The Avrea garden in Los Osos: Celebrate where you live

Faced with an expansive front lawn, the Avreas transformed it into a natural and usable outdoor space

conniepillsbury22@gmail.comOctober 30, 2013 

When John and Michele Avrea purchased their home in the hills above Los Osos, they were presented with a unique landscaping challenge. The majority of the two-thirds-acre lot was in the front yard along the street, with basically no backyard.

Desiring a usable outdoor space for friends and family, they needed to create a backyard from the front yard, which at time of purchase was covered with an expansive lawn. They assumed a long wall would be required for privacy, and began searching for ideas to transform the front yard into both a more people-friendly and water-friendly environment.

Looking through Sunset magazine, the Avreas spotted a low-water garden that appealed to them. Upon researching the landscape architect who designed it, Jeffrey Gordon Smith, they were surprised to find that his office was down the street in Los Osos. They contacted him immediately. Smith explained his concept of “celebrating where you live” to the Avreas. His vision is to incorporate the natural elements of the surroundings into the landscape plan to create a visual connection to the existing habitat.

“The idea was to have the Avreas’ house tie into the Los Osos Valley,” said Smith.

In order to do this, he designed a series of berms at the front of the property to mimic the dunes and surrounding hills. The berms would eliminate the need for a wall, and bring a sense of scale to the three-story home.

The Avreas liked the idea, and the ambitious project began.

After removing the lawn, tractors shaped the berms and moved 21 large sandstone rocks into place among the soft mounds. Avrea acquired the rocks from a friend who was remodeling a Santa Barbara hospital and found the boulders under the old foundation. After the berms, the next step was pouring hundreds of feet of curving concrete paths and patios throughout the central area. The patio locations were carefully selected for sun exposure at various times of the day.

Smith then planted the berms with native and drought-tolerant selections to mirror the natural landscape.

Focusing on the beauty of simplicity, he used basically just four foundational species: the evergreen trees Arbutus “Marina,” groundcover Arctostaphylos “Emerald Carpet,” and two native grasses, Muhlenbergia capillaris and Leymus condensatus “Canyon Prince.” A sprinkling of Artemesia and Achillea “yarrow” added silver tones, while Erigeron “Santa Barbara Daisies” and Erigonum grande rubescens “Red Buckwheat” supplied scattered touches of color.

The native plants and trees were highlighted with Smith’s signature black mini bark from Central Coast Landscape Supply in San Luis Obispo.

For evening viewing, 21 “up lights” were installed to illuminate the trees and grasses throughout the berms. Several drip irrigation stations regulate current water use until the plants are established, with the goal of using only natural water sources in two to three years.

When Avrea realized how much available space the berms had created, he suggested a bocce ball court as a focal point and an activity that all ages could enjoy together.

For outdoor evenings, Avrea asked Smith to design an attractive contemporary fire pit, accomplished by creating a rectangular concrete structure with three gas jets sending soft flames through glass stones.

With wind an issue in Los Osos, Avrea was fortunate that nearby neighbors’ backyards included groups of very tall mature trees. These trees provided a windbreak for one side of his property, prompting him to create protected patio seating and an eating area nearby.

“With Jeffrey’s outstanding design, we now have a private outdoor space to be enjoyed by our frequent guests, with the added bonus of low water use and an incredible connection between our yard and the distant views. It feels as though our property naturally blends right into the hills,” Avrea said.

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