Brian's East Bay front yard transformed into a colorful desert garden

I've seen quite a few front yard conversions in recent years, driven by the historic drought as much as turf replacement rebates from local water districts and the State of California. But few conversions have been as complete and as successful as what my friend Brian has achieved at this home in Concord.

Brian has gone from the quintessential suburban front yard—a rarely used expanse of front lawn and some shrubbery along the sidewalk and driveway—to a garden bursting with beauty and life: All the pollinators for whom the previous incarnation was a wasteland now have a smorgasbord that is as never-ending as the California sun. In addition, Brian's water consumption has dropped to a fraction of what it had been before. I don't think you could do much better than that.

Here's a before and after:

Now let's take a closer look.

The new anchor plant is a 'Desert Museum' palo verde (Parkinsonia 'Desert Museum'). The palm tree is on the neighbor's property.

Brian (left) talking to Troy McGregor (right)

I parked right next to this flowering yucca, most likely an intergrade between Yucca pallida and Yucca rupicola:

The curving walkway creates two distinct areas, providing closer-up views of the wide variety of succulents Brian has planted (including many cactus):

Salvia clevelandii 'Pozo Blue'

Proof that waterwise plants are anything but dull
I have no idea how many individual plants there are (and Brian's doesn't really know either), but I bet it's more than you think

Ochagavia litoralis, a terrestrial bromeliad from Chile, next to Pallenis maritima, a daisy-like groundcover from the Canary Islands

Manfreda undulata 'Chocolate Chip'

Dyckia platyphylla (or hybrid) in front of golden coulter bush (Hymenolepis parviflora)

Not to make anyone envious, but check out this lush Acacia cognata 'Cousin Itt'

Golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) surrounded by Euphorbia myrsinites

Mammillaria geminispina
Aloe lineata var. muiri

Dioon califanoi and za'atar (Thymbra spicata)

Opuntia sulphurea
Compare THIS to the dull lawn that was here before!

Hesperaloe 'Brakelight'

My favorite vignette: Cleistocactus perched on its throne of rocks in front of Acacia cognata 'Cousin Itt'

Pink mulla mulla (Ptilotus exaltatus var. exaltatus) playing beautifully off the palo verde

Dudleya farinosa

Dudleya farinosa

Agave 'Desert Diamond'

Echeverias marching off into a sea of ice plants

Echeveria agavoides 'Lipstick'

You don't always need color to create visual interest

All the photos above are of the area that used to be the main lawn. The photos below are of the strip on the far side of the driveway, which used to be lawn as well.

The main source of color in this area is from a row of kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos 'Amber Velvet'):

The anchor plant is Aloidendron 'Hercules'. It's a fast grower (for a tree aloe, anyway) and will eventually tower over this corner
Coast woolybush (Adenanthos sericeus) and Anigozanthos 'Amber Velvet' (right)

Look closely—there are a lot of individual plants

Wider view
Another perfect example of textural contrast, with cushion bush (Leucophyta brownii) on the right

Agave 'FO-76' aka 'Sierra Mixteca' aka 'Not Really Titanota' and Dudleya virens

Aloe greatheadii var. verdoorniae

Perfect, unblemished Dudleya brittonii

South African succulent potpourri, featuring aloes, 'Campfire' crassula and blue chalk fingers

Even Brian's potted plants are not exactly ordinary: Leucadendron 'Ebony' and Banksia ashbyi

Leucadendron 'Ebony'

Below is a photo I took in July 2017—not even a year ago:

And now, June 2017:

The amount of growth is astounding!

Google is always good for "before" images; here are a few from April 2015:

These pictures vividly illustrate the transformation that has taken place.

The conversion project started in November 2016. The "bones" were completed by late spring 2017, but the tweaking has been ongoing.

Brian's main source of inspiration was the Ruth Bancroft Garden where he works as a volunteer several times a week. Many plants came from the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery; others were castoffs from the garden itself. Other plant sources include area nurseries like Markham Nature Park and Arboretum in Concord and Annie's Annuals in Richmond as well as mail-order nurseries like Arid Lands and Miles' To Go.

With our own front-yard conversion still fresh in my mind, I have a fairly good idea of how much work has gone into this project. Ryan Penn, the horticulturist at the Ruth Bancroft Garden, and Troy McGregor of Gondwana Flora provided input on design and plant selection, but the back-breaking labor of creating the mounds, placing the rocks (literally tons) and installing the irrigation was largely done by Brian himself. I think Brian has every reason to be proud of what he has accomplished!


  1. Wow, that is amazing! And so densely planted. Also, I would love to have cast offs from the Ruth Bancroft garden. Brian should definitely be proud of what he's done.

  2. Its been a real treat to see the transformation from lawn to garden. Brian has done a great job and is always willing to experiment with new plants. I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves through the coming years. I 'Believe' this is another great post Gerhard ;-)

  3. It looks fabulous! Not only is the mix of plants wonderful but each and every one looks to be in pristine condition. I wish I could say that about my own collection. The speed with which it's filled in is also remarkable and says a lot about the prep that went into the installation.

  4. What an amazing conversion. Everything looks like it's doing so well and there is so much more color and interested than a typical lawn.

  5. An impressive renovation ! I hope you'll take us back next year to see the progress. I wonder if he has to cover anything in winter ? I don't have a good feel for how cold it gets in Concord.

  6. I was happy to get the tour recently. Fun to see it through Gerhard's lens now. I was really impressed by how much room things had to 'breath' and yet how very many plants were sharing the space. A while back on Facebook I'd mentioned how much his neighborhood reminded me of my brother's. Right around the block as it turns out. Now I do a driveway every time we visit.

  7. Well, it's totally fabulous, but when I saw his Acacia 'Cousin Itt' I had to repress a scream. I've killed so many.

    So I guess he's not missing the lawn too much?

  8. Wow what an inspiration! I am still mustering the (monetary) will to embark on a very similar conversion of my own front lawn (which has been ripped out at least). Parkinsonia with also feature prominently in my design; I can't really think of a better desert tree that provides that perfect dappled shade from the burning afternoon sun upon an East facing inland succulent garden!
    Consummate plant selection on Brian's part, including many I've never heard of (Ptilotus exaltatus for one, wow!)


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