The Peterson garden in Cambria: Planning ahead for low water

When Terry and Thelma Peterson built their dream home in Cambria, they installed a rainwater collection system and planted native and drought-tolerant plants that would thrive under their oaks and pines

conniepillsbury22@gmail.comFebruary 19, 2014 

High school sweethearts Terry and Thelma Peterson, both born and raised in Downey, were looking for aplace to spend the next chapter of their lives after Terry retired in 1997 from running his own concrete specialty company. Their son had urged them to relocate from Downey to Placerville, where he lived and the mountain environment was attractive, but they had always wanted to live on the coast.

So as they returned home from visiting him one day, they took a side trip to Cambria, remembering that the oceanside community evoked a mountain feeling. They explored the area, and on that same day bought a 3/4-acre lot covered with Monterey pines.

They were put on the waiting list — number 367 — for a water permit, knowing that it could take eight years for their number to be called, because only 67 permits were issued each year. That was fine, as they needed to stay in Downey near her father and other family members for the time being.

The Petersons subscribed to The Cambrian, the local weekly, to become familiar with local issues. Within a few years, Cambria began issuing only 25 water meters a year instead of 67. For them, that meant they probably would never be able to build.

One option was to buy another home, but existing home prices were increasing because of the water meter issue. The Petersons were determined to build on their property, so the next option was to find an original 25-foot-by-75-foot lot with a low meter number that could be transferred to the new lot.

Fortunately, they found one, purchased it, and then sold the small lot for a marginal price to the neighbor, as without a meter it was permanently unbuildable.

The Petersons started building their home just before Cambria issued a moratorium on water permits in November 2001.

They knew exactly what they wanted, because Thelma had her dream house plan from the June 1994 issue of Life magazine, a two-story New England shingle-side home by architect Robert A.M. Stern.

After making a few changes in order to fit their pie-shaped lot, they hired Mike Morain of KGM Builders.

Keenly aware of water shortages, Peterson designed a rainwater collection system to be installed during the house’s construction. At the heart of the system is a 3,000-gallon underground storage tank, fed by all of the house rainwater downspouts and connected to the drip irrigation system.

In certain years, when the tank got too full, the excess water flowed through underground pipes to the street. In dry years like this one, Peterson calls Winsor Construction to deliver nonpotable recycled water from San Simeon creek wastewater treatment plant to the tank, with the only charge being the delivery.

The Petersons planted natives and drought-tolerant plants. Working in their favor were many large native Monterey pines (Pinus radiata) and coast live oak trees throughout the property, which provide a canopy of shade and a rich carpet of leaf mulch to retain moisture.

They researched shrubs with blooms that would survive amid oaks and pines. Tastefully selected groups of tea trees (Leptospernum), sweet pea bush, New Guinea impatiens, ceanothus, marguerites and rockrose add color while requiring little water. In the moist ocean climate, the sword ferns, hydrangeas and camellias are at home under the 12 oaks and 31 pine trees.

The Petersons left open spaces covered with the carpet of leaves between the planting groups to create a natural forest effect. They added four coast redwoods and several larger grevilleas for color.

With the current drought limitations, the Petersons are very glad they made preparations for drought conditions when they built the home. They find they don’t need to water the native plants and can concentrate the drip system on those that need some watering and new additions to the garden.

After living 61 years in Downey, the couple is happy they relocated.

“We like the weather, the feeling of living in a forest, and being a part of nature,” Thelma said.

TIPS FROM TERRY AND THELMA PETERSON

• Move citrus trees to large barrels filled with planting mix if they do not bear fruit in the soil under oaks and pines

• Use low-water, deer-resistant groundcovers such as correa, creeping thyme, prostrate rosemary and ceanothus

• Use the low-water native toyon as a shrub or a tree, presenting white flowers in summer and red berries in winter. It makes a good screen.

• The Petersons do much of their own gardening, and rely on Cambrian landscaper Shana McCormick’s Great Gardens Landscape Deisgn to prune, replace plants and fertilize.

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