Fragrant lavender greets visitors who climb flagstone and river rock steps bordered by boulders that serve as a retaining wall.
Photo by Stephen Dabrowski
In 1997, Chris Prelitz and his wife, Heidi, found a bargain lot in pricey Laguna Beach, California. The canyon property was considered a poor location for a structure because a metal drain in the middle of the lot collects water from the surrounding hills. Yet Chris, a general contractor with a passion for sustainable building and permaculture (www.chrisprelitz.com), saw beyond the “barren brown funnel” toward a vision of an earth-friendly house and lush gardens.
The couple bought the lot, unaware that two previous owners had failed to get plans approved by Laguna’s design review board and that the adjoining land had been the site of a major landslide in the 1960s. Their land is a former ravine filled in the aftermath of that slide. “I was naïve,” Chris admits. “If I had been more savvy, I would never have bought this property, but my ignorance helped me.” He designed a three-story straw bale and woodframe house that occupied a sliver of high ground and planned landscaping that turned the bowl-shaped land into streambeds, stone paths, and lush native gardens. The design review board unanimously approved the plans at first pass.
Chris and Heidi planted the gardens first so they would have a view of lush foliage instead of the barren field. The native flora and fruit trees had two years to establish roots while they built their house.
Before planting could begin, Chris built retaining walls, terraces, and beds to prevent erosion on the steeply sloped land; used broken concrete to fashion a wall around the storm drain and basins for fruit trees; and designed paths and stepping-stone stairways. He observed the natural flow of water during rainstorms and used rocks and boulders to create a streambed that follows the water’s downhill path. Next, Chris installed irrigation. Although he planted only landscaping that would survive droughts, he explains that native species still require some additional water in their first years of growth; they can eventually be “weaned” off the extra water and will naturalize over time.
Finally, Chris mulched. He covered the land with six to eight inches of wood chips from a local tree trimmer. When it settled to half that depth, he added six inches more. No other soil amendments were used. “Six months later, we dug down and found worms. The soil was dark brown and had started to resemble the forest floor,” he says. “Just putting the mulch down was the best, most impactful transformation on the site. Very soon after that we planted the fruit trees, then the natives.”
In June 1998, the Prelitzes broke ground for their house. In April 1999, it was half built when Heidi, a forty-two-year-old therapist, dreamed a snake bit her on the chest, that she died, and that she was transported across a river in a white canoe by a Native American. When she told Chris about the dream, she said, “If something happens to me, don’t pine away. Find someone great and love them because love is all that matters.” A week later, Heidi suffered a fatal heart attack.
Bereft, Chris dealt with his grief by pouring his energy into the house. He gave up the rented cottage they’d lived in together and moved into the unfinished home. Friends helped him through the transition, and he kept building. A year later the home passed a final inspection, but the interior was still unfinished.
Around that time, an invitation for a Chicago seminar with spiritual teacher Ron Roth arrived in the mail, addressed to Heidi. Inexplicably, Chris felt drawn to go. At the opening mixer, he introduced himself to a woman from Long Beach, another community on the southern California coast. Chris and Becky felt a connection, and he invited her to visit when they returned to California. When she entered the Laguna Beach house, it took her breath away, and she started to cry. Five years before, she dreamt about living in just this sort of home. Chris and Becky began dating, and they finished the interior of the house together.
In March 2001, in the shade of sheltering trees and surrounded by flowers, fruits, and fragrant herbs, Chris and Becky planted a wedding tree as friends gathered to celebrate their union on the sacred ground of their garden.
The Art of Transformation: Tips for Your Garden
• Determine your site’s assets. Observe how sun, wind, water, and shade impact your site. Maximize the effects that work for you. Look for ways to create the assets your site lacks.
• Terrace to retain water and nutrients. On steep slopes, use broken concrete, logs, boulders, or even heavy-gauge chicken wire or hardware cloth barriers to hold mulch while it decomposes. Plant native species that do well at soil retention and erosion control.
• Irrigate. Natives need additional water the first two years.
• Improve the soil. Mulch generously and often. Chris’s idea was to replicate the regional forest floor with its thick carpet of leaves, bark, and decomposing vegetation.
• Plant natives and drought-tolerant species. For expert help, consult local native plant nurseries, permaculture institutes, and native plant societies.
• Be patient. Native plants spend their first two years establishing roots. After that, the visible vegetation starts to spread. Chris planted native seedlings six feet apart. “For a year or two, they weren’t very pretty, but if I had placed them any closer, I would have had to remove some after they began to flourish,” he says.
Editor’s Note: On June 1, 2005, a landslide occurred in the Bluebird Canyon area of Laguna Beach, California. Although Chris and Becky Prelitz’s home was located near the mudslide and they were evacuated for a time, they are fine and their beautiful home and garden continue to nurture them and provide habitat for local wildlife.