Lessons from the 2018 Theodore Payne Garden Tour

The gardening equivalent of Beyoncé’s triumphant 2018 Coachella performance took place on the very same weekend. Theodore Payne’s annual garden tour reunited pollinator friendly plantings, low water use and great design in a sort of horticultural equivalent of the return of Destiny’s Child. Lush and traditional garden design even made a Jay-Z like cameo appearance at the stunning stunning Wilson/Leach garden in Altadena (seen above). Native plants gardens in Southern California don’t have to look like a desert!

An ad in the back of the tour brochure neatly summed up the vibe:

In: Architecture-Enhancing Designs Out: Boring Expanses of Lawn
In: Vibrant Climate-Compatible Blooms Out: Stuffy Rows of Annuals
In: Lush, Leafy Native Foliage Out: Heat-Amplifying Gravelscape
In: Materials that Go with the Flow Out: Stiff, Straight Patios/Drives
In: Taking Design Appeal to the Curb Out: Conformist Parkways
In: Enjoying your garden

The big takeaway for me from the garden tour this year was that sometimes you’ve got to call in a garden design professional unless you have a knack for design (and I don’t). Our ticket contest winner (who gave us the most beautiful basket of home grown fruits and preserves ever–thank you Donna!) came to the same conclusion.

We’ve hired a designer, which is why our backyard looks like a strip mine:

A crew took out an ugly concrete patio last week and has been digging down to lower the level of the new patio they will install. The old patio was above the level of the sill plate and was causing the back part of the house to rot. I’ll post more in-progress photos over the next few months. We’re also working on the inside of the house. When all is done we hope to have some events here and open up the house for idling and entertaining.

If you can’t afford a crew to do the work you can, at the very least, hire a designer to do a consultation and offer some suggestions. I really wish we had done this 20 years ago when we bought this place!

Leave a comment


  1. I really loved that house on Ave. 56. http://array.la/living-posts/2016/8/27/house-a

    Also, that one in Altadena was beautifully manicured: https://www.terradesigngarden.com/the-altadena-garden

    All in all, very inspiring but very intimidating, though to be fair, both those gardens were designed by pros. I’m definitely more of a set-it-and-forget-it mindset. At the very least, I’m better able to communicate with a landscape designer what I’m looking for.

    Thanks for the heads up about the tour. I wouldn’t have known about it if not for your blog.

  2. I hope you saved the old columns from the patio shade structure. I thought they were sweet.

    Is that a new air conditioning compressor I see? Is the heat just too much as we all shuffle toward late middle age with climate change?

    I dealt with this situation by replacing my ancient 1970s era asphalt shingle roof with a standing seem metal roof. Heat bounces off the house rather than being absorbed. It’s also the perfect surface for collecting rain water. I super insulated the attic, walls, and under the floor with a DIY spray foam kit so the house is a giant Igloo cooler now. I built a 12′ trellis on the west (rear) side of the house and covered it with grape and kiwi vines to shade the house from the late afternoon sun. This collection of changes happened over an eight year period on a cash basis. At this point it can be 100F degrees outside, but the interior is cool and comfortable without any air conditioning. In winter there’s very little need for heat either.

  3. Thank you for the tickets! We got some great plant and design ideas and as you mentioned, were really impressed with what the pro designers were able to do with only or mostly natives.

    It was fun to meet you and see the Root Simple compound on the verge of such major transformation. Thanks again.

  4. It is nice to get things done that make life more bearable in the heat. About 2000 I had some things done to inside and yard that made my place amenable for entertaining. And, I did, once a month for two years.

  5. Oh, how I envy the gardens that are at the 10 or 20-year mark. The younger gardens (like mine) tend to have clumps of pretty things placed together and they are very pretty but don’t have that sense of maturity yet. The older gardens have three clear layers, trees, shrubs, perennials, and there is a sense that everything that is alive is right where it wants to be and would have magically ended up there no matter what. I wish I could fast-forward the garden without fast-forwarding my life.

    • If its any consolation, we’ve been here 20 years and the garden is still a wreck. It’s had its nice moments in the past but, overall, has suffered from major design problems which is why we’ve sought help.

  6. Why do people pile stuff up against a house above the sill plate? Is it to ensure that the house never dries out and shrivels up?

    When we moved into our 1925 bungalow, we found that the original, perfect grading had been wrecked by the previous owner piling tons of topsoil up against the house under the mistaken impression that stucco was waterproof. When we had finished fixing the termites, carpenter ants, rotten support posts and destroyed sheathing, we dug a trench about 2 feet deep and three feet wide around the house and filled it with crushed rock. We did this by hand; a task that now figures prominently in my “Never Again” list.


    • Yep, it’s a common issue. Our neighbor had the same problem. That we’re both on a hill probably made it worse–any grading involves hand carrying dirt down 30 steps.

  7. Good for you for hiring a designer! Some people just have a knack for putting things together beautifully. I am not one of those people.

    Instead, I am a graduate of the ‘plant it, then dig it up and move it’ school of landscape design, because I still fail to take into consideration how big a plant will be when mature. Or how it will overpower and shade its companions. Or that it has messy flowers/seeds/leaves that make it a bad choice for a highly visible spot. In my defense, eventually everything comes out nicely, it’s just that I could get the same look with a fraction of the labor if I were working from an actual plan.

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