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A Design Case Study: An Earth-Friendly Urban Oasis in San Diego

Articles: A Design Case Study: An Earth-Friendly Urban Oasis in San Diego

Summer 2024 

When the opportunity arose to bring her sustainable garden values home, California-based landscape designer Andrea Doonan walked her talk. She and her husband, a restoration ecologist, overhauled the modest garden alongside their San Diego Craftsman home to include rain barrels, a worm bin, and climate-adapted native plants—not to mention solar power and an electric vehicle charger.

“Showcasing small space sustainable gardens is so valuable as we all don’t have an acre to work with,” Doonan said. “In just under 4,000 square feet, we implemented water harvesting, food production, with nooks for entertaining, recharging, and supporting the local wildlife.”

Sunset in Early Spring. Credit: Andrea Doonan

In addition to being active in local art and food communities, Doonan is an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, holds a degree in horticulture, and sits on the board of the San Diego chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. From big strokes to quirky personal touches, Doonan’s garden vividly reflects her love of art, food, and nature—creating a dynamic, homey retreat.

Evening Succulents. Credit: Andrea Doonan

The installation, completed in 2022, was a collaboration between the designer, her husband, and a few dedicated colleagues.  The fence was installed by L. Watson Design Co, a design-build landscape contractor, and rainwater harvesting measures were collaboratively designed and installed with help from Catching H2O. 

The front yard nearest the house has a new look with a colorful and curated mix of native plants, while the parking strip overflows with tomatoes and fruit. The backyard is a leafy oasis shaded by an adjacent jacaranda tree and populated by a few choice non-natives that Doonan kept.

“The tall green ficus wall makes the space feel private like you’re not in the city, while the existing brugmansia and wisteria produce fragrance almost year-round,” she said.

Native Plants Live Here. Credit: Andrea Doonan
Ozzie in Spring. Credit: Andrea Doonan

The design continues to evolve in stages to fit the couple’s budget and needs. “It’s a living laboratory that shifts and changes over time and helps inform me as (an always growing) designer.”

Doonan’s design offers wonderful ideas for how to enrich smaller gardens that anyone can accommodate. She designs around five themes that support the wider ecosystem while beautifying and nourishing the community: Welcome Wildlife, Harvest Rainwater, Share with Your Neighbors, Reuse and Preserve Resources, and Be Rooted in Place.

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Wildlife amid Nightlife

The home’s vibrant Normal Heights neighborhood is surrounded by restaurants and nightlife, as well as canyons just blocks away, and Doonan’s plantings teem with creatures from yellow-faced bumble bees (Bombus vosnesenskii) and Gulf fritillaries (Dione vanilla) to Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) and Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii).

Cleveland Sage with fish swimming behind. Credit: Andrea Doonan
Little Seed Library. Credit: Andrea Doonan

She enjoys watching birds forage every morning in the back sedge (Carex) “lawn” punctuated with yarrow (Achillea) and wildflowers.

Cultivating Rain

Multiple systems capture and hold rain on the property as long as possible, ranging from equipment to planting water-wise natives, reaping impressive results. 

“On the south side of the house, all water drains into a large retention basin surrounded by berms,” Doonan said. The water table alone provides almost enough water for the native plants she planted in the area. “On the north side of the house, we have a rain tank that overflows into our wildflower alley. When we compared our water bill with the previous owners, we were at a quarter of their usage.”

Growing Food and Community

One of Doonan’s goals was to make the garden more welcoming to the neighborhood. To that end, she removed two ancient coral trees (Erythrina) looming over the front yard—which upset some neighbors who had grown attached to them. Now, however, neighbors regularly stop by to ask about the plants—and to see what’s in season.

Doonan has a passion for growing food—she has been a Slow Food Santa Cruz board member—so she fits in edible plants wherever she can for clients and at home. Her raised beds, filled with edibles, are on an irrigation system.

A Classic Fleetside Pickup with Squash and Sunflowers. Credit: Andrea Doonan

“I find it really inspiring to see how many ways people grow food and how food connects us. The act of wandering through the garden to forage for a meal is not only good for you nutrient-wise but is another way to really connect to your food and nature.”

Here, the edible feast starts at the curb but continues into the backyard, which regularly hosts community get-togethers. 

“We turned our entire sidewalk strip into a ‘pocket farm,’” said Doonan. “Two raised beds and three fruit tree wells give us a lot of produce, and large pots house dwarf fruits in the backyard. We had enough tomatoes to can and put out a basket in the yard to share with passersby. Aside from food, we put harvested wildflower seeds out to share with neighbors.”

Preserving Resources

Along with the rain catchment measures, growing local food and climate-adapted plants, Doonan reused as much as possible from the demolition and construction process. Instead of being trucked to a dump, broken concrete urbanite found a new life as fruit tree planters in the sidewalk strip.

Nurturing a Sense of Place

Good design is rooted in its unique location, seeming to grow organically from it. Doonan’s use of regionally native plants makes the garden feel “at home” here, like they might have seeded in from the nearby canyons.

Ozzie knows that This Must Be The Place. Credit: Andrea Doonan

A mosaic, crafted by Doonan, speaks volumes about her love of the area. Mounted on the garage facing a seating area, it’s made of broken pottery and scrap tiles from some favorite tile companies. “The mosaic depicts my interpretation of San Diego from coast to cactus and is an ode to the most biodiverse county in the country,” she said.

This article was sponsored by: The Summer=Dry Project

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