by Benjamin Custer
Often when 83-year-old Yvonne Murray walks out the door of her Old Palo Alto home, she takes a trip to the beach. Sometimes she just walks along the sand, but usually she lounges in a chair beneath an umbrella, surrounded by seashells, a boogie board and a sand bucket. But unlike most beachgoers, she enjoys the experience from the comfort of her front yard.
"My 7-year-old grandson just got delighted when he came to visit," Murray said. "He said, 'Are we gonna have an ocean?'"
Murray, who has lived in Palo Alto for 60 years and her current house for more than 25 years, decided in early August to install the beach. The setting evokes waves of fond memories of Southern California beaches, where she spent spring breaks as a girl and summers as a mother of three daughters. Murray also grew tired of looking at brown lawn, which died along with her sprinkler use when Governor Brown declared a drought emergency earlier this year.
During the drought in the 1980s, Murray brought buckets into the shower to catch and reuse water that would otherwise slip down the drain.
"I'm too old to carry a bucket anymore," she said. "That meant I had to figure out some other thing to do."
Landscaping alternatives such as mulch, rocks and native plants did not appeal to her. If she was going to save water, she wanted to have some fun in the process. One day, the idea to bring her "favorite thing in the world" to her front yard just popped into her head. She turned to her gardener for guidance and execution.
"I told him I wanted sand," she said. "He said not sand. It doesn't stay in place nicely, and every cat in the neighborhood would love it."
The two settled on decomposed granite for its soft, natural appearance and light maintenance. The beach, which covers half of a yard divided by a walkway, took two days to complete. The gardeners uprooted the grass, pulled weeds and leveled the ground. Then they covered the area with a cloth to stymie the protrusion of future weeds. Finally, they laid, soaked and compacted the decomposed granite.
"I wanted it to look like a real beach, so I went hunting at a couple stores and found toys and pillows and umbrellas," she said.
Murray's daughters also participated, bringing over a decorative, turquoise bicycle. Murray outfitted the bicycle with a pot of flowers and a wooden sign that reads, "Sun. Sand. Sea. Surf." It features prominently in the setting, planted alongside a pair of flip-flops, a beach ball and a picnic basket. A miniature wooden lighthouse rises from the sand nearby, but Murray hesitates to add anything more valuable to the collection.
"I have a lot of little sailboats in the house, but I don't want to put them out here," she said. "I'm afraid some little person will think, 'Oh, that's nice. I want that.'"
So far, though many neighbors and passersby have stopped to admire the beach setting, no items have disappeared. Despite Palo Alto's penchant for manicured lawns, Murray said she has been met by a sea of positive reaction, and everybody has a favorite item. The setting operates as one big conversation piece.
"Just today, I looked out the window and two ladies were standing there looking," she said. "I stuck my head out and said, 'Do you like it?' They said, 'Oh, we love it!' That's usually the reaction I get from everyone in the neighborhood."
Murray uses the beach on a daily basis, considering it to be another room of the house. She enjoys sitting in the sunshine and watching for her many friends in the area. Whenever she and her husband host family gatherings, the beach turns into a playground for the grandchildren.
"I come out here and it makes me happy," she said.
When Murray shut down her sprinklers, she cut her water usage in half. When she traded brown grass for decomposed granite, she created a landscape as enjoyable as it is sustainable. But she did not qualify for a drought-resistant landscaping rebate, as the beach did not call for native plants. She might take advantage of the rebate for the other half of her front yard, but fun remains her priority.
"I'll be thinking of what else to put out here," she said. "I don't think I can keep snow out here. Besides, I can't ski."
Her only regret about the beach is not installing it sooner. Manicured lawns are so expected, she failed to consider alternatives until now.
"Lawns are basically work," she said. "Mowing it and watering it and fertilizing it. It's not as fun as sitting on a beach."