Native Landscapes: The Albrigos

A Green Yard

When Steve and Paula Albrigo took on relandscaping, their goal was a green yard.

Not the green often used to describe environmentally friendly landscapes(although the results are certainly eco-minded), but to fill their 7,000-square-foot front yard with a mini-forest of native plants—a spectrum of green.

"I wanted people to look at our yard and say that they never imagined a native California landscape could be so green and beautiful,” says Steve Albrigo.

The result is a striking, beautiful domestic space that showcases native plants. The corner lot has been transformed from manicured turf to a carefully crafted woodsy wildscape that reminds the Albrigos of the serene mountain retreats they love.

The new green yard was part of the Albrigos’ project to restore their 100-year-old Craftsman-style home in La Verne, Calif. In 2003, they began renovating, refinishing
and redecorating in the original style of the home in anticipation of its historic
anniversary this fall.

course, it was more than aesthetics that prompted the dramatic landscape makeover. Environmental and economic factors were at play as well.

“Environmentally, we want to do our part to conserve natural resources,” says Paula Albrigo. “We knew the lawn was using lots of water and our bills were super high. We were already RSABG members and were falling in love with California native plants.”

The summer before they removed their lawn, they had water bills as high as $450 for a two-month cycle (these have been cut almost in half since the relandscaping).

The economic benefits of changing to a predominantly native plant landscape became apparent as the cost of water increased.

“Most of us felt the impact of the higher cost of water during the recent drought, and we made the decision to do something that would have a long-term beneficial cost impact on our water bills,” says Steve. “As residents of California, we will continue to have periodic droughts, and population growth brings additional pressure on essentially fixed water resources.”

They decided the time was right to ditch the turf, and in Fall 2010 they took the plunge.

Working with Joel Shafor, landscape design artist with Sage Leaf Studio in Orange County, they drafted a landscape design and made a list of their favorite plants. The couple signed up for a class at RSABG to help get a handle on the process of nurturing a native plant garden. With the home’s anniversary fast approaching, they were eager to get started.

Last September, they stopped watering their front lawn, and after about a month it turned brown. Paula says neighbors became concerned and stopped by to ask if things were ok.

November, they bought a truck full of plants at the RSABG annual Fall Plant Sale and got down to business. The first round of planting included three of Paula’s favorites—narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), evergreen current (Ribes viburnifolium) and ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Each was tagged and recorded. Steve includes the botanical name on the labels he creates for each new plant to learn the scientific name.

“We have had many compliments about the beauty of the plants and the design,” says Steve. “And I enjoyed developing new neural pathways in my brain as a result of learning all of these fancy new plant names!”

A year into its transformation, the yard offers a variety of forms, textures, scents and colors. Bloom times vary and offer interest throughout each season.

The Albrigos chose not to go all au naturel. Their broad plant palette includes some non- natives as well. They mingled butterfly and hummingbird garden selections among graceful white birches. Mature fruit trees, a rose garden and other ornamental plants continue to thrive in the back and side yards.

Steve installed the irrigation system himself, carefully working around established root systems and giving extra consideration for certain areas of the yard. After a discussion with Bart O’Brien, RSABG director of special projects, during a visit to a Native Plant Clinic, Steve installed a separate system for the birch trees.

Before the irrigation system was put into place, Paula took great care to water and check each plant. As a result, there were few plant casualties.

“I have tried very hard to learn about each plant’s needs while they became established and I took losses fairly personally,” says Paula.

As a happy consequence of the project, the Albrigos have become ecosystem stewards. Wildlife is ever present. Many insects—especially butterflies—have specialized host plant needs and require one or a few plants species as food for larvae and adults. The Albrigos’ landscape, which faces a sea of grass at the neighborhood park, offers a handsome alternative with abundant habitat for wildlife.

“We love to sit in our front yard,” says Paula. “We watch the plants change and grow, especially this first year when every stage has been new. There is just more nature around us—birds, bees, butterflies and lots of insects!”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 Garden Variety, RSABG's membership newsletter.