THE REAL DIRTT: Redesigned Landscape Not Your Garden-Variety Task

November 22, 2016
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Cathy and Callum enjoy their new garden dampened by an early-morning shower.

Catherine and Callum enjoy their new garden dampened by an early-morning shower.

If you want to create a unique drought-tolerant landscape that involves more than just sticking a barrel cactus in a bed of rocks, perhaps, instead of hiring a landscape architect, you should consider hiring a former product manager from a large internet portal.

That was Catherine’s job at Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Calif., before she and her husband Tim moved to Altadena, where she became a stay-at-home mom and a nascent landscaper.

Her genius in the garden is that while most landscapers think in linear terms, given to tidy boxes and formulaic frames, she thinks asymmetrically. There isn’t a curve, bend or twist she doesn’t like.

She might not have transformed her thirsty front lawn into a colorful water-sipping desert-scape were it not for a large ugly crack that had formed on two steps leading to the entrance of her Spanish-style home. Rather than just repair the steps and keep the same traditional walk-up, she created a tiled entrance that fanned out in semi-circles from the front door.

That led to a Mission-tile landing that opened to an expansive front lawn that she decided had to go.

It wasn’t that difficult a decision to say goodbye to the lush greensward her children had played soccer on.

“We have so much sunshine in California, it’s a shame not to use it,” said the Birmingham, England transplant and quiet eco-activist whose tile roof also supports solar panels.

But instead of creating the perfect English garden brimming with hollyhocks and hydrangeas, she was keen on creating plants indigenous to the Southwest and her adopted water-parched California home.

So among the circles and ovals of decomposed granite and river rock pebble, she has planted ocotillo, Palo Verde trees, Mexican sage and Muhly Grass, filling her garden with a riot of purples, oranges and yellows.

Whenever her design scheme threatened to turn too conformist, she let her whimsy rule, which explains why a bocce ball courts lies not too far from the shade of a pomegranate tree.altadena5

Ever the good product manager, she showed a technical understanding of her task while relying on the input of her family and her contractor and landscapers to keep her project grounded.

She also listened to the land itself, spending long hours gazing over the still unformed garden, wondering what new path it would lead her down. There would be no rush or bridge to nowhere. The hardscape went in over the summer, the planting in the fall. “We did it in bits,” she conceded, but each respite opened new possibilities.

The white walls were accented with Moroccan lanterns. A climbing rose stretched its tendrils toward the second story. A wraparound wooden bench hugs a magnolia.

Instead of a vegetable garden taking its natural place in the backyard, it was moved to the front on the patio off of the great room. In a garden largely covered with sand and gravel, she still wanted a small place to dig in the dirt.

She also figured that by moving it to the front, in viewing distance of her neighbors and the dog-walkers who frequent her street, she would be shamed into spending more time with her vegetables. Her kale, broccoli and Swiss chard were not about to wilt on her watch.

altadenasizePerhaps the greatest dividend of spending so much time in her new garden is the social growth that has sprouted among Catherine and her neighbors. Passersby have stopped to take pictures and she has given a few walking tours. “It’s made me really feel like part of the Altadena community,” she said.

The feedback has been so positive she has even considered that her keen eye for design could lead to a second career as a landscape architect.

Just like the eco-friendly garden she has created, she knows that life sometimes takes unexpected turns.


Rocks, Gravel, Soil

Sunburst Decorative Rock

282 Live Oak Avenue. Irwindale, California 91706

Main Desk | 626 446 4994

Moroccan Lamps

Badia Design Inc.

5420 Vineland Avenue,North Hollywood, CA 91601 

(818) 762-0130 • Fax: (818) 762-0171 • Email:|

Landscaping Services

Arturo Aguayo Landscaping

(626) 644-3590

Mission Tile

853 Mission St.

South Pasadena, Calif.

(626) 799-4595


Contributed by Colleen Bennett, a Realtor (CalBRE #1013172) with Sotheby’s International Realty. You can reach her at (909) 374-4744 or



Pre-renovation view of the front yard.

Pre-renovation view of the front yard.





One Response to “THE REAL DIRTT: Redesigned Landscape Not Your Garden-Variety Task”

  1. Great post, so excited that this blog is back!!

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