About a year ago, the Freemon’s decided they wanted a fresh look for their 28-year-old Huntington Beach garden. Their main motivation was the unattractive lawn that required constant watering.

“I was so tired of mowing it,” said Patrick Freemon, a retired environmental engineer. “And as someone who worked for a public agency in waste water and related issues regarding irrigation and run-off, I’m very sensitive to water conservation.”

When the Freemon family decided to update their yard and replace the front lawn with a colorful, water-wise garden, they had no idea they would be neighborhood trendsetters.

Before Patrick and Sandee Freemon finished their six-week renovation—which later won first place in Roger’s Gardens 2012 California Friendly Garden Contest—the neighbor across the street was inspired to start plans for a similar make-over. Within a few months, the couple had learned of two other neighbors who were also eager to replace their lawns with California Friendly gardens.

“We were told this was the whole reason for the contest. It actually worked on our street,” said Patrick Freemon.

One of Sandee Freemon’s friends recommended her daughter, landscape designer Sarah Robinson, to help with the project. The couple was pleased to learn that Robinson, who now works for The Plant Nerd, Inc., in Huntington Beach, shared their concerns and values and had ideas and training on how to create a beautiful garden that required little maintenance or water.

“It was a good marrying of ideas,” said Patrick Freemon. “I think the fact that we live in Southern California and it’s a sunny, arid region; drought-tolerant plants are more appropriate.”

After agreeing on a garden design, Sarah accompanied Sandee to pick out a mix of drought-tolerant and California native plants and flowers that provided year-round color. They selected a variety of salvias, yarrow, fuchsia, kangaroo paw, yucca and flax to line the new walkway that meanders up to their front door.

To save water, the Freemon’s installed a drip irrigation system, which is more efficient than above-ground spay systems, as well as French drains and a dry stream using decorative rocks encouraging run-off to seep back into the ground rather than drain into the ocean.

To their delight, the garden not only is fragrant and in constant bloom, but has attracted hummingbirds and butterflies. So far, they have not needed to fertilize, and maintenance is quick and easy.

“All you need is a good pair of pruning shears, and we just cut back some of the plants every couple of weeks. We added ground cover to help keep down the weeds,” Sandee said.

When Sarah Robinson told the Freemon’s that Roger’s Gardens was holding a contest about the most earth-friendly garden in Orange County, they felt they had a good chance at winning and entered photos of their landscape.

“When we looked at the contest criteria, it seemed like we did everything they were looking for,” Patrick Freemon said.

The California Friendly Garden Contest was the culmination of years of planning by Roger’s Gardens, local, state and regional water agencies, the City of Newport Beach, environmental groups and The Orange County Register.

“From the beginning, the goal of the contest was to get the message out about how gardens impact our environment, positively or negatively, and especially to encourage change,” said Ron Vanderhoff, General Manager at Roger’s Gardens. “After long meetings at Roger’s Gardens, all the experts were convinced that home gardeners, being naturally connected to nature, really did want to do the right thing. But when it came to gardening, they just didn’t always know what ‘the right thing’ was.”

The goal of the contest was to incentivize homeowners to change their gardening habits by finding and rewarding homeowners, like the Freemon’s who had sustainable gardens.

“So the contest is really an excuse for something much larger–to encourage gardeners to conserve and protect our natural resources,” Vanderhoff said. “The Freemon’s garden is a perfect poster child for California Friendly gardening. Just over a year ago, their garden was essentially a big, thirsty, polluting and rather sterile lawn. Now, it’s alive with birds and insect life, only occasionally irrigated, doesn’t pollute the watershed and even replenishes our underground aquifer. It’s exactly what we had in mind.”

In May, the Freemon’s learned they were among the 10 finalists, and after a panel of judges toured their property, they heard the good news: Their garden won first place, which included a $1,500 cash prize.

“We were thrilled,” Patrick Freemon said. “I don’t ever remember getting a compliment on our lawn. Now, virtually everyone who sees our property thinks it’s beautiful.”