Natural Resources

It took almost two decades of living away in big, busy cities for me to be able to finally appreciate the natural assets of Southern California.

It took almost two decades of living away in big, busy cities for me to be able to finally appreciate the natural assets of Southern California. No, we don’t have gorgeous buildings that date back more than 200 years or that fabulous go-go energy, but we do have the Pacific Ocean.

A hike overlooking the Palos Verdes coastline beats the thrill of being swept along by the bustling crowds of Soho, in my opinion. And while a terrace with Central Park views is spectacular, owning a plot of land — even if it’s a small one — is better. Plus, we have perfect weather, all year long.


While technically we returned from New York 11 years ago for my husband’s work, the weather played a big part in our decision. I just couldn’t bear the thought of searching for missing mittens every winter morning. I suspect many people living in the South Bay chose this spot in large part because of the weather. And while we all may enjoy the area’s mild winters and cool summers, those of us who are gardeners — or garden-lovers — are most enchanted by it. Everything, it seems, thrives here.


Beautiful plants are everywhere we look — in a neighbor’s front garden or on a wild hillside. Sometimes we just have to take a quiet moment to notice. In this issue, we highlight three different gardens in the South Bay. One is a large property that’s become an oasis for a family of five; the second is a small, well-designed garden on a walk street in Manhattan Beach; and the third is the South Coast Botanic Garden, where garden-lovers come to be inspired.


A large plot of land is an asset, but it also poses challenges, landscape designer Miriam Rainville said. Scale is key. Expansive areas can beckon visitors to the garden, but we all crave intimate spaces, too. The property Rainville designed in Palos Verdes Estates has a large pool area and the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. Small-scale spots are placed throughout, like a curved pathway lined with encroaching grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass), Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light,’ as well as euphorphia, sedum, lavender and geraniums. Other areas include a cozy sitting area and a nook with ocean views that’s sheltered by the walls of the Spanish colonial style house. “The garden expands and contracts,” Rainville noted.

While getting the scale right is one thing, another important factor in designing a large garden in Southern California (or even a small one, for that matter) is getting the plants right. Everything Rainville chose here, she said, “is water-wise.” Some plants, like the agaves and purple prickly pear cactus, which provide shelter to local quail on the property’s slope to the ocean, are native to the area, while others, like the eye-popping, chartreuse kangaroo paws from Australia, are compatible to our climate. She used large succulents to create structure in parts of the garden and smaller succulents to provide color.

“I wanted a controlled disarray in the garden,” Rainville said. “It has a natural feeling, though every detail, every plant was selected specifically for each spot in the garden.” Her attention to detail pays off. The flora Rainville brought to this cliff overlooking the Pacific looks as if it’s always belonged.

Landscape designer Miriam Rainville likes to include plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds and even bees. (“Bees,” she explained, “are pollinators that insure the procreation of all the plants.”) Here are some of her favorites that thrive in the South Bay:

Johnson’s Blue geranium: The bees love this.

Salvia leucantha, also known as Mexican bush sage: showy purple or white blooms. Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Teucrium fruticans, or tree germander: a Mediterranean native that does well in coastal areas of Southern California. It’s a favorite of butterflies and bees.

Buddleia davidii, also known as butterfly bush: Rainville’s favorite variety is ‘Black Knight,’ with dark purple flowers. Not surprisingly, butterflies adore this plant.

Brugmansia, or angels’ trumpet, pictured above: enormous flowers, most fragrant at night, hang from this tall shrub, attracting hummingbirds. (Note: this plant is poisonous if ingested by humans or pets.)

Contact Miriam Rainville of Rainville Design Associates in Palos Verdes Estates at 310-378-2650.


The closer you get to the beach, the tighter the squeeze for space. As a result, houses get tall and gardens get smart. A well-designed outdoor space on a walk street in Manhattan Beach gets high marks for its thoughtful plan and plant materials. “With beach living, you have to maximize the space you have,” said Rob Jones, a principal at the landscaping firm Jones & Potik who worked on the project with the home’s builder, Steve Lazar. The small, 18-by-18-foot garden packs in all the homeowners could want: a seating area for lounging, a view of the beach, water and fire elements, privacy and gorgeous plants.

“I wanted to create a comfortable space with a strong presence that would complement the house,” said Jones. Enormous glass windows open wide, creating easy flow between the outdoor living space and the casual, concrete-floored “beach room” just inside. An ipé wood deck, just the right size for casual entertaining, is surrounded by concrete walls and planters filled with succulents and grasses. The plant choices, Jones said, “follow the home design. I liked the clean lines of the succulents for this project, their color, texture and sculptural forms.” 

Planters of different heights filled with spiky Dracaena draco or Canary Islands dragon tree, euphorbia, giant aloes, black aeonium and sedum; various grasses like giant bamboo and blue fescue; and flaxes including a variety called ‘Amazing Red,’ provide privacy from the well-traveled walk street. A circulating water element that has water flowing along the home’s main entryway and eventually into a basin near the seating area “gives the house a feeling that it’s alive and well,” Jones noted. The fire element, Jones said, is magical at night. “People are drawn to light. There’s comfort in a warm fire.” It’s great when friends are around and just as enticing when one is alone. “You can just watch the movement of the dancing flames,” Jones said. This garden’s small, but it’s one you might never want to leave

Tips from landscaper Rob Jones for designing a garden in a small space:

Consider your relationship with your outdoor space: Do you want to simply look at beautiful foliage from inside the house or do you want to live in the outdoor area?

If you want to live in the space, what will draw you out there? A comfortable chair? Plants that need nurturing? A fire pit?

Think of how you want to use your space: Do you like to have people over for dinner? If so, carve out room for a barbeque and a dining table. Do you want a calming space for unwinding alone at the end of the day? A comfortable chair is key, and a fountain might be nice. Are you a sunbather? Site a lounge chair in a sunny spot.

Ask yourself if you have the desire (and time) to work in the garden. What plants are important to you? Cutting flowers? Vegetables? Or do you really need low-maintenance plants?

“Take cues from your home,” Jones advised. “Let your house drive the design of the garden.”

Contact Rob Jones of Jones & Potik, Inc. at 310-204-0506.


Though many of us live nearby, it seems not many of us have ventured inside the gates of the South Coast Botanic Garden. It’s right there on Crenshaw Boulevard — and has been for about 50 years — but somehow it’s remained a hidden gem. Now’s a good time to discover it.

“Different parts of the garden shine at different times of the year,” said Tanya Finney, the arboretum gardener here. “In late summer, the dahlia garden is truly wonderful,” she said. “Hundreds of different varieties, in all color combinations, are in full bloom. In early fall, the rose garden is just spectacular.” She added, “The desert and succulent gardens are always beautiful. These plants don’t even need to be in bloom to show off.” 

While inspecting the 300 species of cacti and succulents here, consider planting some of these water-wise plants at home. Your garden won’t look like a desert, promised Pedra Furmall, assistant arboretum gardener. “Most succulents have beautiful blooms and vibrant color year-round in their leaves.” Add a ground cover of lush, low-growing succulents, she said, and “your garden can appear exotic and tropical.”

By planting cacti and succulents, she added, “you provide a diverse wildlife habitat. Hummingbirds are attracted to aloe blooms and cactus flowers can attract honey bees and moths. Lizards frolic along the base of these plants, and small birds occasionally nest inside.” Plus, the plants are easy to care for. Just make sure they have good drainage and don’t over-water them. They’ll do the rest.

When planting cacti and succulents at home, assistant arboretum gardener Pedra Furmall suggested clustering them for large drifts of colors. “Use a plant palette of limited varieties rather than a large mix-up of different ones,” she said. She suggested placing tall plants, like the spiky Aloe ferox, also known as Cape aloe, in the back of a bed; some medium-size plants like aeoniums (try ‘Voodoo’ for deep purple color and ‘Mint Saucer’ for lime-green leaves) and echeverias in the middle of the bed; and, in the foreground, some low-growing plants, like colorful sedums.

Here are three of Furmall’s favorites:

Echeveria gibbiflor hybrid, pictured above: There are many hybrids of this succulent that focus on ruffled leaves, intense color and even warts. “Echeverias look like they belong on Mars,” Furmall said.

Echinopsis: This plant, sometimes called hedgehog cactus, has huge flowers in a range of colors. A four-foot cactus can produce a flower larger than the plant itself. For lots of gorgeous blooms try the varieties Echinopsis coronata, E. huascha or E. oxygona.

Euphorbia xantii: A delicate shrub, also known as white spurge, that produces lots of pink flowers that turn white as they age.

South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Boulevard in Palos Verdes. 310-544-1948. Open everyday except for Christmas, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.