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Lea Goode-Harris has jumped into more than one project that has changed her life and influenced others, but she didn?t expect that replacing half of her front lawn with a meadow garden would be one of them.

The idea arose two years ago when Lea and husband Milton Harris looked hard at the water usage figures Milton had been charting and determined to lower them. It became clear that getting rid of a large segment of lawn would solve the problem; besides, they were tired of looking at a brown expanse in summer when they let the grass die back.

Finding an alternative was easy, even in their traditional Junior College neighborhood of Santa Rosa, where lawns and bungalows like theirs have been partners for a very long time. The couple admired two nearby habitat gardens by Belle Feuille Garden Design and decided that as long as they were making a transition, they would create something similarly beautiful.

Not surprisingly, neighbors were intrigued, some rather skeptically, with the goings-on as grass disappeared in the center and a low berm appeared on the side. A mountain of mulch also raised eyebrows, but as it was spread under new young shrubs and perennials around the perimeter, the new landscape finally showed promise.

With winter rains, wildflowers sprouted and the meadow garden slowly came to life. Last spring, it burst into bloom for the first time and became an immediate neighborhood attraction, even for a bevy of kindergartners barely tall enough to peer over the white picket fence.

?People love it,? says Lea. ?They gaze over the fence and thank us for creating a spot of joy and beauty. There have been lots of questions, especially when we first put cardboard over the lawn. Now people drive by just to see the change and neighbors we don?t know stop to chat.?

From the beginning, the new garden has been Lea?s project with the assistance of Belle Feuille Garden Design of Santa Rosa. The reactions she?s received have been heartwarming, but she?s especially pleased that the garden has become personal to Milton as well.

Being in the garden and enjoying its natural beauty has been a good distraction, she says, one that?s helped him slow down from his long and busy career as a neuropsychologist. The satisfaction is practical, too, as Milton?s charts show an impressive 20 percent to 30 percent drop in water usage.

For Lea, whose name is an old English word for an open field, the garden has a special meaning that harkens back to her youth.

?I grew up in the hills of the Alexander Valley and now I feel as though I?ve brought a piece of that into Santa Rosa,? she says.

But the meadow garden reaches back to even deeper roots planted six generations ago, when her ancestors settled in the San Joaquin Valley and would have witnessed spring wildflowers stretching for acres in exhilarating hues.

It may be a coincidence that Lea?s name and legacy are connected to her meadow project, but there?s a direct tie to another part of her life. Twelve years ago, as a labyrinth designer, Lea installed in her backyard what is now known as the Santa Rosa Labyrinth. This seven-path design, rich with symbolism of uniting on the same path people with different views, has been built in numerous locations across the country and abroad. (Find this labyrinth and its history in Sonoma County and elsewhere at leastudio.com/copyright.html.)

Reluctant to give it a needed renovation, Lea postponed the labyrinth project until two years ago, just as the lawn was being replaced. In perfect harmony, the excavated soil from the back yard was moved to the front to become a berm bordering the meadow and a home for habitat plants.

Spring wildflowers are the most celebrated element of the new garden, but as perennials, shrubs and a few trees mature ? redbud (Cercis) and ceanothus, coffeeberry (Rhamnus) and butterfly bush (Buddleia), to name a few ? they will assume key roles along the outside margins of the property.

Shrubby salvias, St. Catherine?s lace (Eriogonum), verbena, sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus), yarrow (Achillea), milkweed (Asclepias), Pacific Coast iris, vibrant orange masses of California fuchsia (Zauschneria) and other drought-resistant perennials surrounding the meadow wake slowly in spring, then become the main features of the summer and autumn garden.

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