Real Estate

Beyond good lookin'

Native plants, sliding screen challenge idea that front yard is only for show

A lush green front lawn lined with tidy floral beds just didn't seem right to Marsha and Art Grantz in this fourth drought year. So they called in Marsha's daughter, Christie Green, a landscape designer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Green was a natural choice, given her predilection for designs that combine beauty with using native plants that would thrive in Palo Alto's climate.

What she found at her folks' Eichler home, where they'd lived for 25 years, were "mostly water-consumptive species" — lots of lawn and agapanthus, plus a few trees.

But, besides aiming to create something more water-efficient, Marsha Grantz wanted to use the front space better — to create a functional "room," a space the couple could enjoy, especially in the winter.

Working with a budget of about $25,000, Green designed that room beginning with concrete pavers, using colorful river cobblestones in the seams. A custom-built redwood screen, with a middle section on gliders that slides open to the street or closes for privacy, sits about one-third of the way back from the sidewalk.

"Knowing my mom and Art, I knew they didn't want anything they'd have to maintain," Green said. So she put a lot of energy into choosing plants that brought shape and texture without the need for intensive maintenance. She also saw this as "an opportunity to do something more contemporary, with clean lines, geometric shapes" and simplicity.

Not everything was tossed out.

A redbud tree, which had meaning for Green's mom, also provided sculptural interest, Green said. She then offered porcupine-shaped blue fescue and colorful hummingbird trumpet, which had the added bonus of attracting pollinators. Several plants, including Ceanothus, Penstemon with its purple flowers and Manzanita, were chosen for their ability to enrich the soil. These will ultimately spread and cover the ground.

Others that were shade-tolerant, including the broadleaf evergreen "Creeping Mahonia," were placed under side trees.

On the sidewalk side of the screen, the diagonally planted hummingbird trumpet echoes the slant of the roof, and Sedums are just beginning to fill in. (Grantz is considering commissioning a willow sculpture for the large blank space right in front.)

Instead of using a weed barrier, which, Green said, really only puts off rather than prevents weeds from sprouting, she covered the ground with crusher fines, a fine-gravel aggregate. "It allows better circulation of nutrients and water," she said, adding that the soil will be less compacted, it'll be easier to move plants and the irrigation system will be more accessible.

The side fence was painted a grayish blue, which sets off the plants next to the driveway, Green added. Those plants include blooming Eriogonum, a native buckwheat.

One of the sweeteners for the project was participation in the Santa Clara Valley Water District's rebate program, where the Grantzes were paid close to $2,200 for removing 700 square feet of lawn. "It was really generous," Green said.

Green, who grew up in Alaska, originally studied cultural history at University of California, Berkeley. But she was always interested in the interaction of history and ecology. After studying under Doug Cheeseman at De Anza College, she wanted to create edible landscapes. Her goal was to make them "more popular than the two-car garage. ... I thought a better way to connect people to place was through food at home, in backyards."

But she found most of her clients in New Mexico, which has an arid climate, were far more interested in ornamental gardens than edible ones.

Ultimately she earned a masters' degree in landscape architecture at University of New Mexico, and today she owns a landscape design-build business called Radicle (; her business card calls it "artful activism."

Glancing at the Eichler-enclave circle, Grantz noted that when people sell in the neighborhood, the first thing they do is pull out the dead grass and replace it with more grass.

"To me, native plants are much more beautiful than a 'lipstick' plant, so not interesting to me. Natives are much more diverse and interesting. California in particular has a wide range," Green added. She's quite open to working more in California, given that it's just a two-hour flight from Santa Fe and she could always visit her mom.

After four years of drought, Marsha Grantz said, "We slowly decided if we could afford to do it, we should do it. We have solar. My husband drives a Prius; I drive a Tesla. You just need to do what you can do. ...

"And we can use it. It doesn't just look pretty. With the screen it's more private. Neighbors have stopped and said, 'I stop and look at this all the time.'"


Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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