Livin' Life Lawn-Free


The before” photos of Bob and Jean Bonar’s front yard show a tidy, flat lawn, two shade trees and a couple of shrubs. Shots of the backyard capture a pool, some lawn (which they were in the process of killing), a cement pad and pool equipment. Lots of pool equipment. The Bonars, who love color and art, wanted surroundings that were more and less: more visually appealing, less water sucking.

They knew it was possible. They had seen it down the street in a neighbor’s yard that Roberta Walker of Roberta Walker Landscape Design in Sacramento totally revamped. That’s what the Bonars wanted for their own place: a vibrant mix of water-thrifty, low-maintenance trees and perennials that looked good year-round. 

“That’s my MO,” says Walker, known for her striking plant combinations and climate-appropriate gardens. “I am a color freak, and my palette is drought-tolerant, easy-to-maintain plants.” She happily dug into the Bonars’ ho-hum landscape, creating instead a lively collection of plantings dotted with carefully crafted and curated art pieces. Grass? Not a blade. People have noticed. Bob talks about a conversation he had recently with someone who walks his dog past the house. “He told me, ‘You know, I’ve probably taken 20 pictures of your front yard. I’m a grass guy, but this? It’s really starting to convince me.’” 

The house: A Streng Brothers midcentury-modern-style home in Sacramento, built in 1974. The Bonars bought in 1985. “We loved the openness, the light and the style,” Jean says. In 2011, after “launching” two children, they started remodeling the interior, enlisting the services of interior designer Katie Denham. They renovated the pool in early 2014.

Then, no rain: “We were always going to redo the landscape,” Jean says, “but the drought had gotten so bad, we thought, ‘We have to do it now.’” 

The plan: Walker used about 80 plant species, selecting for vivid tones, texture, shape and stamina. “Pure potential—that’s what I thought when I saw the yards and the home’s architecture,” she says. “I knew we wanted to stay clean and modern.” Robert Walden of Walden Green Industries in Sacramento handled the installation.

Aesthetically speaking: Imaginative steel sculptures by Michael Boghosian set a contemporary tone in the front and back yards. 

Modern motifs: Walker repeated the sculptures’ rustic design elements in the mesh fence along the front of the house and in linear drains for the backyard’s new flagstoned deck. She found a midcentury-modern motif she liked and used it for a patio screen (made by Theresa Fike) and in the steel panels Diane Goettlicher built to conceal the pool equipment. 

Linear reinforcement: Bricks create a boundary between yard and driveway. A row of hawthorn trees nearby attracts bees. “When they are in bloom, the bees can’t stay away,” Jean says, laughing. “It’s a real honeybee factory.”

Cool solution: Umbrellas that Jean and Bob found at Emigh Hardware provide backyard shade without ruining the view from the kitchen. “They span 20 feet by 20 feet when they’re open,” Walker notes. “We built them right into the decking.” 

Use and beauty: Heath Ceramics tile in robin’s egg blue lines an exterior wall at the back of the house. “That was Roberta’s idea,” Bob says. “We also have Heath tile in the kitchen. . . . We spread the tile out on the living room floor and designed it and redesigned it again and again until we got the pattern we wanted.” A custom cabinet holds wet bathing suits and towels.

Sittin’ pretty: An Eames lounge chair in a living room corner is a perfect perch for enjoying the garden, especially the fountain outside the window. “I can sit here and watch the hummingbirds that come to the fountain,” Jean says. “It’s just enchanting. . . . We are so happy that we loved our neighbor’s yard so much.”