Desert-Inspired Mid-Century Modern Landscape: Our Big Yard Reveal

Our front yard and house used to look like this:

 The Before: Our non mid-century vinyl siding, pagoda mailbox, and shrubbery-filled front yard.

The Before: Our non mid-century vinyl siding, pagoda mailbox, and shrubbery-filled front yard.

Inspiration

Near the end of 2016, we gathered the needed energy and determination to tackle our front yard landscaping. To save money, we decided to go for it and do ALL the labor ourselves. Boy, was this a tiring and enduring project, but in the end, we're so happy we did it and are (fairly) happy with the results!

It was a gradual process (as all projects we've tackled so far) which started a few years ago with removing the exterior vinyl siding and having the original Eichler exterior siding painted. (One of the few things we didn't do ourselves and loved every minute!)

We have been gathering landscape design inspiration for a few years now, starting with one of our trips to Palm Springs, where we found loads of inspiration for drought-tolerant landscape designs, featuring cactus, rock, and agave plants. Here's one of our favorites and you will see where we got the inspiration for barrel cactus.

 Colorful desert landscape in Palm Springs.

Colorful desert landscape in Palm Springs.

A visit to our local Ruth Bancroft Garden helped to solidify our final plant choices, knowing they could thrive in our both very warm and cool East Bay climate.

 Gorgeous Agave and unusual succulents can be found at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA.

Gorgeous Agave and unusual succulents can be found at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA.

The Planning Process

Here are some initial drawings for dividing up the yard, which is a fairly decent size. I know we have some professional landscape architecture friends out there, so don't make fun of my terrible hand drawings! :) 

In theme with a Palm Springs inspired rock garden, we chose a combination of Black Mexican Pebbles, Salmon Bay Pebbles, and Black Mulch. We sourced almost all of the ground cover from American Soil and Stone, in Richmond, CA. I searched far and wide for rock and pebble sources in the Bay Area, and prices and offerings varied greatly. Just a heads up, each place sells ground cover differently; either by the ton and/or by the cubic yard... so we had to reach back to the depths of middle school math (or use some online tools) to figure out how all the pricing worked out. One visit to American Soil and Stone was super helpful, with the the ability to see and touch the different materials, and get pricing and delivery fees on the spot. If you are looking for a boulder, this is your place!

For plants, we have a dear and awesome design friend, Brooke, who works in landscaping, so she brought me to the amazing wholesale Devil Mountain Nursery in San Ramon, CA, where we purchased the Barrel Cacti, Blue Glow Agave, Kangaroo Paws, and our now still little, (but someday will be big and tall) Desert Museum Palo Verde Tree.

Eventually, I would like to build a concrete or Corten Steel planter somewhere, where the kids can tend to some veggies, but for now, we put a few of these beauties near the house and love the pop of color.

 Ornamental Kale

Ornamental Kale

Some of you might want to skip all the lengthy details of this multi-month project, and skip to the fun "After" pictures posted at the end. For those of you who must really love us, here are the phases of our Landscape Project:

1. Removed (dead) grass, (dead) plants and ground cover.

Notice the theme with dead plants? Because of the Drought, we really had to let everything go over the years, as it didn't make sense to keep plants that required a lot of water to stay alive, knowing we would eventually re-do our front yard. We rented a sod cutter from The Home Depot after trying our hand with an axe pick. We also debated renting the less expensive option of the tiller, but we were very glad we opted for the sod cutter, which cut all the sod loose in under 20 mins after we figured out how to operate the machine. It's self-propelled on some rubber tracks and offers an depth adjustment for the blade. There was no manual, so there was a bit of careful experimenting required to get it just right.

* TIP - The biggest tip we can share is to not try to run it like a lawn mower and get to the end of a run, top it, turn it, and start again. Instead, while it's running, turn quickly into the next run and just cut in a continuous circle starting from the outside of the lawn. You'll need to come back to get the small corners you'll miss, but it'll get it done quicker and reduce all the heavy lifting at each turn. Also, this beast fit into the back of our Honda Pilot, but at the shop they helped move it into the back using a portable lift gate, so when we got it home, we needed to build a ramp by laying down 2x4s and plywood. The guy at the shop also had no clue how it worked. To apply the brake during transport, put it in gear so it doesn't move around.

3. Leveled the ground (slightly), after digging out old plants and roots. We had a compost truck pick up all the old plantings and sod. Someone else even came and bought the old brick from us! Craigslist is awesome.

4. Defined areas of yard, first using string, for our Steel Edging (also from American Soil and Stone) as dividers. We live on a curved street, so believe it or not, the white string represented lines perfectly parallel and perpendicular to the house, the basis we wanted to use for the groundscape layout - It's quite an optical illusion!

5. Dug holes for the new plants (thanks Dad for your help too!) and put down weed guard. All the new plants are drought-tolerant, though we did install new lines for a drip system. It was amazing how many old sprinkler heads we closed off, now that we didn't have to keep grass alive!

6. Accepted the pebble and mulch delivery and then eventually moved ALL of it from the driveway to the yard, with the help of some small people.

 Putting the kids to work. Bucket by bucket.

Putting the kids to work. Bucket by bucket.

7. We dug a lot, then made wood forms that would become the new concrete steps. 

Concrete-Forms

8. Mixed and poured concrete, one step at a time. This was our "fun" activity that consumed most of our holiday "break." Since it was near freezing at night, we covered each step with tarps to help them stay warm to cure.

9. Removed forms as each step has set, then mixed and poured the next step.

10. We bought larger Mexican Rock to use as filler around the first pavers and in between steps. 

After

So now that we're done, we are really proud to drive up to our house versus recoil. There are still remaining items to tackle (someday!), such as new fence/gate on each side, a steel or concrete planter box and match the other front side yard to the new landscaping theme. Oh and someday, we'd like a fresh new concrete driveway, but definitely not mixing that one up ourselves! Some landscape lighting would also be fantastic (our neighbors put in some really great lighting, more on that next time), but for this project, we had to limit our scope.

los-cerros-before-after-yard.jpg
 A few Aloe Striata plants and rocks from the old garden make for a small vignette. At the last minute, I decided to add these plants and rock, which is one of our favorites parts of the design. 

A few Aloe Striata plants and rocks from the old garden make for a small vignette. At the last minute, I decided to add these plants and rock, which is one of our favorites parts of the design. 

 No more mowing lawns! But now we do have to rake our rock garden. 

No more mowing lawns! But now we do have to rake our rock garden. 

mcm-landscape-eichler.jpg

The plants are mostly all very young, so there is plenty of yard for them to grow into. You can't even see the three Blue Glow Agaves in the third row from this view, but one day, they will make a statement.

If you have been thinking about tackling a yard project on your own, you can definitely do it! Just make sure to stock up on some pain relief for sore muscles, (or go to yoga and or your Chiropractor!) and it's worth it to invest in a good, solid wheelbarrow. But it can be done as a DIY project at a fraction of the cost of hiring professionals. Of course, our work is nowhere near perfect, but we will take it over our "Before" any day. 

What's next? Lighting, more plants, a new fence... and the work continues ;)