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From Grass to Habitat Garden – Our Front Yard 2005-2011

A detailed account of the transition from a sparse and chemical dependent landscape to an ecologically diverse and resource efficient garden.

by Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper

Rope swing 2011Our rural 1/3 acre of land in Northern California has been our home and office as well as a continual experiment in ecological land care and permaculture for over 6 years. Our decision to relocate to the ‘city’ this month has us pondering just how much we’ve improved this particular piece of land in the short amount of time we’ve been here… so I decided to take a journey back in time.

Unbeknown to us in 2005, we moved into a chemical dependent neighborhood; neighbors who rely on pest control companies, Round Up and weed/feed for regular property maintenance. Within our own property we found enamel paint had been washed out on the back lawn and evidence of recent herbicide and pesticide spraying around our new house (pest company sticker in the garage with the date of application). Having gardened ecologically for a long time, we have learned a lot about how to make the transition from a chemical dependent landscape to an organic and biologically based one, and how to do it with little time and effort.

2005 Google Earth image

On a typical residential site this ‘transition period’, from chemical to biologic/organic, can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years. It really depends on the degree of degradation to be able to determine the amount of regeneration needed. In our case the land simply needed to be ‘cleansed’ and given new life. Time has been the number one factor in the regeneration of this property more than anything else. Build healthy soil and increase diversity and Mother Nature will heal herself.

The Front Yard Transition

The front yard almost became what we set out for; a drought tolerant, low maintenance wildlife garden with a cottage look and feel. Despite the front garden’s proximity to the front door and kitchen we chose to put our food bearing plants in the backyard as the front yard’s distance to the road and neighboring pesticide use made me shy away from growing food there.

Front Yard 2005 (before we moved in)

Observations and Initial Actions

The image in the photo looks like a typical suburban landscape (we’re 20 minutes from a major city). Three large trees: 1 Raywood Ash in the center with 2 ornamental Mulberry trees – one at each end of the yard. The trees have been wonderful, providing deep shade part of the day for this western facing front yard, lots of leaf mulch every year and structures for our boys to climb and swing from.

The lawn was mostly wide leaf St. Augustine grass which may be the best turf for this region as its very drought tolerant. There were also a few miniature Agapanthus, a couple of roses growing from root stock, a few Nandina and Boxwood and lots of Photinia (a short hedge of it behind me in the photo). There was only 8 different kinds of plants. Talk about a lack of diversity. There were virtually no beneficial insects at all and certainly nothing inviting them to stay.

It’s difficult to tell in the photo above but the slope down from the house to the street is fairly gradual with a few areas of steep downward angles next to the fence and adjacent road. Now note the lack of gutters on the porch and main roof; when it rained water would pour off the roof hitting the compacted ground below. This water never really infiltrated. It just ran onto the compacted turf and continued to flow downhill — eroding away much of the topsoil along with it. We noticed right away our rooftop rainwater just accumulated in the street below along with valuable topsoil; totally unused by the land above.

The lawn went first in spite of its drought tolerance. Turf grass is a monoculture crop and just tiresome when not used for soccer or grazing sheep, so we killed it by simply ignoring it. We didn’t sheet mulch any of it, we just didn’t irrigate for a long, long time. We did lay out arbor chips over the dying grass, shredded from pruned trees on site, to help protect the soil and every so often we pulled a few weeds — noxious weeds like bermuda and foxtail-type grasses. We left dynamic accumulator ‘weeds’ like dandelion to help build soil fertility. When we were able to take the time to play in the front yard we started by laying the foundation.

Water, Access, Structures

Water: (Need: the soil to retain any water at all and drip irrigation for future plants)

Remember how I said the porch and house didn’t have gutters? Well it still doesn’t. In 2006 we chose to dig an infiltration trench, much like a French drain but mulched instead of cobbled, directly under the eave line off the roof. This catches the main wall of rainwater falling off the roof and stores it before infiltration. We’ve found the soil here drains very quickly when not heavily compacted by 30 years of falling water slamming into it so we felt this method would be adequate and require less resources than buying and installing gutters. We did plan for overflow of the trench which would drain into an area near to the Raywood Ash we hoped would become a meadow like feature. To date the trench has never overfilled.

Roof shot late Winter 2009

In 2007 we placed, against the lower slope of the front yard, 3 large rail road ties removed from the backyard. The ties were in the backyard close to where we wanted to plant new food crops and knowing railroad ties contain an arsenal of chemicals we chose to move these to the front where they wouldn’t affect our food.The railroad ties now hold soil in place at the steepest areas of the front yard and accumulate leaf mulch and other organic matter creating moisture retention strips in this dry cobble soil

In 2008 we dug about 15-20 small mulch basins up-slope and parallel to the railroad ties. Rather than dig a whole swale on contour in this small space we chose to dig a bunch of mini mulch basins. These consisted of small ditches about 1 cubic foot down with a lip (meaning we placed soil from the basin down slope so if the basins overfill the water won’t erode downhill) and we filled them all with arbor mulch.

We flagged all the basins so we could observe their effect for a few years and so far we’ve found them to be a little less productive than we hoped mainly because our soil, according to the NRCS, is “excessively drained”, but enough time may need to pass before they are truly effective as a sponge, helping to store water in the landscape. They’ve decomposed the mulch nicely and the humus soil now within the basins is far superior to that in the beds around them. Yet the front yard still requires irrigation so they haven’t done all we hoped for quite yet.

Flagged mulch basins

We also installed drip irrigation in 2008. Our original intention was for the drip to be temporary; needed only until the plants grew in, the soil improved and the basins effectively retained moisture. The drip system was used about once a week during the summer for about one half to one full hour in the early morning. This year it hasn’t been turned on once but we’re having an unusually wet Spring.

Though we’ve never done a full water audit we know we are using a lot less water as compared to our lawn-loving neighbors. We use spray emitters to encourage reseeding plants to do their job — like Columbine — and we use ‘shrubbler’ emitters on the larger shrubs such as Golden Current. ‘Shrubbler’ emitters have several fine streams of water to reach the root zone of larger plants.

We generally don’t use single stream drip emitters because of the way they clog up and we really like to encourage volunteer plants. We’ve had pioneer species like Sambucus and Baccharis volunteer from seed, to name just a few, so we’ve found an even spread of irrigation still conserves water but increases biological activity overall more effectively than single stream (drip) emitters.

Retained play space for our boys 2010

In early 2009 we started building a retaining wall using urbanite; just up from the railroad ties against the steepest part of the slope (we still haven’t finished it). This retained area was originally intended to be a ‘lawn’ or meadow space -meaning wildflowers, clovers, chamomile and other walkable ground covers. We made it slightly sunken in the middle so it would hold the overflow from the infiltration trench above during a large rain event; but as I said previously, we’ve never seen any water overfill the trench.

The retained area is currently used by our boys as a play space including a rope swing from the central Raywood Ash tree — you can imagine little heels digging into the ‘lawn’ here. On principle we decided to keep it a non irrigated play space; which has been the best use for our family’s needs than anything planted.

During the few years we were laying the foundation for the front yard we were constantly adding arbor mulch. We would hear a Tree Trimming truck shredding in the neighborhood and run to find it. The trick is to ensure the shred is healthy! Ask the tree trimmers what trees they’re trimming and where else they’ve gotten a load that day. If you know your neighborhood trees you may be able to know if the mulch will be of good quality or not.

We’ve had approximately 3 full dump trucks (at ~10 yards per load) drop off bark and arbor mulch at our house in just the last 3 years alone — not to mention the mulch we’ve generated on site from general shaping and thinning of our tress and also by the removal of surplus privet trees. We haven’t kept track (and we should have, we do for our clients) but I’d wager if arbor mulch weighs about 500-800 lbs. per cubic yard and one ton is 2000 lbs. then we’ve applied about 7.5-12 tons of off site mulch to this property in 3 years, 1/5 of which went in the front yard.

Roof shot late Spring 2011

Access and Structures: (Need: one pathway from the front porch to the side gate and two pathways from the same porch to the play space and lower garden.)

The existing main pathway is the front porch which serves as a walkway leading the visitor from the driveway through a gate and to the front door. The second existing pathway is a two foot long cement laid brick path from the porch into the yard which then died into the old turf.

To reach the side gate we extended the brick path around using flagstones we moved with us from our previous house. (Reused and salvaged materials are wonderful for making a project less expensive even if moving them takes a bit if effort.)

To get full access to the retained play space and garden below (and to accommodate our boys’ high energy and to keep them out of the plants) we placed two pathways from different ends of the porch. Both pathways were of the same leftover flagstone. Creating efficient garden accessibility is vital for the flow of people and materials as well as protection from little stomping feet.

Plant Diversity

Mimulus and Dutch Iris behind

In fall 2007 we began planting and we stopped planting in late 2010 when we decided to move. Over the years we’ve planted mostly drought tolerant species — some native, some not. We’ve also put in some plants known to be not so drought tolerant, like Forsythia and Hydrangea; we just made sure we planted them near the mulch basins.

2011 Plant List: From 8 plants to 28; it sure makes a difference!

  1. Abutilon megapotamicum Flowering Maple
  2. Akebia quinata Chocolate Vine
  3. Amaryllis spp. Pink Lily
  4. Aquilegia formosa Columbine
  5. Aquilegia chrysantha Columbine -yellow
  6. Buddleia alternafolia Fountain Butterfly Bush
  7. Calendula officinalis Calendula
  8. Campanula punctata Bellflower
  9. Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud
  10. Chaenomeles speciosa Flowering Quince
  11. Clematis spp. Clematis vine
  12. Clerodendrum bungei Glory bower
  13. Eschscholzia californica California poppy
  14. Geranium versicolor ‘Katherine Adele’ Geranium
  15. Guara lindheimeri Guara
  16. Helleborus orientalis Hellebore
  17. Heuchera sanguinea Heuchera
  18. Hydrangea macrophylla Hydrangea
  19. Iris (dutch) ‘Golden Harvest’ Yellow Iris
  20. Mimulus aurantiacus Monkey flower
  21. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ Maiden grass
  22. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ Zebra grass
  23. Muhlenbergia rigens Deer grass
  24. Narcissus Division ‘trumpet’ Daffodil
  25. Ribes aureum Golden current
  26. Salvia greggii Red Salvia
  27. Thalictrum spp. Meadow rue
  28. Unknown Variegated Grass (Can anyone ID this grass for us?)

Unknown variegated grass

A Note on Design

Front yard design 2011

It should be said that the front yard was never designed or installed start to finish or managed like our back yard. We set a few goals for the space but that’s basically all we planned for in the beginning. It became the last ‘To Do’ item on the list mainly because it was neither our main source for food crops nor a place the boys were allowed to play in without constant supervision (when aged 2 and 5).

Virtually all the plants put into the front gardens were plants we had on hand. Most were dug up from our old house or were ‘rescued’ plants (plants our clients/friends/family didn’t want anymore because they were damaged or unappealing). It became a ‘put the plant in the ground or it’ll die in the pot’ kind of garden. Watering 100+ pots by hand every day during the summer becomes a nightmare chore when you don’t even own a nursery and there are a million other things to do; so planting them in the ground and hoping for the best was far easier.

We believe the front yard turned out really well considering the low amount of money and energy we put into this space. Water has definitely been diverted from the street and into the landscape and the land seems to be in the beginning phase of retaining more moisture within the soil. Biodiversity has increased ten-fold and not just plant diversity but animal diversity too. Hummingbirds regularly feed from the fountain butterfly bush, columbine and mimulus; western fence and alligator lizards and even woodland snakes call the undisturbed woody perimeters home, and pollinators of all shapes, sizes and colors help keep this legacy going….

It’s heartbreaking to leave all that we helped create here. Yet it’s refreshing to know we’ll be able to help increase diversity, build healthy soil and more at our next home.

Front yard early Spring 2011



  1. Wonderful! thank you so much for sharing your journey and good luck creating more health and beauty wherever you are going.

  2. Good work. It’ll be sad for you to leave, but I wish you the best success in your next place, you have great skills.



  3. Thank you for the kudos on this article, this is a first for me so it’s wonderful to receive such warm wishes from such an awesome community of people. The future does look bright. We’re moving into a beautiful urban neighborhood with the intention of starting a very small permaculture learning center as we begin to play with this new property… it should be tons of fun!

    David G: I believe the photo you’re referring to is Abutilon megapotamicum or Flowering Maple. This one is special as it’s from my grandmother’s garden.

    FYI for all: I forgot to list the Forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia) growing along the fence line just above the railroad ties and it’s been bugging me so I thought I’d mention it. :)

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