In relocating from Sydney to Santa Barbara, Jen and Andy McBride found a sweet little bungalow that was the epitome of “California Dreaming.” Well, almost. The 1930s home had a quaint front porch with mountain views, but most of the original charm was obscured by mustard yellow paint, a thirsty lawn, and dry, scraggy bushes.
To transform the long-neglected gardens in front and back, the couple hired Isa Hendry Eaton of Isa Bird Design. Armed with white paint, fresh greens, and cheerful citrus, the designer “added lightness and brightness” at every turn, along with heritage olive trees that look like they’ve always been there. The result? A true California oasis. Here’s how Eaton brought it to life (steal some ideas if your lawn is in need of a refresh!).
The Front Yard
Think Outside the Pots
Before, the front garden was heavy on containers which made a messy barrier between the home and sidewalk. Now the garden is bursting with curb appeal thanks to thoughtful, in-ground repeating plants in monochromatic greens, blues, and silvers.
Perk Up the Palette
When you’re giving your garden a facelift, it’s important to think about the backdrop. The power of paint is real! A black and white palette on the exterior of the house allowed the natural landscape shine.
Add Color Carefully
To maintain the stark new palette, Isa used floral colors sparingly and “instead focused on a lush textured palette of foliage in contrasting greens, blues. and silvers.” Little hits of color come in via Pink Powder Puff Vines (Calliandra) along with a Meyer lemon tree for a burst of yellow.
Plant List! Greens: Little Ollie, Pittosporum compactum, Acacia Cousin Itt, Sesleria autumnalis, Ligustrum texanum. Blues: Dianella Cassa Blue, Agave Blue Nova, Senecio serpens. Silvers: Platinum Lomandra and Smokey Westringia.
Work Your Walkway
Create a step stone entrance rather than letting the driveway do the job. Here, Isa Bird replaced an overbearing brick driveway that took up most of the front yard and added offset concrete pavers made for a more modern entrance surrounded by lush plants. This layout repeats out back, giving bare feet a clean walkway.
The Back Yard
Designate Outdoor Zones
Maximize a small garden with a series of comfortable "rooms" delineated by landscaping and hardscaping. The McBride's back garden now includes an outdoor kitchen, dining area, and firepit lounge, where the homeowners shift day to night. “In the morning you can find us here drinking coffee and on the weekends around the dinner table, enjoying cocktails with friends,” says Andy.
Plant a Tree—or Four!
Nothing grounds newness like something vintage. To juxtapose an entirely new garden, Isa planted four 80-year-old fruiting olive trees with gnarled trunks that conjure up old Mediterranean groves. While beautiful, their function is key as the 18-foot canopies provide significant shade and screening for privacy. “It may seem counterintuitive to add such big trees in a small garden, but the height contrast was essential to help create our series of outdoor rooms,” Isa says. “They give a garden an instant sense of dignity and permanence.”
To break up all the hardscape (gravel and tiled patio) Isa added a small grassy area that helps pull the eye into the garden. “It’s plenty big enough to sink your toes into, lay in the sun, or for the resident kitty to play on—a little lawn goes a long way!”
The homeowners loved the patterned “Cuban star” cement tile on the front stair risers so much the team carried it onto the dining patio out back. Says Isa: “My clients are usually nervous and excited about adding patterned tile in the garden, but it often ends up being their favorite element (along with large trees) that feels playful and fresh.”
Any size garden requires planning, but Isa says small gardens need extra thought. “There’s no room to waste space on dysfunctional design,” she says. “I like to know exactly what furniture we are using and exactly how guests will be entertained before finalizing the design. I see small gardens as opportunities to live fully in your space.”
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