A modest yard is reimagined as garden rooms with verdant space for lounging, eating, even hanging out in a hot tub.
“Queen of the Night” cactus

The 15-foot-tall “Queen of the Night” cactus was started from a cutting. 

Undaunted by hard work, Rick and Brenda McDonald didn’t mind that their backyard needed a lot of TLC. Rick works with plants and Brenda grew up in a family of renovators. When they bought their first house, this early 1920s bungalow in Santa Barbara, its yard had been neglected for decades. Weeds and dying shrubs had overtaken the front area, and a car parked on the remains of the lawn hastened its demise. In the backyard, the ground had been covered with uneven concrete slabs that made walking difficult. The space was overshadowed by an overgrown orange tree. The picket fence was broken, the detached toolshed musty and full of mice. A rusty clothesline pole was the sole decoration.

bungalow exterior

The cute bungalow is outlined in a low hedge of wax-leaf privet, with potted boxwood on the front steps.

The couple recognized a diamond in the rough. The 1,500-square-foot backyard even had space for a greenhouse, for Rick’s interior plant business. Once the orange tree was gone, there would be room for seating and maybe, someday, a hot tub tucked into a corner. The yard got strong afternoon sun, so plants would prosper.

bungalow tool shed

Restored, the tool shed holds a collection of vintage bicycles.

Budget was limited, of course, as the interior of the house wasn’t much better and took priority. Slabs of sandstone were offered by a client redoing his terrace, so Rick snapped them up to replace the concrete. The couple assembled the stones like a giant jigsaw puzzle, finishing the paving with concrete grout.

Aeonium (tree houseleek)

A border of waxy, large-leafed Aeonium (tree houseleek) lines the back of the house.

At first, planting was simple: a free cutting of Cereus hildmannius (Queen of the Night cactus) thrived in the north yard, and pots of drought-tolerant succulents softened the space until more permanent plants could be added. For a while, even the orange tree prospered, probably from the dogs fertilizing its old roots.

In 2001, Rick and Brenda planned a second-floor addition, and in the process designed the backyard space. Everything was removed except for the cactus, which had grown ten feet. The center was to be an open seating area. The old barbeque fire-pit, its trellis about to collapse, would be replaced with a sturdier pergola of redwood beams to shelter an open bar and hot tub. This area would get bushy thickets of golden bamboo, and hedges of glossy-leafed Eugenia to provide privacy from neighbors. A sculptural California live oak became a new focal point in front.

backyard bar and hot tub

An open bar and hot tub occupy the northwest corner, where bamboo screens the yard from the neighbors.

Rick’s plant business had moved in 2012 and a greenhouse in the south yard torn down, so this area became another garden room. A screen of bright yellow–green sycamore, coniferous black pine, and feathery Japanese maple are a shady backdrop for beds of drought-tolerant plantings: sweetly fragrant star jasmine, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)—with leaves that turn from bright pink in spring to red and finally green—and purple red-leafed Loropetalum chinense (fringe flower). On the north side, plum and apricot trees now lend structure as well as fruit each summer. The lounge chair is a good spot for morning reading.

Bungalow stone pier

Piers were constructed with Colorado river-stone. Pots of drought-tolerant nestle on sunny back steps.

The front yard redo was recent. An overgrown tipu tree was removed by the city, revealing extensive rot in the picket fence surrounding the yard. The fence was rebuilt with a redwood arbor added. A low, fast-growing hedge of Ligustrum japonicum ‘Texanum’ (Japanese or wax-leaf privet) along the perimeter of the yard helps define its border. A shallow planter of showy, fancy-leafed rex begonias running the length of the front porch adds interest, along with a pink camellia trained into tree form.

two homeowners with dogs

Homeowners Brenda and Rick with Juni and Carmen (named after the “Spy Kids” movies’ brother and sister).

Divided into small rooms and conversation areas, with drought-resistant plantings chosen for Santa Barbara’s dry climate, the once-neglected gardens really are now functional extensions of the house. For a bungalow, that’s the whole idea. 

Art + Craft - this week's picks