L.A. at Home

Design, Architecture, Gardens,
Southern California Living

Category: Low-Water

L.A. Arboretum to open sustainable garden for festival

L.A. Arboretum to open sustainable garden for festival.
Considering all the attention that backyard chicken coops and edible landscapes have gotten, homeowners have few public places to see these ideas in practice. The newly redesigned Garden for All Seasons, under construction this week and scheduled to open for this weekend's Grow! festival at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, was conceived for just that purpose.

Arboretum-Japanese-plumThe Garden for All Seasons is a demonstration site for sustainable living practices. Visitors walk through a landscape dotted with fruit-producing trees from around the world, past a pond fed with rainwater collected on-site and through to a netted enclosure housing raised vegetable beds, a worm farm, compost bins and a chicken coop. (That's a Brazilian grape tree, top; Japanese plum tree, upper right; and flowering pomegranate tree, lower right.) Arboretum-pomengranate

“We wanted homeowners to feel they could adapt it and make it their own,” said Amy Korn, who designed the space with her partner, Matt Randolph, of the landscape architecture firm kornrandolph in Pasadena. Even a pond fed with water from a cistern is meant to be inspiration, she said. “Maybe it’s not this grand thing, but the idea that collection and circulation is something they can do as well.”

An 8-foot-wide concrete walkway shuttles water to paver stones, sand, a gravel trench and a system of underground pipes that collect and recirculate the water using pumps that are meant to eventually run off solar power. The pond is planted with edibles that serve a secondary purpose: keeping the water clean.

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Sneak peek: New gardens at Natural History Museum's North Campus

Los Angeles is the “birdiest” county in the United States, said Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits for the Natural History Museum. One hundred sixty-eight types of birds have been documented in Exposition Park downtown alone, but the museum is hoping to attract even more with its new North Campus gardens. The 3.5 acres are designed to entice critters of all types, so the massive museum that, for 99 years, has documented the history of life on Earth transforms itself into a hands-on outdoor lab.

“We decided the best thing for our visitors was to build a landscape that could serve as a central field site and natural experience in the heart of the city that really allows us and all of L.A. to gather and document the real wildlife that’s living in L.A. today,” said Wise, whose museum houses more than 35 million natural and cultural objects indoors.

Living WallEverything in the new garden is designed to foster life. Winding through the space is the Living Wall, right, constructed from spears of stone that were installed vertically and planted with succulents to entice lizards. The 1913 Garden, so named for the year the museum opened, is a mosaic of colored flowers that is sure to delight hummingbirds.

Passion vines and Burmese honeysuckle grow in 12-foot-tall chain link cages that form the garden’s Urban Edge. The plants were selected because they are most effective at attracting butterflies. And a pond at the garden’s center will be populated with Western pond and red-eared slider turtles.

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At Coyote House, every day is an Earth Day

Coyote House night
Oh, how far we've come from Earth Days past — when the phrase “green home” conjured images of straw-bale structures, when solar panels seemed like such an earnest novelty, when “LEED certified” hadn't yet crept into public consciousness.

With Earth Day 2012 almost upon us, nearly 60,000 homes in the United States are in the process of being certified in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Education and Environmental Design program, according to Nate Kredich, the organization's vice president of residential market development. Need more convincing proof of just how far we've come? Take a peek at the new home of architect Ken Radtkey and landscape architect Susan Van Atta.

PHOTO GALLERY: 26-picture tour of Coyote House

INFOGRAPHIC: How the garden roofs, cisterns and other green elements work

The husband and wife's three-bedroom house nestled into a Montecito hillside is dubbed the Coyote House, partly after the name of the couple's street, partly after the howling critters in the area. Beyond its abundance of energy- and water-saving features, however, the house is notable for its utter normality: On the most basic level, it is simply a comfortable and beautiful family home.

Coyote House veranda“Designing sustainably was a given for us,” says Radtkey, founder of Blackbird Architects, a Santa Barbara firm with an emphasis on sustainable design. “But the most important goal was to make a great home.”

To that end, the house starts with a modern take on the veranda, right. A covered room overlooking the front garden has a sliding screen and front and back sets of glass pocket doors that can open to the outdoors or seal it off in various ways, depending on the season and weather.

A dozen highly flammable eucalyptus trees — by coincidence, cut down just months before the November 2008 Tea fire that swept through the region — were used to build the front door, kitchen table, bookcases, stairs and banister. Other materials used for interior appointments were sustainable too: Cabinets are bamboo, the floors are cork or salvaged stone, most of the walls unpainted plaster.

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Pool converted into a rain-storing, water-wise tropical garden

A little-used pool at Manhattan Beach home is converted into a lush garden with rainwater storage
Dina and Irl Cramer were looking at the little-used pool behind their Manhattan Beach house when they realized: "It would be really nice to have a garden," Dina said. But rather than simply jackhammer out the pool or bulldoze it full of dirt, the Cramers turned the pit into a case study for how Southern Californians can capture winter rains for use watering the garden. The edges of the pool were ground down, and the rest of the concrete form was retrofitted with a rainwater-storage system.

Cramer pool beforeNow, in place of a concrete basin filled with chlorinated water, the Cramers have a stream, a small waterfall and about 100 lush plants -- all fed with rain harvested from the roof and stored in recycled-plastic tanks underground. (At right, photos of the old pool and construction after it was filled.)

The water savings come not only from using less tap water to irrigate the garden but from not having the pool. About 24,000 gallons of water can evaporate from a big pool every year, according to Mike Garcia, a self-described pond geek Cramer pool constructionand founder of EnviroscapeLA, the Redondo Beach firm that designed the catchment system.

"The rainwater-harvesting system is the landscape world meets the pond world," said Garcia, who likened the design to "a big, pondless waterfall on steroids."

Garcia used a Clean Rain system, manufactured by Atlantic Water Gardens, that flushes the first minutes of a rainfall -- often laden with dirt and roof debris -- to the sewer. Then gravity feeds the subsequent "clean" rain into Eco Rain tanks installed where the pool used to be. The tanks can store 6,000 gallons, compared with the 50 to 70 gallons that a typical rain barrel can hold. Electric pumps send water from the Cramers' storage tanks to a recycled-plastic Rain Bird drip irrigation system that feeds the plants as well as the waterfall and stream.

The Cramers said they spent five figures on the pool conversion, which broke ground in October. The system has been operational since late January, so the Cramers don't yet know exactly how much energy is being used to pump and irrigate, or how much tap water they're saving. But Garcia estimated that the waterfall costs less than 10 cents an hour to operate, the lighting 16 cents. The system is expected to irrigate the garden with rainwater 10 months out of the year. If the rainwater runs out, the system switches to tap water.

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‘Community’ funnyman Jim Rash's quirky green room

Jim Rash houseJim Rash’s next-door neighbor is concerned. He notices a photographer shooting Rash’s home and wonders if the pictures are for a real estate listing. “Is Jim moving?” the neighbor asks anxiously. “He is such a nice guy. I worry he’s become too famous lately. I told him, ‘Please don’t move.’”

If Rash wasn’t officially famous before the Academy Awards last month, he certainly was afterward. He won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay of “The Descendants” and, perhaps more famously, he scored rave reviews for his fierce portrayal of Angelina Jolie’s thigh on stage during the ceremony. His TV series “Community,” in which he plays the quirky Dean Pelton, returned to the NBC lineup last week. And he’s busy writing a “comedy-action” film script for “Bridesmaids” star and fellow Groundlings alum Kristen Wiig.

Jim Rash gardenBut when he’s not playing a manic community college administrator, mocking A-list celebs in front of millions worldwide or otherwise being famous, you just may find Jim Rash, the nice neighbor, kicking back at home, where he lives and writes with a view of a newly redesigned garden.

PHOTO GALLERY: Jim Rash at home

Rash divides his writing time between a Santa Monica office, Insomnia Cafe on Beverly Boulevard and his West L.A. house, so he said he wanted a calm landscape surrounding his “outdoor office,” also known as his garage. Working with Santa Monica landscape architect Dale Newman, Rash revamped his back and front gardens to create more pleasant environs in which to work and outdoor areas that could accommodate overflow guests when the writer entertained.

The result: simple, beautiful, manageable garden spaces that have essentially doubled the area of Rash’s 1,100-square-foot house. “The gardens make the living spaces feel so much larger,” Rash said.

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TreePeople to host workshops on capturing rainwater

Rain barrelDuring the wet season, the city of L.A. sends an average of 100 million gallons of storm water into the Pacific each day. That water had been handled as pollution for years, because rainwater picks up effluents that then flush into the ocean untreated.

But rainwater is also a resource that can be harvested and reused. The environmental nonprofit TreePeople is hosting workshops to teach homeowners exactly how. A March 24 event at TreePeople's Center for Community Forestry in Beverly Hills will focus on so-called waterworks, or the plumbing of rainwater catchment, including rain barrels, rain chains and downspout disconnects. Participants can buy 55-gallon barrels at a discounted rate of $100, $25 of which is tax deductible. Admission to the four-hour workshop is free, but registration is required.

The March 25 workshop at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles will center on earthworks -- how to contour the earth to capture rain and use permeable pavement. The three-hour workshop is free, though participants will need to pay museum admission, which is $5 to $12. Registration is required.

Separating rainwater catchment into water- and earth-works sessions "helps people's heads not explode," said Lisa Cahill, TreePeople's senior manager for sustainable solutions. "It's a lot for people to take in."

During the workshops, participants will learn how to calculate the amount of rain that falls on their home during a storm and how to translate those inches of rain into gallons that can be collected. They then learn about the advantages and disadvantages of various catchment systems. Each workshop also includes information on rain gardens, native plants and pest management, Cahill said.

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The Dry Garden: The art of catching rain, Part 2

Gutter water catcherWhen my house was built without gutters in 1950, water that rolled off the roof was caught by graded pavement encircling the foundation. This directed rain away from the garden to paved paths and to the driveway for dispersal to the street and storm drain system. As a style, let’s call it Golden Age of Flood Control.

After watching 33 inches of rain run off the property last year, but then being forced to draw municipal potable water to irrigate the garden, it became a priority to gutter the house so as to capture and not waste future rain. Ultimately some sort of storage will be involved, but as a first measure, the challenge was to get rain from gutter drainage points to garden areas. Done right, the ground would then be well charged when our irrepressible California growing season takes off in February and March.

PART 1: Custom gutters, done just right

The first step was creating a diagram of the roof to see which sections would produce the most runoff, then poring over it with Ruben Ruiz. He is the sheet metal artist who, after installing the gutters, would be fabricating sculptures to push water away from where I didn’t want it, which was near the foundations of the house or street, to where I did want it, which was discharging into thirsty garden soil.

Using the map, it became clear that one of the biggest sections of roof produced so much water that it defied fanciful treatment. Only a conventional downspout and pipe would drain the north roof slope and convey the water behind a fence to where it would be discharged to irrigate fruit trees.

Beyond that, moving water would be done by sculpture. Every gutter would need a new brand of practical art to act as catchers and spreaders. After I asked if the catchers might be flower-shaped, Ruiz disappeared for several weeks into his studio.

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The Dry Garden: Custom gutters and the art of catching rain

Gutters with rain chainsTo harvest rain from your roof for the garden, first you have to catch it. This requires gutters. Gutters are by no means universal appurtenances. Some home styles, such as Craftsman, Spanish and Colonial lend themselves so happily to gutters that they usually come with them. The rolled metal amounts to jewelry around the eaves.

However, put the same gutters on a modern home and you have a problem. The handsomeness of the structure is often defined by the lines of the roof and eaves. Gutters look dumpy; downspouts amount to vandalism.

The upshot? To those of us who live in midcentury homes and want to practice water conservation, the question of whether or not to put up gutters can feel like a choice between looking good or being good.

The realization that a modern house could indeed be artfully guttered came accidentally, during an October visit to a 1952 Smith and Williams home in the San Rafael Hills. The place was mobbed during an estate sale, and I did not get the lamp that I had come for, but walking out I noticed a rain chain hanging from a portico. Above, a flat fascia had been fitted with custom gutters that were so discreet you had to stare hard to determine that they were even there.

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Palm fronds recycled as do-it-yourself succulent centerpiece

The fallen palm fronds left from recent winds haven't been a nuisance for master gardener Jill McArthur. Armed with a pruning saw, the Glendale garden designer has been recycling the fronds as arresting table centerpieces using succulent cuttings.

Palms DSCN1940McArthur likens the fronds to fallen fruit: "They are all over the place," she said. "I find them when I walk my dog. I try to find different things to do with them."

To create a centerpiece, McArthur first looks for a nice line. If a frond is too large, she puts it in her car and cuts it down at home. She then sprays the hollow surface with a low-VOC clear sealant so water won't leak through to the table. Next she adds cactus soil mix and succulent cuttings to make a low-maintenance, low-water arrangement.

The palm fronds, which can be as long as 12 feet, form "fabulous boats" that look great on a long table or a mantel. She also likes to pair two boats, as shown at the top of the post.

"The plants seem to be very happy," McArthur said. "You can trade succulents in and out. They are strong and not heavy, so they are easy to transport. The natural tone of them is so beautiful -- the brown is fantastic. I personally like the ragged edges of the smaller ones. The whole point is for them to look like found objects."


Crafty little cupcake pots  

Do-it-yourself floral luminarias  

Live succulents as Christmas tree ornaments

How to prevent toppled trees, dispose of palm fronds

Should palm fronds go in the green waste bin or the trash?

-- Lisa Boone

Photo credit, top and bottom: Deidra Walpole

Photo, middle: Windstorm-blown palm fronds on a Pasadena street earlier this  month. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times


The Dry Garden: Storms make case for change around City Hall

City Hall lawn
As the days of Occupy L.A.’s tenancy around City Hall Park became numbered last month, I wrote in The Times' Op-Ed pages that the city should seize the opportunity to replace the trashed lawn with a model garden demonstrating state-of-the-art storm-water capture and drought-tolerant planting. The Mar Vista Community Council immediately began a campaign to support it. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, California Native Plant Society and Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants each wrote the Department of Recreation and Parks calling for the city to seize the opportunity. But the most forceful argument came in the one-two punch of the Nov. 30 windstorm followed by this week’s rain.

When hurricane-force winds tore through the Los Angeles foothills, few residents had the kind of green bin capacity needed to cope with the sheer quantity of leaves and wood that landed in their yards. In a brief moment of magical thinking, some local governments asked homeowners to haul the detritus to special drop-off points. “With the truck I don't have?” was one of the many responses on Facebook and various Patch sites.

Wind storm debrisIgnoring instructions, residents simply dumped huge quantities of leaves, branches, palm fronds and trees at the curb. Many cities had no choice but to send out crews, including some from prisons, to begin clearing curbsides. They worked with stunning speed but, by last Monday, rain was closing in. Even bionic chain gangs could not have coped with the sheer mass of downed leaves and wood lining the streets served by L.A. County’s massive storm-drain system. Flooding of streets would be an inevitable byproduct for some neighborhoods.

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