Top navigation


Water Wise & Whimsy

by Soleil Tranquilli

After years of not quite getting around to designing my own landscape, I finally took the first steps toward a complete renovation in 2009. Eight years later, the renovated yard demonstrates our priorities: water conservation, use of predominantly native plants, reuse of materials, and support of wildlife, especially of pollinators. My home in Elk Grove, CA now showcases principles of ecological design serving as a demonstration garden. We have been featured twice on the sustainable landscape tour “Gardens Gone Native” tour, in the Northern Sacramento Valley of California, as well as my own local sustainable garden tour, Elk Grove Greener Gardens. 

My Elk Grove, CA yard in 2009 before the beginning of renovation.

Laying the Groundwork

I began the project with sheet mulching in the spring of 2009. The mulch stayed in place for seven years, until the renovation began winter/spring 2015.

Before the renovation, the gardens were overrun with California poppies and Bermuda grass, and water ran from the roof and driveway during storms.

All that long term mulching created a very deep sponge-like soil filled with worms, even though we do have heavy clay to work with.

The new driveway includes permeable paving strips.

Recycled concrete (aka Urbanite) from the old driveway was saved for use in pathways, wall, and steps.

A new micro-patio behind a seat wall planter allows us to view wildlife visiting the raised plantings all year round.

Another view of the patio.

Recycled windshield glass, also called Kryptonite, is incorporated into the wall and other areas for a sparkle of color.




Our planting theme was sages and other pollinator favorites, keeping to a low and cool palette. We used swaths of plants as much for visual impact as for pollinator delight. By paying attention to the structural details of the garden, we added color and textural interest that will hold the eye even when the garden is more spare in winter.

Special site considerations included a very persistent Bermuda lawn, heavy clay soils, feral cats, and a mostly shady northern exposure which receives extreme exposure from late afternoon western sun.

A suburban wind tunnel from east to west is managed with close plantings at edges of sidewalk to crowd out weed seed migrations, taller shrubs near the house and patio break wind flows.

Blue Fescue along the driveway will grow together to form a grassy weedblock.

Small trees and larger shrubs create multiple perches and cover for smaller birds, great for observing from the office windows.

Plantings begin to fill in garden beds.

Adding Lighting

An important aspect of the renovated garden is lighting. Although we are still awaiting professional low voltage landscape lighting, we know this will be the icing on the cake. In the meantime, we are field testing low cost solar options as found at Costco and other local sources. While costs are low, we also have found the look, product quality, and length of effect suffer greatly.

One of the low-cost lighting options we are testing.

We selected outdoor lighting that directs the light down, reducing light pollution.

We upgraded the outdoor light fixtures on the house with a lower profile modern design to accent our new landscape. The professional grade lighting is Dark Sky friendly, see Scientific evidence suggests that artificial light at night has negative and deadly effects on many creatures including amphibians, birds, mammals, insects, and plants that we want to invite into our landscape.

River Friendly Landscaping

My landscape design highlights our water management system that slows the water flowing from roofline to gutter. This landscape is located within the Laguna Creek Watershed; stormwater flows into Elk Grove Creek. Rainfall is checked and reabsorbed into the soil via several strategies: bioswales, rain garden, rain barrels, rain chain. In fact, this garden shows no runoff onto the sidewalk until storm events reach about 3″ of rainfall in 24 hours.

A sign in the yard proclaims its river-friendly landscaping.

Water from one roof line flows down a rain chain into the rain garden beyond.

The rain garden is hard at work during a storm. The clay soil allows no runoff, even with storm events of 3” rainfall.

Irrigation makes good use of Netafim grid with .4 emitters and a Water Sage smart controller.

California poppies and Blue Fescue fit the bill for low and very low water use.

One of the  grey water emitters attached to the greywater system.

A bonus tour of the back side yard reveals a Laundry to Landscape greywater system that we use to grow fruit trees and other moderate water use edibles, as installed by Shallow pits deposit water between edible plantings.

Water-wise Hydrozoning

All front yard plants are Water Use for Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) indicating they are low and very low water use, with the exception of plants in pots, rain garden, and side yard edibles.


Walnut shells are a local agricultural byproduct that provides a clean, neat, long lasting mulch.

Our renovated yard in 2016.

Professionally designed, installed, tweaked, and maintained by California EcoLandscapers, our garden is dedicated to gardening matriarchs Betty, Willa, Clara, and Martha.

Many thanks to all our collaborators and accomplices.


Landscape Design: Soleil Tranquilli, Tranquill Gardens 916-685-8010

Landscape Contractor: Eric Zemlicka, Zscapes

Electrician: Terry Steele, Steele Electric

Water Catchment, L2L & Greywater Installation: Chris & Rodger of

Rain Gutters: TopRank HVAC

General Contractor: Ed Dyer

Stone and Kryptonite: MidValleyRock

Walnut Shell Mulch: RoundTree

Mulch: Nicolai Laquaglia

Permeable pavers: Xeripave

Exterior light fixtures: Lofting Lighting

Netafim: Ewing Irrigation

Irrigation Controller: On Point Water Sage

Garden Art: The Shaman’s Garden

Nursery & Materials

Green Acres

Morningsun Herb Farm

Devil Mountain Nursery


Digging Dog Nursery

CalFlora Nursery


Four Winds Nursery

Cornflower Farms

About the Author

Soleil Tranquilli holds AA degrees in Horticulture and advanced certification with The California School of Garden Design. Locally she is an EcoLandscaper and a Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper. Soleil’s landscapes strive to unify home and garden while honoring the environment and natural resources. She is deeply committed to water efficient landscapes (WEL) and delighted to create human and wildlife habitat with California native plants. Inviting folks back into the garden is her passion. Visit her at


Each author appearing herein retains original copyright. Right to reproduce or disseminate all material herein, including to Columbia University Library’s CAUSEWAY Project, is otherwise reserved by ELA. Please contact ELA for permission to reprint.

Mention of products is not intended to constitute endorsement. Opinions expressed in this newsletter article do not necessarily represent those of ELA’s directors, staff, or members.