What once was a square of drab Bermuda grass is now an urban oasis. A multitude of flowers covers Mediterranean mounds. Rosebushes climb guide wires to cover a garage wall. Flagstone paths wind between a deck and a patio created from salvaged bricks. A dozen koi bask in a pond, surrounded by succulents.

Greg Reese doesn't consider himself a gardener.         


"I'm a big-rig truck driver," he said while admiring his transformed Sacramento, Calif., backyard. "But if I could do this, anyone can."


What once was a square of drab Bermuda grass is now an urban oasis. A multitude of flowers covers Mediterranean mounds. Rosebushes climb guide wires to cover a garage wall. Flagstone paths wind between a deck and a patio created from salvaged bricks. A dozen koi bask in a pond, surrounded by succulents.


"Before, this was very plain, very ugly," Gwyn Reese said. "But our daughter didn't need to practice soccer in the backyard anymore."         


So they dug out the grass and put in a water-wise garden. The makeover created their own flower-filled retreat while cutting down on work and water use.


"I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I put my own spin on it," Greg Reese said. "We adjusted on the fly."        


Fall is the perfect time to start such a project, say local landscape experts. The cooler weather allows transplants to put down strong roots. Winter rains will nurture plants, improving their chances for survival.


When spring comes, they're ready for a big burst of bloom. They'll also be established well enough to withstand less irrigation and water use next summer.


"The question most often asked is, 'Where do I start?' " said landscape designer Cheryl Buckwalter, co-author of the Regional Water Authority's "Blue Thumb" blog with Vicky Bartish.         


The blog is part of the RWA's Blue Thumb conservation program. More than 65 percent of household water consumption in Sacramento goes to landscaping. Of that, an estimated 30 percent is lost due to overwatering and evaporation.


When it comes to water-wise makeovers, start by asking yourself what you want from your landscape, Buckwalter said.


"Our landscapes can serve many functions: They can provide food, sources of recreation, a quiet and shady corner to relax," she said. "I suggest that people start small. Pick one area that they'd like to transform, use available resources and challenge themselves to stay within their budget."


Spending an hour with a licensed landscape professional can help do-it-yourselfers prioritize and get started in the right direction, Buckwalter added.


The Reeses decided to do their work in stages. A planner for Caltrans, Gwyn Reese kept precise records of everything. The koi pond came first in 2006; it was the most expensive -- about $2,500 without fish -- and the hardest part of the project.


As the work progressed, they knocked down a brick planter and opened up their deck to the garden. The repurposed bricks became patio pavers. They got free shade trees from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.


They spent $1,300 on flagstone and boulders for paths and definition of the "mounds" that would replace the turf. (They kept a small strip of Bermuda grass for their dog.) Last year, another $1,000 went into plants plus $300 for compost and mulch.


Mound building can be an art. The Reeses did extensive research before digging in, carefully choosing plants and placement.


"The goal is for mounds to look natural and not as though a pile of soil has just been plopped in the middle of your yard," Buckwalter said. "I recall years ago, when I was creating my very first mound, my neighbor jokingly asked me if my husband was buried there."


For their mounds, the Reeses used dirt excavated from the koi pond. They mixed 5 cubic yards of compost and high-grade topsoil with this salvaged dirt to give their new plants a strong start.


Once their mounds were formed, the Reeses planted scores of perennials, shrubs and bulbs, relying heavily on Mediterranean and California natives. Among their favorites: kangaroo paws, autumn sage, plumbago, dahlias, penstemon, montbretia, veronica and hyssop.         


The finished mounds need irrigation only twice a month, compared to three times a week for lawn. After only a year, the plants provide a year-round show of color plus a bonus: more backyard wildlife.         


"The bees are amazing," Gwyn Reese said.         


"The hummingbirds are unbelievable," her husband added. "At dusk, they're zipping around nonstop. It's entertaining."


The Reeses are now advocates for similar backyard makeovers.


"Don't be afraid," Greg Reese said. "You'll make some mistakes. Some plants will do really well, others you'll pull out. But doing something is better than nothing."         


Contact Debbie Arrington at darrington@sacbee.com.


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Building the perfect mound


Mediterranean mounds or berms have become a popular part of water-wise gardens, taking the place of large sections of lawn.


A mound can add a focal point, often filled with year-round color, where there used to be solid green. They're called "Mediterranean" because they often use drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants that grow naturally in a Mediterranean climate. In addition to helping drainage, the mound shape is inspired by how these plants would grow naturally.


Landscape designer Cheryl Buckwalter, co-author of the "Blue Thumb" blog and principal of Landscape Liaisons in Cool, Calif., offers this advice for anyone thinking about building a Mediterranean mound:


-- Function: What do you want the mound to be? It can increase privacy, add interest to a flat area or help direct water to a rain garden. This will guide you decide upon its size, height and shape. Buckwalter suggests a mound 12 to 18 inches at the highest point, and four to five times as long as it is high. "Consult licensed professionals if you want really large mounds, as they can require engineering, or if there are grading and drainage issues that need to be resolved," she added.         


-- Soil: Once you choose a spot and shape, lightly dig up the soil to break up the surface before bringing in more soil to create the mound. If importing soil (either purchased or from another property), use clean topsoil free of rocks, roots and weeds. "If soil has been excavated to make a walkway or patio, use that soil to make your mound," Buckwalter said. Where the bottom layer meets the mound addition, mix the soils together for 2 to 3 inches. Then, continue adding more soil, spreading and shaping as you go.         


-- Allow for mulch: If the mound is near hardscape such as a concrete patio or walkways, excavate enough soil to accommodate bark mulch. Buckwalter suggests digging a shallow trench 2 to 3 inches below the level of the hardscape and 10 to 12 inches wide, tapering back from the hardscape toward the mound. "The excavated soil can be used for the mound," she said. Once bark mulch is installed, this technique will help reduce the potential movement of mulch onto the hardscape, into the street and ultimately the storm drains.         


-- Shaping: Mounded soil should be tapered from highest to lowest points so the transition is gradual between the existing grade and the slope of the mound. "The softly tapered contours should make the mound appear as a natural part of the landscape," she said.         


-- Settle the soil: Tamp the soil down lightly and smooth the top and sides with the back of a rake or use a landscape roller like the ones used to install sod.         


-- Before planting: "To finish off the mound, I like to increase the soil's moisture level prior to planting," Buckwalter said. "To do this, the soil surface should be slightly loose so the water doesn't form a crust, preventing the water from soaking into the soil."          With a hose and shut-off nozzle, lightly spray the surface. Do this several times, allowing a soaking-in period between each time you spray with water to prevent erosion of the soil. "Let the soil surface dry and you're ready to plant," Buckwalter said.