When the neighborhood matriarch and her husband decide it’s time to renovate the front yard landscape, you know it’s going to have to be something special.
Nancy Cavanah, who lives with her husband, Ken, in Chula Vista, grew up in the house the couple lives in. They bought it from her mother back in 1988 and raised their son and daughter there. The children even attended the same elementary school in the neighborhood as Nancy. Now Ken’s brother Randy lives next door to them.
Nancy, a retired special education teacher who had also run a babysitting business, learned to garden from her mother, who she said was an active gardener. Her mother died in 2013 at the age of 95, and Nancy, grieving her, decided with Ken to spend her fall break that year doing what her mother loved.
“It was my way of remembering her and keeping me busy,” she said. “I could be out there communing with nature with my mom.”
Another reason they decided to transform their yard was that San Diego County offered a rebate as an incentive to replace grass with drought-tolerant landscaping. At the time, their front yard was a very green lawn with Indian hawthorn bushes under the windows and a sago palm in one corner by the sidewalk.
Fast forward to 2022, and the Cavanahs’ farm was named the winner of the WaterSmart Landscape Contest for the Sweetwater Authority. So why did they enter the competition almost 10 years later? Nancy explained that they hadn’t known about it at the time, and when they entered the contest, they found out that the Sweetwater Authority actually wanted to showcase an established garden to give people a sense of the potential of drought-resistant landscaping to look like once it had grown in.
Back in 2013, the Cavanahs felt there was no need to have a lawn anymore. Nancy no longer did babysitting. No children played with it.
“We’ve noticed other people doing succulents and drought-resistant gardens,” Nancy explained. “We wanted to go to the San Diego Zoo and see all the colorful plants that didn’t need water, and then we just became environmentally conscious about our planet and wanted to make a difference. When we read about the discount, we thought we should take advantage us of the offer.”
The inspiration for their design was to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
“I just love hummingbirds, and that’s kind of how my mom comes to me,” Nancy said. “So we started researching what plants attract them and butterflies.”
The couple pulled out the sprinklers, which hadn’t worked in years, and figured they could just continue hand-watering their succulents and other low-water plants using new rain barrels. They also decided to add a small hardscape to the front of the house, which they have painted twice in that time.
The Cavanahs did all the work themselves, although they had design help from Lisa Schneider, an employee of Armstrong Nursery in Mission Valley at the time. They got an extensive plant list from the county, from which they made plant selections at both Armstrong and Costco — and now Terra Bella Nursery in Chula Vista, which they hadn’t known about in 2013. Ken, a retired space management planner in San Diego County’s General Services Department is extremely detail and research oriented so he spent a lot of time identifying how big different plants they liked would get and how much they had spread.
“You can’t just look them up and say, ‘Oh, that looks good,'” he explained. “Because you don’t realize it can get 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. You can find that information online. That’s what I did. And I used AutoCAD software to design the front yard with circles that show, how big each plant would get. So if I thought we needed 10 of a particular plant, I’d enter them into the CAD program so I could see how much space they would take up when they were mature.”
It allowed the couple to make more accurate plant choices in their primarily orange, gold and yellow color palette, along with understanding the impact of the farm’s western exposure.
The Cavanahs grounded the room with two teddy bear magnolias. They kept the original sago palm and added another on the opposite corner where the sidewalk and their driveway meet. In the center of the yard is a group of small boulders that Ken’s brother Randy, a surveyor, picked up from the desert. Ken laid pavers purchased from RCP Block & Brick that are surrounded by Dymondia as a ground cover. Nancy spent three months installing about 100 plants, from African fountain, kangaroo paw, copper tone sedum and Haworth’s aeonium to snapdragon, fire canes, curly jade plant and flax lily.
Directly in front of the house, with side wall and fence now painted gray with black trim, is a bed of yellow and orange flowering Gazanias. In another bed, which has a Cupid water fountain to attract birds, are Agapanthas, which also grow in front of the fence on the other side of the Gazanias. The couple have a small wrought iron bistro table and chairs on a broken granite walkway in front of Gazania’s. Along with rose-colored stone around the planting near the sidewalk is recycled mulch, which the couple gets from Terra Bella.
The Cavanahs installed a rain barrel by the front door that is fed by two gutters. If there is a heavy rain, Ken will connect a second rain barrel between the front windows to the first barrel to catch excess water. And they put in a third rain barrel that receives the water from a new downspout installed on the south side of their second floor. Nancy estimates they water every 10 days or so, depending on the weather, although she said the magnolias should be watered weekly. She uses a handheld moisture meter to determine what needs to be watered so she doesn’t overwater.
The couple have been struck by how easy it is to maintain their garden.
“There is some maintenance,” Nancy acknowledged. “The firewood shall be pruned, as the lion’s tail, and the grasses.”
And of course they need to replace the mulch regularly.
Their shallow gardening is catching on in their neighborhood. Randy Cavanah has put in some succulents and native plants next door, as have others on their block. And a German television crew came out and interviewed the couple about their farm, according to Nancy.
“So we’ve traveled the world,” she said with a laugh.
The Cavanahs received $1,900 from San Diego County as a grass removal rebate, and that became their landscaping budget. They didn’t pay anyone to help them, although they sometimes recruited their children when they were home from college. They recently received a $250 gift card to The Home Depot from the Sweetwater Authority as their prize for winning the 2022 contest.
They estimate they’ve saved about $60 a month, although they acknowledge it’s been a long time since they remodeled and water bills have changed a lot.
A closer look: Nancy and Ken Cavanah
The Lion’s Tail (Leonotis leonurus)
Teddy bear magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora “Southern Charm”)
fire sticks (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’)
kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos)
sago palm (Cycas rolled)
lavender (Wash her)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Dymondia (Diamonds of pearls)
Haworth’s aeonium (Aeonium haworthii)
Coppertone sedum (Sedum nussbaumerianum)
Chenille plant (Acalypha hispida)
Silver dollar plant (Lunaria annua)
Curly jade plant (Crassula ovata undulata)
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa)
Beautiful Graptopetalum (Graptopetalus proud)
african fountain (Pennisetum setaceum)
Central Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
New Zealand flax (A tenacious mushroom)
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
Daisy by the Sea (Erigeron gray)
hear lily (dianella tasmanica)
African lily (Agapanthus)
Gazania (Gazania is crying)
Estimated costs: $1,936 (in 2013)
Who did the work: The Cavanas
How long did it take: Three months in 2013
Water savings: They estimate that they have saved about $60 per month.
- The biggest thing is to remind yourself that these plants are really shallow. Don’t overwater them or they will fail.
- Do your research so you know what you’re getting into as far as the size of the plants. Click on pictures of mature plants. Also, take the time to learn what kind of maintenance they need in terms of watering, pruning and deadheading. That way, you can find the right balance between how much time you want to spend in your garden and what the plants require.
- Look around your neighborhood to see what plants thrive in your microclimate.
- Be prepared to replace plants if they don’t work. It is a process.
About the series
This is the third in an occasional series on winners of the annual WaterSmart Landscape Contest, conducted in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority. To learn about entering the next contest, visit landscapecontest.com.
For details on classes and resources through the WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Program, visit landscapemakeover.watersmartsd.org. Landscaping rebates are available through the Socal WaterSmart Turf Replacement Program at socalwatersmart.com.
Golden is a freelance writer and blogger in San Diego.