A La Cañada Flintridge couple traded in their water-guzzling lawn for an award-winning French Provincial garden that’s sustainable.
By Bettijane Levine 03/01/2011
Grass is good. But could gravel be better? That was the question for Jeanie and Terry Kay, whose charming country French chateau straddles a small rise on a street of custom homes in La Cañada Flintridge.
Their white brick mini-villa — with its tall welcoming windows and elegant sheltered door — looks like it might be a centuries-old transplant from some nobleman’s estate in Southern France. It was actually built in 1998, and the Kays are the first to live there. “The house itself was perfect from the moment we moved in,” says Jeanie Kay. But the unbroken carpet of grass that sloped from house to street just never made sense to her. “It was boring. It did nothing to enhance the home’s architecture. It didn’t even have a path up to the door. Visitors had to walk up the driveway to get there. I had this idea that our front garden should be French, because that’s the style of our house.”
She’d also come to realize there were ecological considerations that were equally important. “We wanted our garden to reflect our values,” Kay continues. “We are concerned with the ecology, the environment; we try to conserve natural resources. We both drive Priuses. And yet, we were using gallons of water and putting chemicals into the earth to maintain this lawn which we didn’t really like.” Of course, they’re “not perfect conservationists,” she quickly adds. “We have grass in back that we wanted to keep. And we still do all the Christmas lights — just can’t seem to give that up.”
Finally, after a decade of keeping their front lawn in pristine condition, the Kays decided to chuck it. They called in sustainable landscape expert Cassy Aoyagi, co-founder (with her husband, Kirk), of Tujunga-based FormLA Landscaping. It’s an award-winning firm devoted to creating gardens that are low water and low maintenance, yet intriguingly lush and architecturally appropriate for the homes they surround.
Aoyagi and Kay bonded immediately, Kay says. “She instantly understood my concern that the garden didn’t complement the architecture.” As for Aoyagi, she says she was impressed that Kay was “a woman ahead of her time. Just look around you. We all talk about sustainable landscape, but this block, this city, this whole country is filled with almost nothing but traditional grass lawns.”
She’s right, of course. Arroyoland, indeed much of the Los Angeles area, is awash in grass — acres of it, from small patches fronting bungalows and cottages to estate lawns large enough for flocks of sheep. For homeowners here and across the country, the front lawn is all-American, a symbol of democracy, a vote for this country that allows anyone of humble origins to work his or her way up to land ownership. In England and Europe, where the lawn fetish first began, only titled aristocrats were allowed for centuries to own land. Lawns also weren’t popular in early America, where the working classes had to use whatever land they had for farming and other productive purposes. But during the home-building boom that followed World War II, the lawn became iconic — even in regions where rain was rare and front yards of a different sort would have been more suitable. Even now, grass continues to reign supreme, a vestigial moat that separates one’s private property from passers-by on the public street. In Aoyagi’s opinion, many lawns in Southern California should be considered as obsolete as actual moats.
“Here’s the problem: People are not informed about their options,” Aoyagi says. “They think if they want to take out their lawn, they have to replace it with all sorts of cactus, succulents, spiny things. They think their front yard will look like a desert. We’re here to prove they are wrong. Their new landscape can be very lush, interesting, beautiful. We can use plants and trees from regions of the world that have a climate similar to that of Southern California: Chile, South Africa, Australia, the Mediterranean basin. Using natives from those regions opens up a whole new world of plant material that is enormous. You’ve actually expanded your garden horizons, made an opportunity to create more habitat, bring more butterflies, more hummingbirds, more flowers and biodiversity — all while creating a landscape that’s more interesting and more architecturally fitting for your home. And it will be a landscape that saves water, lowers maintenance and eliminates chemicals.”
Aoyagi is used to explaining all this. Through the Theodore Payne Foundation (she’s president of the Board of Directors) and numerous garden-oriented organizations, she teaches sustainable landscape to homeowners and professional landscapers throughout Southern California. In 2010, she was named Landscape Teacher of the Year by the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. She’s also an LEED-accredited licensed contractor.
FormLA co-designer Isara Ongwiseth immediately started researching gardens of French Provincial dwellings in the Mediterranean basin. One of his specialties, he says, is “honoring the natural and cultural history” of sites on which he works. In this case, he found that gravel was a major component of gardens in France, along with a stunning array of plants that offered color, texture, fragrance and sculptural beauty. The firm decided to create the look and feel of such a garden for the Kays.
It was a dream come true for Jeanie Kay, who had seen an exquisite book of photo essays titled Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style, by Jan Smithen (who happens to live in Southern California). “I wanted my front garden to look like some of those photos,” she says. She also wanted to preserve some plants and trees that surrounded her lawn before the makeover. “My roses were favorites,” she says. “A great thing about FormLA is that they let you keep existing plants and find a way to incorporate them into the new landscape.”
According to the plan crafted by Ongwiseth and Aoyagi, the lawn was removed and replaced with a sumptuous stylized array of plantings traversed by meandering, free-form flagstone paths surrounded by gravel. One path leads from the driveway to the front door, another from the street to the door. “Now visitors actually experience the garden instead of passing by it,” Ongwiseth says.
What they experience is a variety of heights, textures, colors and fragrances arranged to shelter the garden from neighbors on both sides and to create an outdoor room that is a sensory buffet. “Almost everything in the garden has a scent,” says Ongwiseth.
The ground was regraded. To prevent weed growth, the gravel and a layer of fabric below it are both permeable, so that water does not run off to the street but sinks into the earth to replenish the water table. An underground irrigation system was installed, so that whatever water is needed heads directly to the plants’ roots.
The Kays’ grounds now boast a veritable banquet of sustainable plantings: kangaroo paw, golden elaeagnus, Spanish lavender, Goodwin Creek Grey lavender, Russian sage, Jerusalem sage, silver sheen, hollyleaf redberry, Indian hawthorn, Tuscan blue rosemary, autumn sage, lavender cotton and coast rosemary. Forest pansy redbud and rose acacia trees were placed to complement the already existing white birch, crape myrtle, sweet gum, crab apple and California sycamore trees. The landscapers also kept such existing plants as the Kays’ New Zealand tea tree, Wheeler’s dwarf mock orange and various roses. Snow-in-summer and elfin thyme groundcover were added, and boulders, artistically placed, provide visual anchors, enhanced by path lighting.
On a recent visit, the garden was not in bloom. Even so, the subtle variety of colors, textures and scents intrigued the senses. The denuded trees displayed a sculptural elegance, and even the crunch of the gravel underfoot was somehow satisfying. “We tamped it down, so the stones interlock and it feels stable to walk on,” Ongwiseth says.
The French Provincial garden is now a La Cañada Valley Beautiful award winner. And Jeanie Kay says she and her husband are more than happy with the outcome. “In fact, we’re both thrilled. It’s so pretty now. Visitors park on the street and walk up a lovely garden path to our house. And the house looks so much better because of it.”