WaterSmart makeover: Welcoming a sense of whimsy

WaterSmart makeover: Welcoming a sense of whimsy

Cathy and Mike Godfrey’s most recent front yard landscape project was not their first rodeo. The couple, who bought their Carlsbad house in August 1997 and are empty nesters with two adult daughters, are avid gardeners and DIYers.

Twenty years ago, Cathy dug 40 holes to sink posts for the white picket fence that encircles their small front yard. They reduced the scale of the lawn (mostly to discourage neighborhood dogs being walked from pooping on their property) and, for a tropical look, added palms and decorative plants like red fountain grass, which Cathy said they regretted.

“It’s beautiful, but maintaining it is terrible. It spreads everywhere,” she said with a sigh.

Before, the Godfreys’ grass lawn was surrounded by tropical plantings that had been added two decades ago.

Before, the Godfreys’ grass lawn was surrounded by a white picket fence and tropical plantings that had been added two decades ago.

(Google Maps)

When the time came to refresh the yard again, the couple wanted to create a waterwise landscape to reduce maintenance yet still have an interesting curb appeal. But this time, the couple made the decision to hire professionals.

“I was like, ‘We’re too old. I can’t. I just can’t,’ ” she said. “I wanted somebody else’s input. I was on the NextDoor app one day and somebody posted that they use Claudia Kuepper with Gardenscapes by Claudia. I called her, but it was during COVID, so everyone was home wanting to do something new. She told us it would be six weeks before she could come, but we were in no hurry, and it gave us time to kill off the yard.”

The homework they did during that time, their collaboration with Kuepper, and the heavy lifting by the crew of DB Landscape earned them the 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Contest award for the Olivenhain Municipal Water District, for which they received a $250 check.

Grevillea plant in the waterwise front yard garden at at the Godfrey home.

A ‘Superb’ grevillea’s large, brushlike flower nestles among lacy leaves.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The inspiration

Cathy, who recently retired from a career in human resources, and Mike, an electrical engineer, decided to create a theme of succulents and arid plants — the more Dr. Seusslike, the better, according to Cathy.

“I wanted a whimsical look that looked fun and interesting, not typical,” she explained. “I didn’t want just shrubs. We wanted a nice colorful variety in different textures.”

The couple also wanted to switch out their pop-up sprinklers for drip irrigation, create a path from the front of the house to the gate leading to their backyard, and install new lighting.

The details

Once the Godfreys decided they were committed to relandscaping and had secured their designer, they took to the streets, driving to neighborhoods similar to theirs to check out plants and designs they liked, photographing their finds, and sharing them with Kuepper.

“When she first came out, she had somebody who came with her who did all the measurements,” said Mike. “They then created a dimensional scale design. She then added all the notes with the specs of what she wanted for the landscaper to follow.

“We iterated with her a couple of times,” he added. “We had an initial meeting and then she went off to produce her first cut. I think we had some suggestions. We had continued to look out in the community for different plants we liked. So, she changed things, and added new plants.”

Blue chalkstick plant in a waterwise front yard garden.

Blue chalksticks, prized for their shape and unusual color, dot the landscape.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cathy said Kuepper had suggested carving out a little patio in the front, but the couple vetoed that because they had what they felt was a perfect patio in their backyard. Kuepper also wanted to take down the picket fence, but the Godfreys were attached to that and feel it’s a useful boundary.

What they agreed on was that the centerpiece of the space would be a dry creek bed with river rock, punctuated with boulders. While the end of the bed leading to the street is lower than the ground, to help disperse rainwater to the plants in the garden, Mike pointed out that there’s actually a pre-existing drain that goes out under the curb that they tied into.

“We did this because we were getting flooded in the low part of the yard where it was accumulating water,” he explained.

The couple also installed new lighting and a path of quartz charcoal flagstones with crushed rock in between them that leads to the backyard. They pulled the sprinklers and installed a full drip system that waters the plants approximately every four days for about 10 minutes.

A cone bush plant in a waterwise front yard garden.

Bright-reddish bracts of a ‘Jester’ conebush add color and height.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Godfreys, whose home is east-facing, get full sun until late afternoon. Knowing that helped with their design theme of succulents and arid-type plants, most of which came from Briggs Nursery and Tree Co., in Vista. Their choices provide plenty of color, with succulents like kiwi aeonium, purple aeonium, variegated agave, and ‘Little Gem’ aloe, which produces coral-colored flowers. ‘Ripple Jade’ crassula with its rippled blue-green leaves offers a unique shape compared with other jades. Their ‘Jester’ conebush, with its bright reddish bracts, and ‘Superb’ grevillea, an evergreen shrub that produces long-lasting spiky clusters of coral flowers that attract hummingbirds, are planted near each other by the white picket fence.

A long-standing trio of huge palms was removed, and Kuepper grounded the garden instead with a ‘Dark Shadows’ tea tree. ‘Color Guard’ yucca, variegated snake plants and blue moor grass create spiky contrasts to the petite mounding aeoniums. She also strategically placed small boulders from KRC Rock Natural Stone & Boulder Supply in San Marcos to create mass and visual interest.

A side yard view with trees in a waterwise front yard.

In keeping with the Godfreys’ wish for Seusslike touches, three trees — a tree aloe, flanked by two giant yuccas — add spiky interest along the driveway.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the slice of garden space on the far side of the driveway, which also has a dry creek bed, are three trees: a tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae) and two giant yuccas (Yucca elephantipes). With their dramatic, sparsely branched trunks, they are the most Seusslike in their structure. A cape rush below offers spiky texture and height in contrast to the surrounding small succulents like blue chalksticks and elephant bush succulents, also known as elephant’s food.

The Godfreys dedicated a lot of time to their pot selections and found just the right ones at Green Thumb Nursery in San Marcos and Madd Potter in Encinitas. They took advantage of El Corazon Compost Facility’s program for Carlsbad residents, which gives compost away for free.

Elephant bush plant in a waterwise front yard garden.

Elephant bush, a succulent resembling jade, adds a pop of vivid green.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We were surprised at the need to re-mulch the yard within the year, but it was super easy and inexpensive,” Cathy said. “It’s easy to spread in the yard to give it a fresh appearance, too.”

For the Godfreys, low-water gardening is a mindset change.

“By going from a tropical-type garden to a desert-type garden, you really have to accept that the plants do not like a lot of water,” Cathy said. “It seems that you are ‘starving’ them of moisture, but that’s what makes them thrive.

“We love the low maintenance with the nice, clean curb appeal,” she added. “It’s been a year and we have made small plant changes when we see something that looks interesting, but nothing major. It’s fun to change plants out once in a while. And we’ve gotten a very positive reaction from all of our neighbors.”

A dry river bed in the waterwise front yard garden.

A purple aeonium (center) adds color by a dry creek bed of river rock that carries rainwater to surrounding plants. Water previously collected in the low-lying area.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)


$18,000 to $20,000, including hardscape, lighting, irrigation and labor. It was very close to the initial budget. Later, they received a $250 check from the Olivenhain Municipal Water District. They didn’t apply for a grass removal rebate because they felt the application process wasn’t worth the time and effort.

Water saved

It was a modest improvement from their previous $50 to $60 monthly bills.

Entry walkway through the waterwise front yard.

Cathy and Mike Godfrey’s front yard, once a flat, grassy expanse, now features plants of varied colors, textures and heights.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A closer look: Cathy and Mike Godfrey

Plants used:
kiwi aeonium (Aeonium ‘Kiwi’)
purple aeonium (Aeonium ‘Plum Petals’)
variegated agave (Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’)
agave (Agave victoriae-reginae)
‘Little Gem’ aloe (Aloe rudikoppe)
aloe (Aloe var.)
Bunny Blue sedge (Carex laxiculmis ‘Hobb’)
small cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum)
dracaena palm (Cordyline ‘Red Star’)
‘Ripple Jade’ crassula (Crassula ‘Ripple Jade’)
‘Superb’ grevillea (Grevillea ‘superb’)
‘Dark Shadows’ tea tree (Leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’)
‘Jester’ conebush (Leucadendron ‘Jester’)
elephant bush (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’)
variegated snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata laureatii)
blue chalksticks (Senecio mandraliscae)
blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea)
‘Color Guard’ yucca (Yucca flaccida ‘Color Guard’)

A dry creek bed of colored stones winds between a small cape rush plant and small succulents that include blue chalksticks.

On the far side of the driveway, a dry creek bed of colored stones winds in between a small cape rush plant and small succulents that include blue chalksticks.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Estimated costs: $18,000 to $20,000
Who did the work: Claudia Kuepper of Gardenscapes by Claudia created the plan. Dan Barton and crew from DB Landscape did the landscaping.
How long it took: One month, August 2021
Water savings: Modest improvement from previous bills of $50 to $60 a month
• If you have the means, using a landscape designer is a good way to go, as they can help you see the potential of your yard and tie all the pieces together.
• Before starting your design, spend weekends traveling around similar neighborhoods with similar homes to see what others do, and take photos of what you like.
• Stick to your vision. Your landscape designer can be invaluable in developing your design and establishing your vision. But stick to your guns if they veer away from that.
• Propagate your plants as they grow, and don’t be afraid to move around plants that aren’t thriving to spaces where they would do better.

About the series
This is the second in an occasional series on winners of the annual WaterSmart Landscape Contest, conducted in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority. To learn about entering the next contest, visit landscapecontest.com.

For details on classes and resources through the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program, visit landscapemakeover.watersmartsd.org. Landscape rebates are available through the Socal WaterSmart Turf Replacement Program at socalwatersmart.com.

Golden is a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.