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Photo by James BunoanFinding Sandra Huwe's home is easy, once you find her street, which is zig-zagged back in an aging-gracefully tract in Orange. Once you get there, just look for the house you can't see.
"Oh, it's not that good," says Huwe, laughing like she gets a lot of practice. "Not yet."
True. The roof is still visible from the street, and so is the part of the house at the end of the driveway, which used to be the garage and is now a living room but is being remodeled again, along with several other quirky corners of what used to be a perfectly normal 1950s-style structure. But the rest of the place is shrouded by plants. California-native plants.
"Oh, they're not allCalifornia natives," Huwe says, gushing forth another good-natured correction. "Not yet."
Life at the Huwe house, then, is obviously a work in progress.
"Well, when we arrived here years ago, from South Dakota, we were just so thrilled that everything would grow here that we planted 25 fruit trees," says Huwe, who reels off their names as though they're her kids—"peach, apple, fig, macadamia, lemon, apricot, tangelo, guava and pear"—even though she has only two of those.
The Huwes put in all kinds of other plants, too, most of which derived from all over the country.
"And then," Huwe says, not quite so cheerfully, "the drought happened."
The rain stopped falling in Southern California—kind of . . . oh . . . like it has again recently and does every few years—which led to a variety of water-rationing techniques and programs, from not ordering water in restaurants to ratcheting up water billing rates. Eventually, even newspapers wrote about it.
"An article about native plants described how most of them are drought-resistant," Huwe recalled. "Since they grow here naturally, they don't need to be watered all the time. It made sense, so we pulled out our front lawn."
In place of a water-sucking savanna, which still dominates the front of every other house in the neighborhood like a garish green tie that everybody has gotten used to, the Huwes planted wild flowers and Mexican lobelia and goldenrod and coastal sages and buckwheat and Catalina ironwood.
"We loved the color and fragrance right from the start," says Huwe. "And we felt so much better, not having to soak a lawn twice a week or use fertilizer or contribute to air pollution or noise pollution by using a lawnmower. But the best part is the creatures and insects that the native plants attract. The yard has come alive. You can hear the difference, especially at night. It's like a little symphony."
As the new environment grew, Huwe wasn't satisfied to watch it from her window. So she laid down walkways and a brickwork patio that now allows her to sit or recline at various locales throughout her garden.
And that environment has continued to expand, as Huwe has been compelled to pull out grass all around her house—the sides, the back, the front parkway—and then to remove concrete, too. All of it has been replaced with more and more natives.
"When I started out, I didn't know what I was doing," Huwe acknowledges. "After you get into it for a while, you realize what needs to go where. And by paying attention—to how much sun shines in particular places, where moisture tends to accumulate, the different kinds of soils—you get a much more personal relationship with the little patch of land you own. And then, by extension, with all of nature because you start to see your yard as a mirror of that."
Huwe says attending OC chapter meetings of the California Native Plant Society has been indispensable to the changing design of her home. So have hikes in the local hills and flatlands, where she can see first-hand which plants and soils go together. And Huwe has developed a special affinity for butterflies. Many of the plants in her yard are there either as food or larvae hosts for particular species—including the state butterfly, the California dogface.
By now, Huwe's basic, L-shaped, California ranch-style home features four distinct climatic areas. Along the parkway is the grasslands, the front features lots of coastal sage scrub, the north side of the house has chaparral, and the rear is riparian.
"You can basically take a quick walk through Southern California," Huwe says, grinning with pride.
Pride but not fanaticism. Huwe's version of Southern California shares some of the impurities found in the real deal. Like those fruit trees, for instance.
"I thought about taking them out, but I don't like killing something that is still living," she says. "I only water the natives, so if the other plants can live off that, great. And you know what? They can! The fruit trees are surviving with the natives; I've got a peach tree out back that's ready to pop right now."
Huwe takes a seat in her front-yard patio, shielded from the street, and sighs happily.
"Who would have known I'd end up with a garden like this?" she asks herself aloud. "Not me. A lot of times, nature shows you the way."