How to turn lawns into drought-tolerant backyards for kids

Landscape designer Paul Robbins got even more involved with water conservation when he removed the muddy grass and bamboo behind his Pasadena rental apartment and created a pleasant, low-water landscape.

Robbins said: “Our garden is very family friendly, pointing to the Victorian box tree, where his 5-year-old daughter Ava loves to swing. Besides, a butterfly chair is strategically placed beneath the shade of a towering fig tree. He said of his six-month-old daughter: “Audrey loves sitting there and listening to the stone trough fountain. “You can still have a lush and green garden with very little water. Drought tolerant doesn’t have to look desert or barren. “

A woman pushing a child on a swing in the garden

Charlotte Robbins and her daughter Zara played on the swings.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

You would expect an Englishman to favor dry perennials and annuals, but Robbins says he turned to drought-tolerant plants long before the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California declared a state of emergency. water shortage and ordered outdoor watering limited to two days a week. Even so, he thinks gardens should refer to the thrill of living in a place like Los Angeles.

“When I create a garden, I want it to feel like you’re in Southern California,” he says. “I love citrus and bougainvillea. They will give you the feeling that you are in a great environment”.

When he and his wife, Charlotte, moved to Pasadena last year, they were excited to find an apartment to rent in a friendly neighborhood of single-family homes and majestic live oaks. . They liked the neighborhood’s walkable streets, and Ava’s school was a short bike ride away.

But Robbins has mixed feelings about the manicured lawn of the 1936 home – common in his estate – and the backyard, lined with mud grass, red brick and bamboo. “I understand that people build bamboo as a screen because it grows quickly,” he said, as he watched hummingbirds and butterflies fly through the garden. “But there’s one big downside to bamboo: It doesn’t attract any wildlife.”

Paul Robbins' backyard front and back

Left: Backyard before it was redone. Correct: After the lawn is cleared and less watered plants are added.

(Paul Robbins; Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After renting an apartment in Koreatown for several years, Robbins is also excited about the prospect of designing a garden for his family to enjoy.

“Even when we were in Koreatown, he filled our apartment with pots and plants,” said Charlotte with a laugh.

Robbins added: “COVID-19 has made people realize the importance of being outdoors. It feels great to be on the field again.”

With the help of the homeowner, Robbins and a team of workers personally removed 2,400 square feet of grass and bamboo in the backyard and installed a new garden within the next four months. Although Robbins does not request grass replacement from the city of Pasadena, which offers a $2 per square foot rebate to replace grass with native and drought tolerant plants, homeowners can apply for a discount for a rental property, according to the SoCalWaterSmart website. Robbins estimates he spent about $25,000 up to $30,000 for labor, materials, and crops but spares no expense in investing in someone else’s home because his family isn’t moving any time soon.

Paul Robbins' deck before and after the renovation

Left: The deck before it was transformed during a backyard makeover. Right: What the deck should look like now.

(Paul Robbins; Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Right after he removed the grass and bamboo, Robbins created a planting plan and plotted it out of the dirt with spray paint. Then he added compost-heavy custom soil from Whittier Fertilizer and 3/8-inch Lodi gravel from Bourget Bros. “It’s the closest thing to Cotswold gravel,” he says.

When asked to weigh the debate between granite and decomposed gravel, he said he has always been a lover of gravel. “It’s more realistic in the winter when it’s wet,” he said. It also has a soothing auditory element. “I appreciate the softness of decomposed granite, but I love the sound of gravel. My kids know when I wake up in the morning.”

He has fitted most of the Mediterranean plants in a limited color palette, not only because they require little water but also because he knows they will do well on the family’s sandy soil. His garden is a fusion of his English roots and Southern California influences: a sturdy boxwood ‘Green Beauty’ hedge, Pittosporum tobria The mass-grown ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ shrub and Japanese holly are softened by green hibiscus, grapevine, honeysuckle and jasmine. There are tall, there are flowers Acanthus molliscommonly known as bear’s breeches, silver-green olive and fragrant coastal rosemary. It’s a magical environment that acts as an extension of the house, filled with shade, wildlife, and private alcoves, including the walkway that leads to the rabbit cage, which he only watered with hand once a week.

A garden

Robbins likes to add planters to subdivide the plantations.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Working with the house’s older trees, including Carolina cherries, figs, coastal oaks, mulberries, and pomegranates, Robbins added young holm oak (Quercus ilex), ‘Bonsai Blue’ jacaranda and many olives, some of which are being potted, to add shade and keep the yard cooler for years to come. Despite the garden’s neat appearance, Robbins notes that he covers with relatively little mulch and lets the leaves decompose to prevent water evaporation and add nutrients to the soil.

Next to the fire pit, which the whole family likes to hang out with, he installed an herb garden on a high bed for easy access to the kitchen. In another thought-provoking move, Robbins has added vintage pots throughout the garden, many of which he has collected over the years and left over from landscaping work, to help tear down the planting. popular. “I have always loved pots,” he said. “It took me back to Europe.”

A statue in the garden

Paul Robbins personally watered his garden.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The garden is anchored on a deck used as an outdoor dining room. Robbins renovated the empty warehouse with potted plants that can withstand the heat; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including fast growing acacia, bougainvillea, citrus, cistus, jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue,’ Olea Europe, Pittosporum crassifolium’Compactum’ and santolina. In addition, he installed a set of three sails to protect on days when temperatures in Pasadena hit triple digits.

A family in a garden

Paul Robbins and his family enjoy the backyard he designed in Pasadena.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

While this couple can’t afford to buy a home right now in LA’s competitive housing market, they consider themselves lucky to be rooted in Pasadena. “We love it here and hope we can stay for many years,” said Robbins. “I’ve covered 2,400 square feet, and we enjoy it every day. This weekend we will be hosting a family birthday party for 40 people. I can take a lot of plants with me when I leave. ”

And the garden?

“I will pass it on to the next family that lives here.”

Did you tear down your lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants? We want to hear from you.

Weed removal tips:

Ready to tear your lawn? Here are some tips from Robbins before you get started:

  • To get rid of Marathon, a weed popular in Southern California because it stays green all year round, rent a tiller, turn the grass upside down and wait two weeks before tilling. Then, add compost and fresh soil to your yard as needed.
  • Install a drip irrigation system, which is a small volume watering system.
  • Choose plants based on those that grow well in your area and the type of soil you have. “For example, light, free-draining soil favors plants like lavenders, salvias, rosemary and westringia. Earth is heavier [favor] Robbins advises.
  • Choose three to five varieties to plant as a group. This will make your yard stand out without complicated maintenance.
Detail of a blue flower

Alyogyne huegelii (Blue hibiscus).

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Plants used in this garden


  • Carolina cherries
  • Figs
  • Coastal oak tree
  • Mulberry
  • Victorian Box, Pittosporum undulatum
  • Pomegranate


  • Holm oak, Quercus ilex
  • Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
  • Olive


  • Japanese blueberry, Elaeocarpus decipiens


  • Honeysuckle
  • Jasmine
  • Tecomaria

WALL / Fence

  • Crossberry, Grewia Occidentalis


  • bear thighs, Acanthus mollis
  • Arbutus “Oktoberfest”
  • blue hibiscus flowers, Alyogyne huegelii
  • Box tree ‘Green beauty’
  • Silverbush, Convolvulus cneorum
  • Euphorbia (promote)
  • Gardenia jasminoides
  • Grapes (table grapes)
  • Japanese Holly, Ilex crenata
  • jasmine flower, Trachelospermum jasminoidS
  • little Ollie, Olea europaea
  • “Wheel Dwarf,” Pittosporum tobria
  • Multicolor Japanese imitation orange color, Pittosporum variegata
  • Rosemary (Tuscan)
  • Dwarf coast rosemary, Westringia fruticosa (gray box)


  • Acacia
  • Bougainvillia
  • Citrus
  • Cistus
  • Jacaranda ‘Bonsai Blue’
  • European olives
  • Dwarf Karo, Pittosporum crassifolium “Compactum”
  • Santolina


View of the garden from the deck.

View of the new garden from the deck. On the table: Dorstenia gigas from the California Cactus Center in Rosemead.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Useful resources for water gardening How to turn lawns into drought-tolerant backyards for kids

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