Monday, September 21, 2015

My big FAT front yard makeover!

Just look at this "before" photo. Why are we so addicted to lawns? They certainly do not belong in the summer dry climate of California. Being a lover of succulents and cacti, I knew I wanted to install a drought tolerant/waterwise landscape. We also wanted to upgrade the driveway and hardscape to make it more unified and attractive.
Before - Google street view - spring 2012
The ideas for a makeover started forming in my mind as soon as we viewed the open house and put in an offer on our home in October, 2011. We had obviously bought a "fixer upper" and that was OK with us. Located in Carpinteria, CA., just nine miles south of neighboring Santa Barbara, our home is one mile inland from some of the best beaches in California, and just below the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains*.  
*The Santa Ynez Mountains above Carpinteria, CA., are a portion of the Transverse Ranges, part of the Pacific Coast Ranges, of the west coast of North American, and are one of the northernmost mountain ranges in Southern CA.
Step one: Test garden - September, 2012

If I was going to remove my whole lawn and replace it with succulents, it seemed to me that I needed to learn about what grows well in the soil and how plants would respond to the sun exposure. First thing we did was remove a Crab Apple tree from our front yard and plant a succulent pocket garden in its place. 
Test pocket garden - this was after about six months of growth, March 2013
Good news - the test was a great success. Plenty of sun for growing succulents in the front yard. We didn't have irrigation installed and these succulents were thriving. I amended the soil with cactus mix (recommended, as succulents like a well draining soil). I watered them about once a week until the plants were established. After that they were lucky to get water once a month.

Step two: Hardscape

Fast forward to July, 2014. Time to start the big FAT makeover. The first thing we did was install a new driveway and front walkway. That was a huge undertaking. The fun part was working with the contractor to create something unique. I acted as project manager and even designed the layout of the hardscape. 
It was a messy job, but it needed to be done. Adding French curves to the design really transformed this space.
Step three: Grass removal. Phase I of the makeover. July, 2014

We went with the fast approach by having the sod cut out which saved a lot of labor time and effort. In hindsight, I would have created more mounded zones to the yard. However, that Agave wasn't going anywhere and it kind of prevented mounding. It turned out OK since our lawn has a natural slope out to the street.
July, 2014. First placement of the plants.

It is really overwhelming when you see the blank slate. Just make sure you know your plants. How big are they going to get? Group similar plants together in 'Hydrozones': plants with similar water needs, and irrigate them accordingly (high, medium, low and very low zones). Add large boulders before you add any plants. The Sydney Peak Granite boulders weighed 300-500 lbs. each. You don't want anything in the way.

First plants in the ground July, 2014. At first you wonder if your boulders are too large.
I created slight mounds for the pocket gardens on each side of the sidewalk. These plantings really transformed the approach to the front door and acted as a major focal point of the installation. Love how the hardscape turned out. Such an improvement!
Phase I AFTER photo. The planting area to the left didn't originally exist. It was designed to showcase the front
 entry, and softened the hardscape and the blank wall. The succulent pocket gardens really made a huge impact.
The Phase I goal was to get the initial layout in place and install focal plantings and stabilize the soil. It was so compact and dry we could barely dig holes to install the plants. To keep out weeds we went with construction plastic** under the mulch. Based on my research this was not the recommended material, but I didn't want to spend all my time pulling weeds. Drip irrigation was added for the flowering plants (only about 30% of my plants have irrigation) and succulent pocket gardens. I don't irrigate Agaves, cacti or the parkway. The goal was to save water and create a colorful, sculptural landscape.  
Official Phase I - AFTER photo. September 24, 2014.
We had a little rain in the winter of 2014, and the mulch held up OK. Really saw a growth spurt after the rains in January, 2015. Slowly, I added plants here and there around the boulders. By March, the mulch wasn't looking good and needed to go. It was only installed as a temporary measure until Phase II could be completed.
After the rains the mulch got compacted, the irrigation tubes were showing, and it was faded looking. YUCK!
This photo shows plant growth and several new plants that were added.
But, that big blank spot was the first thing you saw, and that needed to change. Time for Phase II.
Phase II Makeover - July, 2015

Bye bye mulch...
First order of business, a new pocket garden installation in that big blank spot. My helper, Daniel working hard to get new plants in the ground. Lots of Guerrilla Gardening was done in the three weeks of this installation.
New pocket garden - AFTER. Much better. I did 80% of the planting and Daniel did 80% of the rock installation.
**Update on the quality of the soil. Turns out using that black plastic under the mulch created a type of "greenhouse effect" and a microclimate for the worms. Now the soil is almost perfect - so easy to dig, and the plants are loving it.

After the plants were installed it was time to add the top dressing - the icing on the cake!
I had so much fun shopping for rocks and gravel. The different colors and textures really complements the sculptural quality of the plants. I think I love rocks as much as I love succulents. Is that possible? 

Phase II AFTER Photos - August 8, 2015
Add a bit of whimsy to your garden. This unique turtle planter is perfect in this space.
This is the Phase I pocket garden next to the front walkway after one year of growth. I added a few
more plants to freshen it up and almost 100 new plants to the Phase II installation. 
I've neglected to mention plant selection. 75% of the plants in my yard are cuttings from plants that were given to me that I nurtured in my nursery until they were big enough to plant in the Phase II installation.
I added several vignettes around the landscape with rocks for interest. I wanted to avoid a polkadotted planting.

I chose mostly succulents and cacti for my landscape, but also added flowering plants for interest, diversity and as food for the pollinators. I may be a succulent fanatic, but I love flowers too!! 
The official Phase II AFTER photo. August 8, 2015

UPDATE: November 20, 2015

It's been a little over three months and I finally finished off the last of the rock installation. Things have really grown beautifully over the summer, despite record hot temperatures.
Fin! - So happy to be "done" with this project. Definitely a labor of love. My love of succulents!!!
I kept the parkway strip way more simple. The Fortnight Lily 'African Iris' is well established. Then I added these three Aloe Maculata. They look pretty sun stressed right now because they have been sitting out of soil for three months.
My front walkway pocket gardens after one year of growth! 11/20/15
What will this look like in five years? Can't wait to see it grow and flourish.

UPDATE April 2016

I turned off all irrigation over the winter. We have had a few nice rain storms and my plants are flourishing!  My dry riverbed really worked well and held all the water from the rain gutters and kept it from just running off into the street. Video taken January 5, 2016:

July 2016

Click to view YouTube video of the running water!
A river runs free January 5, 2016
Plants are really filling in nicely! April, 2016
On an overcast day the colors really POP!
These have three crested spikes.
Love all the color in spring.
UPDATE - 2017
Looking quite lush in July. We received a record high rainfall this spring and I lost a lot of plants. Even with the best planning succulents will rot if the soil doesn't dry out. Only the strong survive! 
I had to move the walkway over three feet in front of Fred, the huge Agave Americana. I really can't believe how big he has grown. It's a committment to maintain a plant this large in your landscape. Just make sure to de-pup (remove any offsets) at least once a year and trim off the bottom leaves so it has room to grow. 
UPDATE - 2018

July 2018 - Only three years in ground for most of these plants. Sometimes I can't even believe it myself how amazing it looks. So colorfull and satisfying. Not much to say but look how BIG Fred, the Agave Americana, has grown in just one year!

December 2015 Front page of the Carpinteria Valley Coastal View News
Santa Barbara New Press October 21, 2017
August 2018 - Succulent Queen Debra Lee Baldwin has been using my
before/after shots of my yard in her garden talks since 2015.
This time she did a full feature article which blows this blog post out of the water.
Link to Debra's article:

Thank you for going on this journey with me. Stay tuned for my sequel: My big FAT backyard makeover, coming soon!

For updates and garden highlights make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook. I post plant names, care and garden tips too! 

And check out my YouTube video filmed in April, 2015 about succulent propagation:  


  1. OMG honey your garden is magical! That is the word! I love it so much!

    1. Thank you so much! I am seriously in awe of it myself. The transformation is over-whelming! I can't imagine any other plants in my garden. And the cool thing is that cuttings from all of my succulent buddies are right there and I get to see them every day. Lots of love! D

  2. The transformation is fantastic! I am working on mine as well but I don't have the space you do! The large blue agave makes such a fabulous statement. You already follow me in instagram (coolcactuskid) and hopefully you will enjoy my yard as well although mine is not as well documented as yours! Bill

    1. Finally seeing this post. Since then we have met twice and visited each others gardens. Now we are friends. How cool!!!

  3. What a complete and beautiful transformation! I can't believe how fast your succulents filled in. You must get such a kick out of coming home to this every day. Thanks for sharing the before-and-afters.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding. THANK YOU! See updated photo added today and be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more frequent posts and updates.

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