The modern cottage-style Central Menlo Park home had a beautiful English garden with lots of rose bushes and great curb appeal, and there was no need to change anything.
"I knew nothing about gardens. Zero," said Mira Olson, who bought the home in 2011 with her husband Jonathan Weiner.
They just left the garden alone and retained the gardeners they had. But as time wore on, they noticed plants were dying.
Eventually they hired a landscape contractor focused on native plant design, who ripped out the entire yard, more than the couple had planned, and started over. The main thing he did was to build up mounds of soil and snuggle carefully picked boulders around them. He also put in a stone patio next to the front lawn so the family could dine al fresco. He planted native shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.
But Olson wasn't finished yet. She says she began slowly, picking up random plants she liked from grocery stores like Trader Joe's, or Home Depot. She poured over Sunset garden books until she realized that the plants she liked were hard to find in local nurseries. So she experimented.
"It's totally trial and error. You have to not be afraid to rip something out."
Once she realized the plants she picked and planted actually grew, especially the succulents, she was hooked. She stalked local nurseries on a regular basis, and got to know the nursery owners, to the point where she simply told them, "If you get anything new, just call me when you get something weird."
She started on succulents when she found out they needed very little water.
"I would get one, then two," she said. And, she said delightedly, "You can cut a piece of a succulent and stick it in the ground," and it will grow.
Before she knew it her entire front yard was scattered from end to end with succulents in various shapes and colors, from Dr. Seuss-like palms to ones with green arms and maroon flowers.
The only thing she makes sure of is that the plants need relatively little water and lots of light. Beyond that, to this day she can't name any plants in her yard except a few rare ones like a Fan Aloe. Many others have nicknames like "Cousin It" or "Dr. Seuss."
She doesn't fertilize her plants, or add special soil. She simply finds a good spot where her new plant looks good, digs a hole, and sticks it into the ground.
Two years ago, the couple decided to nix their front lawn, and also to build a low fence in the front yard to contain their new Labradoodle puppy. The fence was built with horizontal boards, curving around the area where the lawn used to be and creating a patio space for outdoor eating. They added pebbles and ceramic pots full of succulents. They've spent close to $150,000 on their front and back gardens, including patios and paths, a driveway, rocks, irrigation and fencing.
Olson said she began to realize that while most people never see the inside of your house, they always see the outside, so it's easier to justify the expense of making sure plants work in your garden.
"Succulents are so sculptural. They're so hardy. They surprise you with flowers. When I buy this stuff I have no idea what it's going to look like."
Her favorite nursery, Flora Grubb in South San Francisco, is a favorite destination at least a couple of times a month but Ladera Garden and Gifts in Portola Valley and Summerwinds in Palo Alto are her others she frequents. But, she's not picky. "I will stop at any nursery -- there's not one I don't like," she said.