From Eyesore to Enchantment: A Laguna Beach Garden

In Laguna Beach, a drainage ditch is transformed into a paradise.

| July/August 2005

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 (, 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.

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