From Eyesore to Enchantment: A Laguna Beach Garden

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

| July/August 2005

  • Fragrant lavender greets visitors who climb flagstone and river rock steps bordered by boulders that serve as a retaining wall.
    Photo by Stephen Dabrowski
  • Sculptures of plucky women, created by Becky’s late mother, Betsy Ogilby, serve as benevolent guardians of the joyously ­tangled foliage.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • Artful decoration on the outside of the house creates a gracious atmosphere in the garden. Here a sacred carving from Asia is displayed beside a stone and shell mosaic backdrop for a rain chain.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • Fruit from the strawberry guava tree is part of Chris and Becky’s edible landscaping. It’s one of the first trees planted on the property before the home was built and bears delicious fruit year-round.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • Before: Before Chris Prelitz and his first wife, Heidi, began planting their natural gardens, their barren lot featured a large, unattractive drainage ditch as its centerpiece.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • After: Chris and Becky’s lot has been transformed into a beautiful and lush natural landscape in which their strawbale and woodframe home nestles serenely.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • What used to be an ugly drainage ditch is now a serene garden meditation spot—presided over by St. Francis.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • A tempting day bed on the deck overlooking the garden invites mid-day naps or sleeping under the stars on warm summer nights.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • A mixture of native and drought-tolerant plants thrive in the garden, which is now a certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Sycamore and elderberry trees create shade, and white sage covers the hillside. When it rains, a creek meanders down the slope. Red trumpet flowers tempt hummingbirds and butterflies. Guavas, lemons, and mandarin oranges beg to be picked.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • This gulley guides runoff down the hillside.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • Nick the kitty prowls the wilds of his own private jungle.
    Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
  • Love in bloom ... Chris and Becky embrace in the garden where they were married among flowers, fruits and fragrant herbs.
    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 (, 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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