphic, simple but interesting, and lush feeling without water requirements. Our climate is similar so I knew it could work. The slope is where the bulk of our planting happened and is basically a repeat of agave attenuatas, blue agave americanas, black aeoiums, yellow jades, and golden barrel cacti. A few spots veer from the pattern: a couple variegated agave americanas (the green and yellow stipes), jades that the previous owner left us in backyard pots (heart), a pony tail palm, an aloe tree, a few other aeoniums, and a spiky furcraea macdougalii that isn’t doing so good. Up top we have more attenuata, a gigantic americana agave, a bed of sansevieria, and a pair of palm trees that need to be moved…they were planted with the intention of making a front-and-center V of twin palms, but it’s unlikely that vision will be realized while we own this house and they are taking up valuable real estate and looking weird and small.
Our choices reflect two landscaping goals: “as zero-maintance as we can get” and as free as can be. Low water landscaping is important in our state, and much of the west, so thankfully we both love desert modern landscape design and ran with that. Faking Palm Springs til we make it. Everything in our yard is a succulent and will not need regular watering after getting established over the past winter. I will probably hand water a few times on scorching days this summer just to be safe, but I don’t expect to do any watering past that. Rain water only. We’re irrigation free besides our small backyard lawn.Free plants are hard to beat. Many of our agaves, which make up the majority of our plants, were scores from trash piles, neighbors, our own backyard pups, and craigslist ads. Once you get a taste of free agaves, it’s hard to go back. Savings really add up, especially when you are talking about nearly 100 plants. My husband dug up and wheelbarrowed that huge one by the front door from a few block away. (True love.)
The great thing about agaves, attenuatas in particular, is their ability to multiply. You cut off the pups, the bonus agaves that grow from the mother plant, plop them in the ground and they grow! So easy. In a few years I anticipate the slope to be lush and full, but still minimal. But a note about agave americanas, pictured below. They also pup and multiply but they are sharp and their sap is a skin irritant. If you let them clump, you can have an unmanageable mess on your hands. My proactive approach has been to treat pups like weeds…when I come across them while weeding, I pull them out (easy when they are little) and toss them to keep things nice and ordered.A few special plants, like the aloe barberae, are from a local nursery. Everything else was filled in with cheap(er) plants from Home Depot…big box stores like that sell regional plant standards at decent prices. What they stock is at the whim of what their wholesale nurseries have available, so it takes multiple visits to gather all you need, but it’s possible and such a money saver!
Shout out to the tiny heroes of our yard: Golden barrels! Forever a favorite. They popped up last spring at our local home depot and I bought a ton! The sidewalk level “cutouts” as we call them, seemed like a perfect opportunity to display them symmetrically, in contrast to the more natural, lose placement of plants on the slope, where even more golden barrels dot the landscape. The cacti are only a few years old, and bordering on humorously tiny. And I know they are slow growers (they can reach 2 feet by 30 years). But the cost of older/bigger ones was more than I wanted to spend and specimens at any size aren’t something I find often in bulk locally so I am so thankful just to have ANY. They contribute such a fun pop, in both shape and color, and are the most commented on plants by passing walkers. Little balls of spiky chartreuse wonderfulness that everyone wants to hug.Some of our plant budget was literally thrown away on plant fails. I really wanted purple cordylines to line our rock bed, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t keep them alive. I threw close to $200 at them, they all kept dying, and I finally had to thrown in the towel and change course. Plants that continually die on you are not zero maintenance. My next attempt was Mexican fence post cacti but acquiring them here proved near impossible. Next experiment, San Pedro cacti, also failed: cactus sunburn. Luckily, I only attempted this on a small scale, mostly due to plant scarcity, and was able to move the burnt guys to the back. Going back to the drawing board for the 4th time led me to try Sansevieria, something I only considered a shade plant because they THRIVE indoors, but can actually tolerate sun. They are doing great! Only took 4 tries.
Things still look a bit sparse, but everything has already grown so much since Halloween. Hooray!
When going into a project this big with almost no experience, it’s really hard to nail down an estimated cost. We did get a quote for the whole thing with a concrete retaining walls on bottom and top, but it was in the $20,000-$30,000k range…what the heck even? If you are looking for motivation to do your yard yourself when you really don’t want to, just ask someone else for a quote. I promise it will provide you with the motivation you need! I know the price of materials and plants varies so much between regions and will definitely depend on your yard size, but if you are curious what we spent for our good-sized yard, we did everything for a little over $3000. AND A TON OF TIME. Here’s our break down:
Plants – $1200:
- Blue Americana Agaves x so many, FREE (you dig from family friend and neighbors)
- Agave Attenuata x so many, FREE (neighbor’s trash pile)
- Agave Attenuata x 9, $100 total (craigslist neighbor)
- Agave Attenuata long neck x 1, $75 (local nursery)
- Jade Hummel Sunset x 9, $5 (Home Depot)
- Jade x 2, FREE (previous owners left in backyard)
- Golden Barrel Cactus small x 20, $5/each (Home Depot)
- Golden Barrel Cactus large x 2, $20/each (Home Depot)
- Black Aeoniums x 3, $25/each (local nursery, I split and propagated them)
- random Aeoniums x 2, $25 (local nursery)
- Agave Americana Variegata x 2, $20/each (Home Depot)
- Aloe Barberae tree x 1, $45 (local nursery, I broke off one head noooo)
- Furcraea Macdougalii x 1, $40 (local nursery)
- Ponytail Palm x 1, $25 (Home Depot)
- Sansevieria x 8, $20/each (Home Depot)
- Mexican Fan Palms x 2, $50/each (Home Depot)
- Cordylines x 8, $20/each (Home Depot, all dead)
Materials – $2000
- border wall wood and supplies, $800
- composite edging, $50
- wood screen, $150
- 3/4″ float rock x 6 yards, $250 total
- gorilla hair mulch x 9 yards, $350 total
- rock/mulch deliveries, $150
- black mulch bags x 9, $30 total
- landscape fabric, $250
- round pavers x 30, $1/each
Not bad! I can’t describe what a joy it is to look out our window and see pretty plants instead of neck high weeds and dirt piles. The spiky plants feel more “me” and more ordered than the flower/lawn combo ever did. But really, having a done and clean yard is just such a relief. A front yard is not a project you can hide behind a closed door until you are ready to get to it. It’s the kind that stares you, and everyone else, squarely in the face day after day until you do the work. So glad the work is behind us!
Our future plans out here, besides painting that exterior ASAP, include rebuilding our falling down side fence and eventually laying a concrete patio outside our front door, the best views on our property. A giant circle seems right to me, but that is out of our DIY comfort zone, so we may just go for an easy geometrical patio out of square concrete pavers.
Phew, that was a lot! Thanks for reading and to all of you in the middle of your own yard projects, I feel your pain. xoxo