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Case Study: Altamira Project

They started with bare ground. But it was not a typical home site, and in this case the bare ground was telling them that there was only one chance to get it right. On a one-of-a-kind sea terrace bluff, exposed to the wonderful winds of the Catalina channel, with views to the horizon and a quintessential California sunset every evening, the house and the garden just had to be perfect.

The owners of Altamira called upon the expertise of Marmol-Radziner and Associates, an award-winning Los Angeles firm specializing in sleek, modern designs marked by simplicity and breathtaking elegance. This unique planning group was entrusted with the design and build of the entire home and landscape. They worked closely with the owners on every aspect from the early planning stages through to completion. One of the owners acted as general contractor on the job.

Given its unique location and magnificent potential, the property owners designed a California home that would blend into the natural environment. They chose native plants for landscaping the three acres around the home. With careful planning and execution, Royal Landscape, Inc planted thousands of natives contract grown by Tree of Life Nursery. The container planting began in July 2005 and continued with regular deliveries for about one year. The family moved into the home in late summer, 2006. Because they had planted throughout the previous year, most of the plants were already established at move-in time.

The natives featured in the Altamira landscape surround this custom home in color, texture, and scent. The gray and white of several native Salvia species and Artemisia californica compliment the blue-gray of both the ocean and the Altamira shale, which is the (native!) stone used in the structure of the home. Flowers on the masses of Encelia californica and Salvia cultivars envelope the structure in a sea of bright yellow and stunning purple. The decorative native grasses Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’, Muhlenbergia rigens and the grass-like Carex pansa accent the garden in just the right places. Many of the ‘usual suspects’ of native, coastal, southern California garden plants are present and accounted for: Baccharis, Eriogonum, Galvezia, Opuntia, Heteromeles and Rhus integrifolia. Some other flowering shrubs add their blooms throughout the year with showy natives such as Ceanothus cultivars, Romneya, Mahonia nevinii, and Iris douglasiana.

Benefits for the Altamira Landscape

Water Use. You guessed it. This beautiful landscape, while quite large, uses significantly less water than most conventional landscapes. Non-native Marathon and NoMow grass takes up a fraction of the landscape, near the pool and patio, requiring somewhat frequent watering. However, most of the Altamira landscape is watered only once a month in the dry season. Limited water use on a seaside bluff such as this one is crucial as it reduces the chances of erosion on this highly sensitive site. The owners are to be commended for planting lawn only in small areas. The grass will be used for relaxation and for playing. The surrounding native landscape will thrive on only five or six irrigations a year!

Maintenance. While most of the native species planted at Altamira could survive with very little maintenance, some additional care must be provided in order to maintain the highly manicured appearance of this landscape. Maintenance consists of pulling weeds and pruning as needed. Fertilizing is saved solely for the non-native marathon and buffalo grasses. To manage the grounds, one part-time employee oversees the garden as well as other aspects of the property. Two additional landscapers have been working one day a week during this establishment period.

Environmental Effects. Aside from the breathtaking vistas, an amazing aspect of the Altamira property is the presence of countless birds. The homeowners delight in watching flashes of hummers and other species as they enjoy the many food sources and nesting sites throughout the garden. Many butterflies, moths, bees and even a nursery of ladybugs enliven the landscape. Some things are impossible to communicate with a mere photograph. Only while present on the property can one drink in the distinctive fragrance of native coastal scrub, the sweet murmur of bees, the gentle roll of waves below and birdsong filling the air.


Water Use. A conventional landscape covering three acres of land would use at least four-times the amount of water that this landscape requires, depending on how much more turf might have been considered. Watering heavily on a somewhat unstable cliff can (obviously) be disastrous.

Maintenance. Given the labor intensity of both turf and ornamental shrub planting required by ‘typical’ Hollywood-style landscapes, the labor savings at Altamira are astronomical. To maintain a traditional landscape of three acres, at least two full time employees would be necessary. Add into the equation a few monthly visits by a landscaping crew of at least three gardeners, and factor in the additional fertilizer and pesticide application that would be required to maintain an exotic plant palette.

Environmental Effects. Lawn mowers are known to contribute air pollution far more than any of the vehicles we drive. The EPA has maintained that an emission from just one-hour of mowing is equivalent to ten hours of driving. Factor in the amount of green waste produced by an average lawn, as well as the intensive pruning clippings that many ornamental shrubs require to maintain desired form. Consider not only the contribution to the landfill, but the fuel required to regularly haul large amounts of green waste to the appropriate disposal areas. Many ornamental shrubs require more pesticides than native plants due to not being adapted to California’s environment, therefore, increased levels of pesticide would deter wildlife visitors, and could potentially contribute to polluted runoff into the ocean.


Which sounds would you prefer to experience on a seaside bluff next to the ocean? How fond are you of the lawnmower lullaby? Not that there are no such sounds at the Altamira landscape, but due to planning for the future, the residents at Altamira enjoy more birdsong than blower buzz.

Though not intentionally ‘green’, the Altamira landscape impacts the environment with far less pollution than the standard alternative, especially considering the size of such a project. This home site promotes authentic and vibrant landscaping that we can all admire for its beauty and quality. The perfect house and garden envisioned while the ground stood bare may have been unattainable. But Altamira is a dream home, with a landscape in tune with coastal California in all its unique beauty.

They had one chance, and they got it right.


Photo: Mike Evans, Tree of Life Nursery© 2007

Photo: Mike Evans, Tree of Life Nursery© 2007

Photo: Alisa Flint, Tree of Life Nursery©2016

Photo: Alisa Flint, Tree of Life Nursery© 2016