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GARDENING : Ending the Yardwork Ethic


Weekend yardwork used to be an American tradition.

Neighbors would wave to each other as they spent several hours every Saturday or Sunday mowing and edging large expanses of deep-green lawns, raking leaves, trimming hedges and pruning and grooming shrubs, flowers and trees.

But today, it seems people are too busy to invest time in their lawns, and hiring gardeners to do it for them is expensive. The solution: low-maintenance landscaping.

"Most of my clients, unless they're avid gardeners and are collectors of certain plants, almost always ask me for low-maintenance (ideas)," says James T. Jesser, a Laguna Beach landscape architect.

"A lot of my clients just don't want to be devoted to the lawn, or to be spending a lot of time in the yard," says Lisa Iwata, a landscape architect with Land Interactive in San Clemente. "They want to be enjoying the yard more or going places."

The term low maintenance is relative, however.

"What might be 'low maintenance' for one person might be way too much (work) for another," Jesser says.

Some people are happy to spend a couple of hours a week puttering around in their yards, while others may not want to work in their yard at all.

There are, however, some common elements in low-maintenance landscapes:

Plants are selected that are appropriate to climate and soil conditions. This affects how much water is needed and how frequently soil needs amendments.

Plants are planted with enough room so that frequent pruning isn't necessary.

An efficient automatic irrigation system is essential.

The overall yard will have more of a gray-green look rather than lush green, with splashes of color. Colorful plants are concentrated in a few areas, rather than spread throughout a yard.

A reduction of lawn area may mean a small patch for children to play on or the use of grass as a ground cover.

Plants that have an informal or natural look are used.

A low-maintenance yard was definitely on the minds of Helen and Robert Rochelle when they moved to a new home on a Dana Point hilltop. The Rochelles had left behind a large home in San Clemente with about 7,000 square feet of lawn. This high-maintenance yard sometimes required having gardeners come twice a week and meant a huge water bill.

"What we wanted was low maintenance and not a huge yard," Helen Rochelle says. She wanted European-style courtyards, but she didn't want the hardscape to dominate.

"I wanted charm to it," she says.

Bob and Kay Campbell had lived in their Dana Point home more than 20 years when they decided something had to be done about their front yard. They wanted lower maintenance too.

"It was always a very clean-cut looking yard," Kay Campbell says, "but we had a problem with roots and all going through the front yard and erupting. We started by taking out the junipers and taking out the lawn and all the sudden we were in serious trouble."

Both the Rochelles and the Campbells called on Jesser to design their yards. Both couples wanted low maintenance, but how they approached it shows why low maintenance is a relative term.

Jesser designed a series of gardens for the Rochelles, who had the yard installed by professionals. There's a front courtyard with a planter with a large multi-trunked Ficus nitida tree and azaleas. A side yard off the kitchen has a barbecue area and a long planter against the far wall. Five 30-foot high queen palms are in the planter, which also brims with impatiens or some other colorful flower depending upon the time of year.

Both the front and side-yard planters match the white stucco of the house and the walls that enclose the yard.

The side-patio floor is composed of gray and adobe-colored pavers, to blend with the granite floor in the kitchen. The pavers are set in sand and framed with a rim of concrete.

Another planter bed next to the house features a variety of plants, including Hymenosporum flavum trees, which have beautiful yellow blossoms in the spring.

There are also two rectangular areas of concrete with corners cut at angles in this area. These form a walkway to the rear patio and are surrounded by grass, which gives the hardscape a much softer look.

The rear patio is concrete and extends from the back of the house to a low stucco wall in front of a steep slope covered with native plants. French-doors open onto the patio from the living room and the master bedroom and terra-cotta pots with palms or flowers are sprinkled around the yard.

One of the most striking devices is the liberal use of climbing vines. Bougainvillea and grewia caffra espauer are being trained to climb the walls of the house. The green vine and colorful blossoms of bougainvillea frame the front gate to the courtyard and the garage doors. It also climbs up the back of the house, while the grewia caffra, which has a delicate lavendera blossom, is in the side yard.

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