From lawn to succulents—grand reveal

While the front lawn conversion still isn’t 100% complete, I’ve decided to pull back the proverbial curtain and show you where we are at as of February 27, 2016.

The progress of this project has been fast and furious, mostly thanks to our landscaping contractor, Díaz Landscape Construction. A big shoutout to José Díaz and his crew. They once again did a fantastic job (this is our fourth project with José).

This is what the front yard lawn looked like on February 9. Ugly and uninspiring.


Front lawn, February 9, 2016

In a matter of hours, José’s crew had removed the sod using a sod cutter.


Lawn dug out, Front lawn, February 9, 2016

Metal edging was installed to outline the shape of the two succulent mounds.


Metal edging installed, February 10, 2016

The next day the mounds were built and the paths installed. The lawn sprinklers were either capped off or converted to drip (see the white pipes in the next photo).

From turf to what you see below took just two days. That’s the advantage of having a crew of able-bodied workers who know what they’re doing!


Mounds and paths created, February 10, 2016

Fast-forward two weeks. Everything has been planted, including the Corten vegetable planter, and I’ve mulched the mounds with 3/8 inch rock. It’s supposed to be California Gold, but it looks more peach/pink that we had expected. We’re not entirely happy with the mulch, and that’s the reason I don’t want to call this project 100% complete. Ideally, I want a darker rock (brown or gray), but I haven’t been able to find anything I like yet. I’ll keep looking, but for now it is what it is.


Mounds planted and mulched, February 27, 2016

I didn’t buy any new plants for these new beds. That goes to show how many plants I had hoarded! I’m so happy I was able to plant out many container dwellers. I could almost hear their sigh of relief when their roots made contact with the wonderfully loose soil in the mounds.


Take a closer look and let me know what you think!



Smaller mound


The focal plants of the smaller mound include Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’…


Ferocactus herrerae…


…and Yucca queretaroensis and Agave ‘Blue Glow’



View of both mounds from the fence


Corten veggie planter…


…planted with green onions, rainbow chard, cilantro, beets, Romanesco


The Corten steel has already started to rust

160227_frontyard_after_013 160227_frontyard_after_034


Both mounds, looking towards the house


Veggie planter and golden barrel cactus


This golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) was the last major addition


We moved it yesterday using the same technique described here


Large mound seen from the porch end


Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus), moved from here. The flowering plants are the Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor I described here.


Agave parryi ‘Excelsior’, a variegated cultivar of Agave parryi ssp. huachucensis. It already has a baby (left).


Ferorcactus emoryi


Agave applanata ‘Cream Spike’


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) in front of the golden barrel. All the leaves you see are new since I planted it. This spot gets full sun most of the day, and my wee ocotillo is very happy here.


Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), like the ocotillo among the plants I brought back from Arizona this past December


View from the walkway to the front door


…and zoomed in a little


Looking toward the area against the garage; the front door is on the right

The area against the garage, to the left of the front door, also received a mini makeover. The Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ that died last year left a big gap that had to be filled. I had all kinds of grand plans but ultimately decided to keep it small and easy. Here’s the finished result:


Newly planted (counterclickwise starting immediately to the right of the ponytail palm): Agave cupreata, Agave guadalajarana, Aloe brevifolia ‘Variegata’, NOID ×Pachyveria (intergeneric hybrid between a Pachyphytum and an Echeveria). The aloe next to the Agave cupreata is Aloe ‘Fire Ranch’; it has been in this spot for almost 10 years and is finally putting on some size.


This spider aloe (Aloe × spinosissima) has been in this spot for years (forgot to record when I planted it) but it’s just now blooming for the first time ever. I’m so thrilled. I love this hybrid between Aloe arborescens (a larger shrubby species) and Aloe humilis (a dwarf species).

And finally a quick look at the back yard lawn. It was a huge eye sore, and our water conservation measures didn’t help it any.


Back yard lawn, February 8, 2016. Hard to believe, but in the summer it looked even worse.


Back yard lawn, February 8, 2016, looking toward the house

The goal was to replace the “lawn,” if you could call it that, with a carpet of Dymondia margaretae, a water-wise South African ground cover. It forms a dense mat that tolerates foot traffic.


To give the dymondia additional support, I asked our landscaper to install the pavers you see below. They’re typically used for “green” driveways. We then planted dymondia inside and outside the pavers. I originally bought 10 flats (about 500 plants) but that proved to be half of what we needed. In the end, we planted 20 flats, so about 1,000 individual plugs. My wife, bless her heart, did the bulk of the work.


Right now we’re giving the dymondia a light watering every couple of days to help it get settled as quickly as possible. The plugs, while still small, have grown visibly in just two weeks and some have started to flower. Very encouraging signs.

We left the original lawn sprinklers in place for easy watering. Once every 10 days should be enough after the dymondia has become established. I’m hoping that within a year the dymondia will have formed a continuous mat that covers both the bare soil and the pavers so all you’ll be able to see is a silver carpet (which, coincidentally, is the common name of Dymondia margaretae.


February may be the shortest month of the year, but I can’t remember the last time so much has happened in such a short period of time. I’m glad it’s over, but at the same time I miss the thrill of creating something new from scratch.



Corten planter

We originally wanted two 3-foot Corten planters (each about 20-24” inch high and wide) but when we realized what the costs for custom manufacturing would be (well over $1000), we decided to drop the idea. After all, we have three large raised vegetable beds in the backyard. They get a decent amount of sunlight in the summer although virtually none in the winter (hence the desire to have a veggie bed in the front yard as well).

Our contractor suggested looking online, and I found a company called Nice Planter. Their fabrication is in Indianopolis, IN, with a warehouse in Southern California. Nice Planter sells premade Corten planters for much less. The downside is that you’re limited to the shapes and sizes they carry. Here are their current offerings if you’re interested:

We ended up picking one 20″ H x 46″ W x 20″ D Corten trough, which is what you see in the photos above. It came as a kit, but assembly (using included nuts and bolts) was fast and easy. The cost was $329.99, with free shipping. The planter arrived two days (!) after ordering. Impressive service—and product.

Soil for mounds

The soil for the mounds already came amended with pumice and pieces of lava rock. However, I ended up working in additional rock material (the 3/8” California Gold intended as the top dressing) to give the soil more structure and prevent excessive compaction in the years to come. In hindsight, I should have insisted on a 50:50 split, i.e. 50% topsoil and 50% lava rock fines, but it’s too late to start over now.

Plant list for mounds

Small mound

  1. Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  2. Agave guadalajarana
  3. Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’
  4. Agave xylonacantha 2x
  5. Albuca namaquensis
  6. Aloe hereroensis
  7. Aloe marlothii × globuligemma
  8. Baileya multiradiata
  9. Cotyledon ‘White Sprite’
  10. Delosperma nubigenum 2x
  11. Ferocactus herrerae
  12. Gaillardia × grandiflora ‘Goblin’ 2 x
  13. Lachenalia aloides 2x
  14. Papaper atlanticum
  15. Yucca queretaroensis

Big mound

  1. Agave applanata ‘Cream Spike’
  2. Agave gracilipes
  3. Agave ocahui
  4. Agave parryi ‘JC Raulston’
  5. Agave parryi ssp. neomexicana ‘Sunspot’
  6. Agave parryi var. huachucensis ‘Excelsior’
  7. Agave potatorum ‘Cameron Blue’
  8. Agave shrevei var. matapensis × guadalajarana
  9. Aloe ‘Hellskloof Bells’
  10. Aloe deltoideodonta
  11. Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia
  12. Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’ 4x
  13. Dyckia sp.
  14. Echinocactus grusonii
  15. Echinopsis ‘Forty Niner’
  16. Echinopsis ‘Paramount hybrid’ (peach/orange flowers)
  17. Echinopsis hybrid
  18. Encephalartos horridus
  19. Euphorbia antisyphilitica
  20. Ferocactus emoryi
  21. Ferocactus glaucescens
  22. Fouquieria splendens
  23. Gaillardia × grandiflora ‘Goblin’ 4 x
  24. Gasteria acinacifolia × Aloe buhrii
  25. Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor 3x
  26. Lachenalia aloides var. vanzyliae
  27. Lachenalia orchioides var. glaucina
  28. Ledebouria sp.
  29. Mariosousa willardiana
  30. Oreocereus trollii
  31. Oxalis flava
  32. Pachycereus marginata
  33. Senecio serpens
  34. Zinnia grandiflora


  1. I like it. Much more interesting. What fun it will be to walk those paths and inspect everything as the days go by. Maybe the mulch will darken with more exposure to the sun and rain. I like it, too, that the mounds are themed containing only succulents rather than a hodgepodge of various plants. The pavers were a great idea, we need some place/space for dogs and kids to play.

    1. I think the mulch would look different already after a good rain. Right now it's very dusty if that makes sense. 50% chance of rain on Wednesday, 80% on Saturday. Knock on wood...

  2. Gerhard, it looks fabulous! I can't wait to come and visit and enjoy the fruits of your ideas and labour very soon. So much better than a boring old lawn.

    1. I couldn't agree more. This has been a long time in the making.

  3. The former front lawn area looks SO much better. It meshes with the rest of your front garden area in a way the lawn couldn't. I look forward to seeing the area as it develops. I didn't know (or at least didn't recall) that you planned to tackle the back lawn area too. It also looks great! And your wife deserves a medal for planting all that dymondia!

    1. The back lawn had actually been my biggest pain point. I'd been wanting to fix it for years but none of the alternatives made much sense. I'm hoping the dymondia in conjunction with the pavers will be a success. Time will tell.

  4. What a transformation Gerhard!! It looks fantastic already and yet will continue to look even better in time as the plants fill up! Great choices of plants you have put in there!

    1. Thank you, guys! I'm sure I'll be editing the plant selection as time goes by. I may add more perennials for color, at least as a temporary solution until the succulents fill in. I've become very fond of Arctotis and Gazanias lately...

  5. Everything looks fantastic! You and the crew did a wonderful job and I can't wait to watch it grow.

    1. Thanks, Candy. I'll take credit for choosing the plants, but the back-breaking labor was done for me.

      Can't wait to check out the succulent garden in your front yard soon--what, two years after installation?

  6. Fun projects! Is that Agave vilmoriana actually hardy for you in Davis? I've seen it struggle at 27°F here in the Bay Area. Did you get that Corten planter custom made or off-the-shelf? I have used it but once custom fabricated here at an Albany supplier and it was VERY expensive.

    I wonder if your Dymondia will fill-in faster than the one I planted out in December!

    1. David, that Agave vilmoriana 'Stained Glass' seems to be hardy, knock on wood. It was outside all winter, in a #3 nursery pot. But then it was a fairly mild winter, with just one night below 28°F.

      The Corten planter is from Nice Planter. 20″ H x 46″ W x 20″ D, $329 with free shipping. It arrived 2 (!) days after ordering from their warehouse in Southern California.

      The dymondia in the background seems to be growing fairly fast. We've lost about 10 plugs so far, probably because we let the soil go too dry. That an attrition rate of 1%. Not bad.

  7. Agave parryi ‘Excelsior’is so gorgeous I think my eyes popped out of my head like a cartoon character. Beautiful plants all around!!!

    1. That's exactly how I felt when I spotted that 'Excelsior' last May at the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale.

    2. Do you recall the name of the seller? Really gorgeous. You've got a great low-water-use yard!

    3. Rachel, yes. It came from Elton Roberts. He lives near Modesto.

    4. Great! Thanks, and happy planting.

  8. Fantastic! Oh, that Agave vilmoriniana 'Stained Glass' is to die for! And that cor-ten raised bed... I think the gravel will be less noticeable once the plants fill in. Dymondia was an excellent choice for a lawn replacement. Curious to see how it fares with dogs.

    1. Our dog, Sasha, was very confused initially by the changes in the backyard. She didn't care that the lawn was ratty; it was her place to go potty. She's been adapting, and while both she and we have been stepping on the dymondia, it doesn't seem to be fazed.

  9. It all looks amazing! What a fabulous bunch of plants, and to think they were just "hanging around" waiting to be planted! What is the gravel of the pathway? And did you have the Corten planter custom made? I hope you won't mind my saying it looks lonely, I think you need another snugged up next to it. Also the back lawn removal/replanting is brilliant, what a great anti-lawn. So happy for you guys!

    1. Well, you know me. Always collecting plants for some future project that may or may never materialize.

      The pathway material is sold as "blue pathfines." See here.

      The Corten planter is from a mail order company called Nice Planter. I've added a note on the planter to my post above.

      I know exactly what you mean when you say the planter looks lonely. That thought has gone through my head more than once, but I know that somehow other containers will find their way into this area. Or else I'll get a couple of smaller metal planters to go on either side. The wheels in my head are already spinning...

  10. Big projects, fantastic results! It's always difficult to judge new plantings that need to fill in a bit before they really come into their own, but you've done so well with all of the other beds that these will surely be stopping pedestrians for years to come! What small tree is that in the bigger bed?

    Backyard looks great too, but I think you should work to keep some of those pavers at least partially visible as they add a nice geometric aspect.

    You've got to be so happy with the results in both yards! :D

    1. Yes, it's hard to know what what a planting will look like one, two, five years down the line--especially with succulents that grow at such vastly different rates. But I'm ready to add or subtract as needed. Nothing in my garden is ever static, that much I've learned.

  11. Ye gods, Gerhard, this is tremendous. I think my favorite shot is the one right below the photo of the candelilla -- and the view of both mounds from the fence... ay ay ay, those wide views... all beautiful. The agaves, the ferocactus... it's like a desert dream. One look at the before photo and it's clear what vision went into this project. The garden of a discerning, desert-loving plantsman, for sure. It will look even better as everything settles in and matures. My potted prisoners are green with envy. A question: were rocks or some other material used to help construct the mounds?

    Everything looks so wonderful. Hope to see it in person before the year is out!

    1. Luisa, thank you so much for your comment. I was trying hard to give expression to my love of the desert without having the result look too out of place.

      I've added a note on the soil to my original post above. It came pre-amended with pumice and lava rock (at least those are the elements I was able to identify) but I ended up working more rock into it so the mounds wouldn't collapse entirely over time.

      Would love to have you stay with us when you're in the area!

  12. It's incredibly beautiful! What a dramatic change for the better. Congratulations!

    1. Wow, that's quite a compliment coming from the owner of one of my favorite gardens :-).

  13. Replies
    1. Thank you, Deana. I hope to see your front yard some day soon!

  14. Looks great! I like the lighter stone myself, remember darker is going to be hotter. 'Stained Glass' is a favorite, and your 'Excelsior' is--wow! Great find. So much fun to see completed projects, and now...what's the next project? :)

    1. I'm slowly warming up to the lighter rock. We're expecting rain Thursday through Sunday and will reassess after. Maybe some of the pinkness (if that's a word) will wash away.

      Next project? There are quite a few neglected spots in the backyard that need attention. They're much more challenging--dry shade.

  15. Beautiful! It will be great to see how it all grows together, but it already looks awesome. I really like the mounds and how they add interest. Great work by you, your wife and the crew, congrats!

    1. Thank you, Renee. I'm very happy that it turned out just like I had envisioned it. That doesn't always happen.

  16. What a fast, beautiful result! You don't fool around, do you? This is going to be amazing to watch fill in, so thank you for the deep background!

    1. Thanks, Denise. I love having a new living lab right in front of the house. I'll be doing a lot of observing!

  17. Came across your old post while googling around - I'm tackling a lawn conversion now in Walnut Creek! Do you remember where you got your soil mix from? I'm having trouble finding a suitable mix in bulk. Have heard great things about Bancroft Bedding from Contra Costa Topsoil but unfortunately they don't deliver anymore.

    1. I'm really sorry to hear that Contra Costa Topsoil doesn't deliver anymore. Their Bancroft Bedding Blend would have been my #1 recommendation.

      Look at American Soil & Stone in Richmond: I use their Ultra Potting Mix for potted succulents, blended 50:50 with pumice. This should work in the ground as well. In other words, you'd have to order 50% Ultra Potting Mix and 50% pumice.


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