Tackling the Yard: Curb Appeal

While I’m busy as a bee inside, Kevin has been making some awesome progress in the curb appeal department.

When we bought our home four years ago, it had a nice, clean front yard with a covered porch and a large lawn.

Our Yard - Before

By the time the house sold and we had moved in, the lawn was showing signs of wear and tear in the form of bare patches and browning grass. Rather than reseed, we decided that updating the front of the house would be our first project (maybe we’d earn a few brownie points with our new neighbors?).

Four years later, and this is our Spanish bungalow:

Kevin built a retaining wall that helped to level out a sloping front yard (the left side of the yard was about two feet higher than the bottom of the right – now they’re about even. You can really tell the difference in that our neighbor to the left has an even higher retaining wall while our neighbors on the right need none at all).

We added flagstone over the top of the straight cement pathway to give it a little curvy appeal, then filled in the gaps with a warm goldish tan decomposed granite. (Ignore that red pot there, we moved him off of the porch to grout the tile.)

Eventually the cement porch was tiled over as well, this time with beautiful Spanish saltillo tile.

And these are the real deal! We actually picked these handmade tiles out ourselves in Mexico (it’s only 30 minutes away, after all).

I had a lot of fun picking out and organizing the plant arrangements. My mom was a horticulture master at one point in her life and I loved to watch her draw her bird’s eye diagrams of outside areas. They were full of various sized circles, overlapping and intertwining to create beautiful mock-ups of how a yard would progress and what the result would be.

The basic takeaway I’ve always held on to is the issue of layering and height. Keep those tall bushes and plants towards the back (keeping in mind where they’ll grow to be, not the height you buy them at) and then layer in various middle growths until you reach your ground covering up front. My favorite variations include at least three and often four layers of growth.

Here’s an idea of everything we changed!

Accomplishing the above on a budget was not easy, and the full transformation took several years (I didn’t start blogging until it was well underway, so I have few in-progress or before pictures :().

Our biggest secret included Craigslist and more Craigslist. In fact, we bought very little of the above not on that magical site. We scored 75% of the plants we purchased from a nursery we found on Craigslist that was getting rid of its entire lot, even though it was an hours drive for us it was well worth it. $3 gallon plants! $1 succulents! Yes please. We bought small knowing that these guys would eventually take over. The funny thing is, three years later and the nursery is still there. We still buy $3 gallon grasses from them.

A huge challenge for us in choosing plants was to keep them style appropriate to the house (Mediterranean, Spanish) and to keep them of the drought tolerant variety as we really weren’t looking to spend a ton on water to maintain the yard. San Diego is a dessert (if not a beautiful one) so our choices were limited, hence the massive amount of tall grasses, succulents and plants in the lavender family.

Our lawn was also a Craigslist score. Believe it or not there are plenty of landscape contractors who sell their left over materials – even grass! – online. This was a tricky one because we actually bought each side of grass (left side of path and right side of path) from two different contractors (we couldn’t find enough from one), and even though they were from the same family of grass, they looked horribly different after we unrolled and planted. Thankfully they cross bred (didn’t know that was possible) and today look close to  identical. That would have been a tough lesson to learn.

Here’s the right side:

And here’s the left:

The saltillo tile is very authentic Spanish home – and buying it handmade in Mexico means that it literally is authentic in its look and style and it’s much cheaper than anything you can buy north of the border. We brought two huge truck bed loads over before the border patrol assumed we were attempting to resell illegally in the States and told us no more. But using it for your own land is legit, so it was all good :).

We received two gifts when redoing our front yard, the first were two amazingly beautiful olive trees from our neighbor who had changed their mind about olives and had dug ’em up. Olives are very Mediterranean which goes very well with our Spanish bungalow – it was a huge gift!

The second, my favorite yard addition, is a teak bench for the porch from my mom and step dad. It’s such a welcoming addition!

The funny thing about plants is how temperamental they are. Take this little cactus, for example. He’s done okay on this side of the pathway:

But has thrived on this side of the path! Just four feet to the right.

Kevin has the green thumb in this family and he keeps this yard looking ship shape all of the time. But we recently completed a couple of projects in the front and I’ll share those very soon. Now you’re all caught up on our curb appeal makeover!

(Do me a favor and just imagine a sunny sky above – today was a bit blustery in San Diego :)).

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  1. Kathryn says

    Your yard is amazing! I bet your neighbors did the happiest happy dance when you guys moved in!

    Could I bother you for a basic rundown of how you covered over your cement walkway with flagstone? Things like how you prepped the surface, how you chose the stone and the layout, what you used to secure the stones, how you set the decomposed granite, all those nitty gritty details. I’m thinking of doing something similar to the walkway in front of my house, and as a fellow San Diegan, I thought copying you would give me the best results!

    • says

      Hi Kathryn,
      Of course! Happy to share. We are doing the exact same procedure to our backyard cement pad (covering with flagstone, decomposed granite, etc) in about three weeks and I’ll be doing a big detailed post on how, but if you have any short terms questions I’m happy to answer (or quiz my husband) ;).

      Here’s the high level overview: we cleared out about a foot of lawn on each side of the existing cement walkway so that we could create a more organic flow with the flagstone, then we arranged huge flagstone chunks in various patterns (cutting and smashing pieces here and there to fit) until we liked the look and feel of the pathway. The flagstone pieces were adhered to the cement with mortar, we let that set and then filled in the cracks and edges (and some surrounding garden beds for balance) with decomposed granite in a complimentary color.

      I hope that’s helpful! We like RCP for flagstone and dg here in San Diego (if you can’t find extra material on Craigslist, of course!)

  2. Peggy says

    You guys did such an amazing job. The house and garden look perfect together! Drought tolerant plants are so fun to work with and so necessary in SD (or the West for that matter).

    • Morgan says

      Agreed! It’s tempting to purchase those beautiful flats of flowers but they require so much water.

  3. says

    Your yard is stunning. We just moved into our house last September and ours is even barer and plain than yours was before. Plus we have a super excessive amount of dandelions and other weeds as the person who owned it before us was elderly and totally neglected the landscaping.
    We had to cut back all the bushes major just to properly access pathways and entry with the knowledge that it might kill them off. And it did.
    Our big project outside this year is to do simple re landscaping and pathway. IN a few years we plan to extend the porch across the house and more landscaping but for now just clean it up a bit.

    • Morgan says

      Sometimes having to clear the entire yard is a blessing! Now you have a blank slate :) which is really exciting. I love your plans to extend the porch! I love a big open porch.

  4. says

    Dang! Nice work! It looks so much better and definitely more spanish. I’m a huge advocate for more plants, less lawn. This looks great and will probably bump up your property value, big time!

    • Morgan says

      Thanks, Jesse! A Spanish style home can be difficult to work with sometimes (it can feel so limiting!) but we love our little casa.

  5. says

    Wow, your front yard looks amazing! And what a transformation- I’m sure the neighbors are thrilled! What a blessing your mom is to help work out a plan- I tend to just stick something I like in the ground and hope for the best. :)

  6. Sandi says

    What a beautiful yard! I love all the improvements, esp that Mexican tile. That is some serious curb appeal!

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