San Rafael residents rethink gardens during a time of drought

When John and Marcia Lenser moved 29 years ago to San Pedro Cove in San Rafael—“the most tight-knit community in Marin,” he says—their property had beautiful front and back lawns.

However, the drought, along with associated water restrictions and high water costs, forced the couple to reconsider their gardens.

They reduced the lawn in their back garden by expanding flower beds and adding a large stone fire pit, hardscape, and freshwater lily pond, but it’s their front end that draws all the attention.

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In June 2021, they replaced the entire front yard, approximately 520 square feet, with drought tolerant plants that are minimally irrigated by drip and bubbler irrigation. The goal was “to create a beautiful appearance at the front of our home that adds value. I wanted to reduce water use and avoid installing artificial grass, an approach used by several neighbors,” he says.

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“The mission was very successful. The garden that is the envy of the neighborhood given the many positive comments we receive from neighbours.”

Lenser, who grew up in Southern California, already had some gardening experience. His mother always had one and would pay him a penny for every snail he found in it. He loves gardening with annuals and flowering perennials giving him an abundance of seasonal colour.

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When it came to redesigning his front yard, he jumped in immediately.

John and Marcia Lenser's front yard is an eye-catcher.  (Photo by John Lenser)

Photo by John Lenser

John and Marcia Lenser’s front yard is an eye-catcher.

“I personally designed the garden and hardscape with an approach that harmonized with the Cove landscaping,” he says.

Under his direction, he had a local gardener remove the old lawn and add soil, but otherwise, he says, he did most of the work himself, including installing the irrigation, hardscape, and plants.

The front yard consists of three planting areas separated by walkways and the driveway and planted with the same plants. These include a backdrop of Mexican sage and bugleweed on the center island; in the borders are Autumn Sage, Garden Speedwell, Spiny Speedwell, Bacopa, Garden Petunia, and Coast Petunia.

He stuck to a color palette of purple, pink, and white tones.

He also added a paved walkway to an area that had previously been grass and placed small colored pebbles around the islands.

The redesign of the front garden was completed within six weeks.

Looking back, he says it was “hard work and took longer than I expected”.

He also learned that “any plant tagged as ‘partial sun’ quickly died and had to be replaced,” he says. “Even with plants in full sun, I regularly have to replace some.”

Now, however, his water use has been reduced by 70%, and instead of mowing and watering his old lawn, the hardest part of maintaining his new garden is weeding and replacing dead plants.

The best part? “The compliments I get from my neighbors,” he says.

Sale of native plants

Thinking of adding some native California plants to your landscape this fall? Then now is the perfect time to shop and plant. The Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society has some pretty perfect natives ready to transplant into your garden and support Marin’s pollinators.

The CPNS is offering its Fall Native Plant Sale online from October 6th at 6pm to October 10th at 6pm. Purchased plants can be picked up at the Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae on October 15th from 10.30am to 1pm.

According to the Marin chapter of the CNPS, some of the species on offer will be elderberry; coffee berry; holly cherry; gooseberries; currants; snowberry; lemonade berry; tree mallow; Pacific ninebark; coyote brush; spice bush; spurge; buckwheat; Douglas iris; Beach Aster; wild honeysuckle; monkey flower; blue flax; foothills of Penstemon; California bee plant; checker blooms; fringed cups; rubber tree; datura; ceanothus and salvias.

Some of these plants can also make good fire-safe choices if you remove existing fire-threatened species.

Look for replacement plant options here at

Details: Order online for the Fall Native Plant Sale from October 6 at 6 p.m. to October 10 at 6 p.m. at Collect purchased plants on October 15 from 10:00am to 1:00pm at the Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae. Prices vary. For more information, email [email protected]


If you have a beautiful or interesting Marin garden or newly designed Marin house, I’d love to hear about it.

Please send an email describing one (or both) what you love most about it and a photo or two. I will publish the best ones in the coming columns. Your name will be published and you must be over 18 and a Marin resident.

Don’t miss the event

• Mostly Natives is an exhibit presented by the Bolinas School of Botanical Art in September at the Bear Valley Visitor Center at 1 Bear Valley Road in Point Reyes Station. On display are the botanical artworks by local artists Anna Glade, Bobbi Likover, Celeste Woo, Cher Stone, Dana O’Connor, Judy Stemen, Martha Proctor, Meg Simonds, Sandy Thomas and Sara Bettini. The opening hours of the center are daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Call 415-464-5100.

PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertainment topics every Saturday. She can be contacted at PO Box 412, Kentfield 94914 or at [email protected]

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