Shell Beach neighborhood goes drought-tolerant

Gone are the traditional lawns and thirsty plants since this group of neighbors discovered low-maintenance gardening

Special to The TribuneJanuary 8, 2013 

  • Tips on xeriscaping

    Time is needed to remove an existing lawn. Depending on the type of grass, it can take up to six months, more if done organically without the use of sprays.

    Favorite plants from these gardeners along the coast: Island bush poppies (Dendromecon hardfordii), Diamond Heights ceanothus (C. griseus horizontalis), Winifred Gilman sage (Salvia clevelandii).

    For information and advice on growing fruit, contact California Rare Fruit Growers:

    For information on the SLO nonprofit tree-planting group, One Cool Earth:

“Xeriscaping is increasing through our neighborhood like a slow-moving wave,” according to Lionel Johnstone of Sunset Palisades development in Shell Beach.

The word “xeriscaping” comes from the Greek words “xeros” for dry and “scape” for kind of view. The common theme involves removing traditional lawns and thirsty plants, then replacing them with drought-tolerant, low maintenance natives and Mediterranean choices.

Neighbors who have switched to an “unthirsty” yard shared the sentiments of Alice Killgore, who said, “I was fed up with tending a lawn, watering, feeding and paying mowers.” Rocks now fill in between attractive sages and salvias, Japanese maples and ground cover roses. Leon Koenen, an original 1985 homeowner, never installed a lawn, desiring an efficient yard to keep down his long-term costs.

The xeriscaped yards are as interesting as the homeowners who have created them. On Marv and Pet Daniels’ small city-size lot, 100 different species of trees and shrubs make up a productive “edible landscape.” Lifetime members of the California Rare Fruit Growers, their bounty includes avocados, dwarf bananas, seedless desert king figs, pomegranates, grapefruit and oranges, to name a few. Beneath the jungle of tropical fruit trees and interesting shrubs is three feet of mulch, with no sign of the original lawn peeking through.

The Daniels’ backyard is host to a full vegetable garden, blueberry patch and vermiculture bins where Marv Daniels creates compost and “tea” from earthworms. Along with the vermiculture, he designs tomato-raising stations and experiments with “air layer” cutting and grafting techniques.

Nearby, at Lionel Johnstone and Chris Leppla’s yard, the original Bermuda grass removed five years ago is completely gone. Since the Bermuda grass extends 8 inches into the ground, it took Johnstone six months of batching, scalping and spraying to finally remove it. He then covered the entire area with ground cloth, installed a drip system and six inches of mulch before planting. Johnstone, an active member of One Cool Earth, a tree-planting nonprofit, often has seedlings in pots lining his front walkway.

The new natural yard at Johnstone and Leppla’s home features melaleuca trees, bright red firecracker plants, the dramatic madrone tree, salvias and golden juniper. “Our new natural garden attracts more birds than the traditional yard, and we don’t spend much time tending it — that’s the best part,” they said.

Meanwhile, next door, Bob and Jane Rice liked what they saw their neighbors doing, and changed out their yard one year ago. They hired a Cal Poly landscape architecture graduate to create a colorful low maintenance setting. He concentrated on foliage color in the pink phormium (flax), red smoke tree, and orange carex grass, and then added color in the blooms of the purple pea bush plant, lavender potato tree and penstemon.

These Sunset Palisades homeowners — and others in the development — also share eight acres of common area, managed by their Homeowners Association landscape committee.

Pet Daniels, a committee member, says they are gradually adding areas of low water plants, natives and succulents along the ocean view walking paths. She watches for tree trimming projects and has successfully procured many truckloads of mulch to cover the landscaped areas. Daniels and her neighbors provide a great example of how a good idea like xeriscaping can spread, like a “slow-moving wave” on the coast of central California.

Reach Connie Pillsbury at

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