Drought-tolerant LA yard thrives after city cease notice
Water-hungry lawns are symbols of Los Angeles’ past. In this series, we spotlight yards with alternative, low-water landscaping built for the future.
Susan and Steve Matloff are doing what they do most days when they are at home: spending time in their front yard with their kids, talking with neighbors, playing with their dog Blue and passing home-grown onions to random passersby.
When they installed raised vegetable beds alongside the sidewalk, they fantasized about living off the land despite warnings from friends that people might steal their produce.
“If someone wants to take a bell pepper, good on them,” says Steve, 49. “My office overlooks the garden, and every day I see people stop and look at our garden. Sometimes I run out there and talk to them. Our daughter Isabelle has been known to pull out a carrot and hand it to people walking by. The conversations start there. It’s part of what we wanted for our yard: to be a statement and community builder.”
It wasn’t always this way.
The family of five, plus two dogs, moved from a two-bedroom condo in West Hollywood into the Windsor Square home in 2018, some years after it became too much for Steve’s parents. They renovated the home with climate change in mind.
“We set out to take a 1922 home and rethink it for the next 100 years,” says Steve, who recently co-founded a company called Tradicient — the blend of “traditional” and “efficient” — to do this work on other homes. “We retrofitted it, we achieved platinum LEED status, and the landscaping was a big part of that.” (To achieve LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, a project earns points by demonstrating various improvements that address carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health and indoor environmental quality.)
Unbeknownst to the couple, their front yard became a heated topic on Nextdoor during construction before they moved in. “FormLA Landscaping was overseeing the yard and was digging a bioswale and paths for concrete walkways,” recalls Susan, 48, a sports marketing consultant. “A friend sent me a thread on Nextdoor that began, ‘Has anyone seen this house? It looks like they are going to hardscape the entire front yard!’” It was actually going to be a rain garden.”
Shortly after the Nextdoor discussion, the couple came home to find a baffling cease order from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety that said they were missing permits they didn’t believe they needed.
“It didn’t identify why,” says landscape designer Isara Ongwiseth, a four-time Sustainable Innovation Award-winner with FormLA. “We didn’t do anything that violated any codes.”
Steve called the building department for weeks and got no response.
So he showed up at the agency’s office downtown. “I literally walked around for two hours with my notice,” he says. He finally got help but was directed to another staffer who works with historic preservation overlay zones, which are city districts with special renovation rules. “The [zone] administrator didn’t see anything wrong with the work we were doing, but the only thing she could do was put us on the agenda for the next [overlay zone] board meeting.” Such boards consist of five to seven local residents who review projects.
At the meeting, Ongwiseth shared detailed, color-coded plans for the yard. The board provided a required letter of support, and the project resumed two months later.
Asked for tips on dealing with historic preservation issues, Steve recommends starting the communication process early and remembering that these boards are made up of neighbors who are handling dozens of projects at once.
Equally important are city employees, Steve adds, who “do all the work to operationalize [overlay zone] boards’ decisions. What boards decide on cannot actually happen until an administrator walks your project through certain processes. But our best advice is to do all you can to stay out of the secondary review and stoppage process entirely; and the best way to do that is to preemptively try to answer and address neighbors’ and passersbys’ possible questions or concerns. If we could have educated the neighbor who submitted the inquiry about our project and process, we might have been able to avoid the stoppage altogether.”
For decades, the Matloffs’ Windsor Square neighborhood has been lined with stately homes bordered by sprawling lawns and sidewalks wet from sprinkler overspray. You could argue that the neighborhood is no different from others in Southern California where lush, green lawns have traditionally been a statement about pride of place. But the pervasive water waste involved in tending to a lawn as drought in California continues prompted the Matloffs to consider their footprint, as well as L.A.’s future water independence.
But it’s not just about the lawn.
In an unusual move, the Matloffs committed themselves to the LEED process: During renovation, they chose to keep the footprint of the house. They reused wood and concrete on-site. Solar panels on the roof generate twice the power they currently use. When the couple removed the original floribunda and Iceberg roses from the property, they found homes for all of them. “Reuse comes long before recycling,” Steve says. “We filled up our minivan with roses and drove them to my sister in Northern California.”
They had to remove an unhealthy jacaranda tree in the front yard and planted a California live oak in its place. “Although the jacaranda was big and beautiful, we found that it was infested with termites and would eventually cause danger to people and the home,” Ongwiseth says. “We removed it, and the live oak will give back to the community and to nature. It’s a host for so many insect species.”
A 270-square-foot bioswale, or rain garden filled with California native plants, was installed to absorb water from the front and back garden, as well as the home’s driveway, walkways and roof. Graywater from the upstairs laundry room feeds a small fruit orchard along the driveway. (Because graywater can contain sediment and bacteria, the couple decided against watering the vegetables and herbs via a laundry-to-landscape system.) Not far from the rain garden, a permeable driveway composed of interlocking brick pavers directs water into the garden and prevents runoff into the street and storm drain and keeps pollutants out of the Pacific. The material also helps control the heat island effect as Los Angeles struggles with rising temperatures and wildfires due to global warming.
Even when it’s hot in Los Angeles, the yard, which is fed by a subterranean low-flow drip system, is in bloom, with dwarf germander, yarrow, red buckwheat pom poms, Canyon Prince, deer grass and Cleveland and white sages. A large front “lawn” composed of native grass-like Carex pansa can transition from meadow to lawn with a simple trim. “A lot of people who want a manicured lawn fall in love with it,” Ongwiseth says.
The yard embodies Steve’s belief that “you’re not giving up anything” by planting drought-tolerant natives, as he puts it. “It functions better,” he says. “Our landscape changes throughout the year. The Cleveland sage turns purple when it blooms. When we don’t mow the Carex pansa, we have a big, flowy landscape that changes the character of the property over time. When we look outside, the rain garden is full. When the reclaimed hardscaping stone is saturated, it takes on different rays.“
The couple view their home as something to be shared and open it regularly for tours and other events. When friends and neighbors ask about their drought-tolerant meadow, Steve enjoys relaying how little maintenance it requires. A bench on the front porch provides a comfortable place to sit and commune with family and neighbors. “L.A. is so private in some ways,” Susan says. “No one uses their front yard. Our garden puts a face on our home. We are trying to use our front yard to get to know our neighbors. It’s important for us. It goes back to stewardship.”
Today, despite some misunderstandings, their neighbors have embraced the yard. (Another longtime neighbor, who was concerned about mosquitoes flocking to the bioswale, has since welcomed the addition). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple set up lawn chairs 12 feet apart in their yard, and neighbors joined them. At the height of the pandemic’s chalk drawing moment, some even drew plants from their garden on the street and identified them in pastel pigments.
Steve, who is an unusually upbeat voice for someone trying to save the planet, says his only regret is that he wasn’t able to complete the project before his father, Jack, a noted heart surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who died in 2015, could have joined them on the front porch.
What does his mother, Martha, who is 87 and lives in a condo about a mile away, think of the changes? “My mom loves it,” Steve says. “No. 1, because we are here. No. 2, because we didn’t gut the house. And No. 3: It’s comfortable. There is a ramp that goes up from the driveway to the front door so that she and others can walk directly to the house with ease.”
Most striking is how a front yard that started as a family affair ended up as a bridge to connect with others.
“Last week, when I was weeding outside, a woman I’ve never met before stopped to tell me that our garden brings her joy,” Susan says with a smile.
Steve adds: “When we look at our collective footprint, it’s important to find where our resources are being used. It’s no secret that neighborhoods like ours use resources. We all need to be more thoughtful. We are all collectively a part of the solution.”