Removing his Southern California lawn was therapy


Even here, in the searing heat of the Altadena summer, the front yard of Seriina Covarrubias is cool and inviting under the dappled shade of a beautiful elm tree.

“I thought it would take longer for a natural habitat to materialize,” Covarrubias says of her two-year-old garden, which is filled with fragrant coastal brush.

“The birds feel so comfortable here that they’ve made a nest on the ground,” she adds, bending down to reveal a nest of black phoebe under a foothill sedge (Sedge tumulicola).

Sages and ceonothus thrive under the canopy of an elm tree.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Thirsty birds have flocked to her garden since she ripped up her lawn and replaced it with mostly drought-tolerant plants native to Southern California. Other wild animals have returned, including lizards, ladybugs, praying mantises, bees and caterpillars.

As well as its neighbors. While any visitor can appreciate the thriving ecosystem from the sidewalk, many visitors often go further afield. As Covarrubias’ husband, Kevin Rowles, a film editor, said, “When people walk or pass by, they stop and take pictures of our yard.”

The couple, who are both 40, have long wanted to have a garden instead of a lawn. A death benefit following the loss of Covarrubias’ father, Robert, in June 2020, assisted by a state turf removal rebate, provided the couple with enough money to remove the grass Thirsty bermuda and start again. (The couple estimate they paid about $10,000 for the transformation, including sod removal, design, irrigation and plants, and received $3,000 from the state to remove 1,500 square feet of grass).

Two years before Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District declared a water shortage emergency and ordered outdoor watering limited to two days a week, the couple knew they wanted to plant plants that could handle the heat with little stress. watering. However, there were other motivating factors: the front lawn was “an eyesore”, which meant they never used the yard.

“It didn’t help,” says Covarrubias, who is a project manager for an internet development company. “We wanted something we would use and enjoy.”

A zen rock garden

A Japanese-style Zen rockery.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

A bee above a purple flower

A bee feeds Penstemon Daisy.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

For Covarrubias, who suffers from mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), an autoimmune condition that causes him severe allergic reactions to things like dirt, the dusty makeover should be quick to help ease his allergies. So the couple hired Asarel Garcia to remove their lawn and landscaper Julie Deamer at Yard Queen to help with garden design and plant selection.

Upon entering, Covarrubias knew she wanted a permeable riverbed, a Japanese-style Zen rock garden and a variety of plants for sentimental reasons – a selection of roses to honor her father, a heat-resistant wisteria that would be hung from a canopy and would greet visitors as they entered the garden, and white sage in honor of Sage, the couple’s Australian Shepherd. Many plants, which she had never considered, were a pleasant surprise: salvia ‘Mystic Spiers Blue’, the purple fairy fan flower, Scaevola albida ‘Mauve Grapes’ and the native shrub toyon, or California holly.

Working with Garcia, the couple removed the boxwood hedges that faced the street and installed new planters, which Covarrubias filled with sun-loving California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). New concrete walkways were laid to provide access to the front door and driveway, so the couple and their roommate, Mike Jimenez, could reach their cars.

Working with Deamer’s original layout, the pair enjoyed adding more plants throughout the seasons, taking care to set less drought-tolerant varieties safely under the elm canopy. In the spring, the garden’s ceanothus, salvia, and California honeysuckle add vibrant color to the garden’s silver color palette.

A barrel of rainwater in front of the house

A rain barrel was required to receive a rebate for the removal of sod.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

To receive the rebate on turf removal, the sprinkler system was replaced with a drip irrigation system, and a 650 gallon rain barrel, which runs to the permeable river bed for the groundwater capture, was added to the front of the house.

The couple say they now water the front yard plants twice a week, and the irrigation system has helped bring the elm tree back to life. “Elm is so happy now,” says Covarrubias. “He was sick and infested with beetles. An arborist told us that water from sprinklers made the tree sick. I let it overgrow to the point where it sinks in, and it looks like a tree house inside the house.

“My garden is worth more than a flower or a flowering season. It is its daily existence that gives it its value. Birds and butterflies knew it before me.

— Serina Covarrubias

Covarrubias says working in the garden became a way for her to deal with the loss of her father, her “best friend”, who lived with the couple before his death. “It gave me something to take care of that wasn’t myself so I could focus on that when I was too deep in grief to want to take care of myself,” she says. Her father had always wanted her to put money into the house. Today, she honors his memory by planting the fragrant roses he cherished.

Oakfield Hyderea Factory

Oakfield Hyderea, Hydrangea quercifolia.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

A pink rose

Seriina Covarrubias planted Burgundy Iceberg roses in honor of her late father, Robert.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

As someone with a chronic illness, Covarrubias often doesn’t have the energy to work in the garden, but that doesn’t stop him from experiencing the garden from inside the house. “On the days when I couldn’t go out because my illness had flared up too much, I would look out the window and pay attention to how much the birds and insects were enjoying the garden,” she says. “Its ever-changing landscape brought me peace because it meant nothing stayed the same, not even this miserable disease.”

After a few difficult years, Covarrubias is still pulling blades of Bermuda grass among the Ceanothus and Sages, but she doesn’t mind. Looking back, she appreciates what the garden has done for her and her sanity. “When things got tough, I would go out and sit in the garden and just be there with the plants and the birds,” she says. “There was always something new to see or something that had grown since the day before. Plants die and live. It’s an endless cycle of time that has helped me see my life and my father’s life not as a linear beginning or end, but as an eternal loop.

Two photos show a lawn with grass and native plants

The front yard before the lawn was removed, and after.

(Photo by Seriina Covarrubias; Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

The garden has inspired Covarrubias to look beyond their property, and she hopes to add more native plants to their neighborhood. “The amount of joy I got from my garden inspired me to do more,” she says. “Walking down the street in my neighborhood, I realize that there are so many neglected areas in terms of green spaces. There are so many spaces that are not being used because of public easements.

Obviously, the Covarrubias garden has become much more than a collection of plants.

As for her health, she added, “We are always taught that our bodies are the same, but good health is so fleeting and is not the measure of our worth,” she said. “My garden is worth more than a flower or a flowering season. It is its daily existence that gives it its value. Birds and butterflies knew it before me.

A woman in her garden with her dogs.

Seriina Covarrubias in her garden with her dogs, Sage and Dusty.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Plants used in this garden

Mexican blue sage

Mexican blue sage.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Alkaline saccaton, Sporobolus airoids

Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’

blue hibiscus, Alyogyne huegelii ‘Santa Cruz’

Burgundy Iceberg Pink

California bluebell, Phacelia minor

california buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum

Canyon Prince Wild Rye, Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’

Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii

Yarrow, yarrow

Concha ceanothus, Ceanothe ‘Concha’

chinese wisteria, Glycine sinensis

Black Night Rose

Dusty Miller, Centaurea cineraria

dwarf myrtle, Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’

Pink ebb tide

Fairy Fan Flower, Scaevola albida ‘Mauve Grapes’

foothills sedge, Sedge tumulicola

Globe of Gilia, Gilia capitata

Grosso French lavender, Lavender ‘Grosso’

hairy honeysuckle, Lonicera hispidula

Lavender Trumpet Vine, Clytostoma callistegioides

Marguerite Penstemon, Penstemon ‘Daisy’

Mexican blue sage, Salvia chamaedryoides

Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha

mugwort of Montara, Artemisia californica ‘Montara’

Mystic Spiers Blue Salvia

Narrow-leaved Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis

Camellia Gem of Nuccio, Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’

Nuccio’s Voodoo Azalea

Pincushion, scabiosa

purple sage, Salvia leucophylla

purple tiger rose

showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa

Silver Anouk Spanish Lavender, Lavandula stoechas ‘Silver Anouk’

Star Jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides

Teucrium cossonii (majoricum)

Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia

Bologna Variegata Rose

Variegated mint bush, Prostanthera ovalifolia ‘Variegata’

Pink Violet’s Pride

western redbud, Cercis occidentalis

white sage, Salvia apiana

Yesterday Today Tomorrow, Pauciflorous Brunfelsia

A family and their dog in their garden

Seriina Covarrubias, center, her husband Kevin Rowles, front, their roommate Mike Jimenez and Dusty, their golden retriever.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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