How one couple transformed their garden into a drought-tolerant oasis

Photo by Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos residents Sally Meadows and Ian Massey transformed their yard by incorporating drought-tolerant plants.

The drought-tolerant garden at Sally Meadows and Ian Massey’s Los Altos home evokes crooner Jewel Akens’ oldie but goodie: "Let me tell ya 'bout the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees."

When the couple moved into their home 15 years ago, it had a conventional front yard - notably a large lawn - shaded on one corner by a big oak. And because they like to garden, they planted flowers, shrubs and trees. Meadows even enjoys pulling weeds.

Then along came the drought years.

"There was so much grass in front and we never used it," Meadows said. "And there was no boundary between the lawn and street, so we had a constant battle with trash blown on the grass and neighborhood dogs."

Enter landscape designer Kim Raftery of Palo Alto and her arborist husband Kevin. She worked with the couple to transform the front yard into a drought-tolerant, Mediterranean-style garden, and he assumed care of the trees.

When the garden is in full bloom, it resembles an English garden - quite a feat because the plants are native to many parts of the world, including California, Australia, Mexico and Brazil.

According to Raftery, the goal was to replace the lawn with drought-tolerant plants and trees providing year-round color and to create a pleasing walled garden with a path leading to a bench.

Along with the lawn, they removed three trees: two birches that required a large amount of water and a diseased evergreen. They replaced them with a lavender flowering multi-trunk crepe myrtle and a smoke tree (aka Cotinus 'Grace'). Meadows and Massey received a rebate for their lawn conversion.

Floating wall

The biggest challenge was designing the low wall that separates garden from street and provides a backdrop for plants on both sides. It had to curve around the aforementioned oak tree but not disturb the root structure. That part of the wall was "floated" on concrete piers instead of a standard concrete footing.

Choosing the stone for the wall was the next challenge. Meadows looked at landscape supply yards for a stone that would complement both the existing Saltillo tile front walkway and the stone veneer on the house facade. The winner was South Bay Quartzite.

"We wanted a rustic look, so there is no capstone on the wall," Meadows said.

A curvilinear stepping-stone path leads from the driveway to the walkway and from the walkway to a bench made from a slab of South Bay Quartzite. Tony Carrillo of Cameron Park did the concrete and masonry work.

Gently sloping soil berms were installed between the wall and the stepping stones to provide better drainage for the manzanita, grevillea and Leucadendron 'Jester' (Meadows' new favorite with its showy red bracts).

On a recent afternoon, the magenta flowers on the Teucrium chamaedrys (a low-growing evergreen) edging the walkway were abuzz with bees whose chorus could be heard for some distance. Butterflies visit, too.

Weathered whimsy

The pièce de résistance is a weathering steel sculpture near the redbud tree to the right of the front door. Meadows wanted to find a way to use weathering steel in the garden, and this was the answer. It’s composed of various-sized circles stacked in an S shape - almost like bubbles rising.

"We went online and couldn’t find a sculpture we liked, so we designed one and had it made," Raftery said. "I love the whimsical design and how the color of the rusted (weathering) steel relates to the heuchera plants at its base."

The sculpture was crafted by Greg Dotson of DVision Metal Works in San Carlos.

Behind it, the shade garden next to the house features camellias, a Fatsia japonica with its large palmae leaves and several fern varieties.

At night, low-voltage lighting casts a subtle light on the trees, sculpture, wall and bench.

The six-bedroom, 4.5-bath home is a two-story, albeit one story is belowground. A patio "downstairs" is walled by a 90-foot bank of jasmine. Adding color to the patio are crepe myrtles and carpet roses. A screen of Silver Sheen pittosporum encloses the backyard, which backs up to Los Altos Nursery.

"I’m there so often, the owner says they should put in a little gate," said Meadows, who’s so passionate about gardening that she has a plant list on her phone.

Hummingbirds love the water feature and Rose of Sharon alongside the raised gazebo-like outdoor eating area.

The home’s design invites the outdoors indoors because of the plethora of windows and doors. The decor reflects the history of its occupants.

Meadows and Massey met at Roche. He’s a biotech consultant and she’s a former marketing analyst at Syntex who serves on the Los Altos Planning Commission and is a retiring board member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos and Mentor Tutor Connection.

Massey was born in Bristol, England, and dubs his office the English room with its scenes of Bristol, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster. Brass rubbings he did in Westminster are just outside his office.

The living room is the multicultural room, with mementoes from Meadows’ childhood. Her father, a professor, was born in the Philippines and had Fulbright stints in Manila, Sierra Leone and Scotland. The room is vibrant with colorful artifacts.

The dining room is Asian-inspired with Chinese antiques acquired by Meadows’ grandmother.

This brings us back to the "English" garden outside, which is really multinational.

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