Dean and Kara Herbrandson’s Palos Verdes Garden of Stone
Photos by Tony LaBruno
by Stephanie Cartozian
Dean Herbrandson had a penchant for collecting boulders and for decades scouted the hill to uncover just the right ones. For what? He did not know. But he credits his wife Kara for her infinite patience as he had these enormous monoliths dumped off for years on their Malaga Cove driveway and in their side yard.”
“I used to drive my pickup truck around as far back as the 2000, collecting stones as big as I could lift. I wouldn’t stop until the truck almost bottomed out,” Dean said.
Later, he would bid on even larger stones, some fossilized with whale vertebrae and other sea creatures, or plant material. He would bid against contractors and architects for the most awesome earthly specimens.
“I was into these rocks for about $10,000 and still hadn’t ascertained how to utilize them.”
All along he assumed the rocks would be cut and made into something like stepping stones, but he later learned that PV stone don’t peel back like an onion, but are like chalk and disintegrates when cut. This discovery led to new concept on how to proceed with his treasure trove.
Herbrandson graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in mechanical engineering. He builds drone engines. Herbrandson Engines is based in Lawndale and specializes in designing and manufacturing drone engines for military use. His father Dale started the business.
“At work he’s Dale and at home, he’s dad,” Herbrandson said. In the ‘70’s, his dad built a 2 cylinder engine that had very good vibration resistance. This was a crucial enhancement to previous drone models because his drones could hold a camera without vibrating, enabling them to take sharper photos. His drones were used for reconnaissance during the Vietnam War and the Gulf Wars.
Dean and Kara’s 1950s Spanish style Malaga Cove home is across the street from the Malaga Cove Library on Via Pinale, where the outdoor summer concerts are held every June through September. The previous owners had raised their family there and wanted another family to enjoy what they had. Other contenders included contractors who wanted to raze the property and turn it into a behemoth. The Herbrandsons won the sellers’ hearts and minds with their plan to raise their family there. After the home was purchased they made improvements to the electrical system, foundation, and plumbing.
“When we looked at the house, there was a lamp in every corner because none of the light switches worked,” Dean said.
The backyard was dirt with winding stone walls that were uneven and in disrepair.
“You couldn’t get out of your own way to see over the roofline and what layed out before you. There’s the ocean and Malibu, King Palms and these idyllic concerts in the park, but we couldn’t see any of it,” Dean said. “We started putting chairs on top of trash cans trying to get some height in the back to see what laid before us and how high we had to go to see it.”
The idea for creating a usable outdoor environment started to take hold. When Dean and Kara were dating, they found they both enjoyed the outdoors and often went on garden tours. Originally, they hired some high profile landscape architects to help them design their dream outdoor environment, but quotes ranged upwards of $650,000 to accomplish their rough plan. To create a patio environment with poured cement or concrete blocks required casans, per the city regulations. When the first contractor went down 12 feet, he hit bedrock. To continue with the project, they were going to have to do down another 12 feet into the bedrock with multiple casans, which made their plan cost prohibitive. The project sat dormant for two years.
“Our son would take his dirt bike in the backyard and gun it, to the chagrin of our neighbors. We knew we had to find other footing to proceed.” The couple has two sons, Brett, 21, and Erik, 17.
John Feldman, of Ecocentrix Landscape Architecture, came through with some solutions. Instead of using cement, they brought in stone imported from India that was hand cut onsite and layed down in a terraced pattern, maintaining lots of little enclave gardens and places to enjoy varying vantage points. The stones had varying thicknesses, which had to be accounted for when laying them on the ground. Instead of bringing in new soil, they moved soil and repositioned it to build height in the rear, enhancing the scope and breadth of their home’s perch. This enhanced views of the ocean, the concerts and the rural parklands bordering the property.
There used to be a water pump on the hillside above his property that would pump water up to a reservoir close to La Venta Inn. The pump is long gone, but parts of the stone structure remain. There was a time, Herbrandson reflects when the parkland’s hillside was green and there was a stream that was home to frogs that would ribbit through the night. There is still a teeming natural habitat here. They stopped trimming the palm from when they realized served as habitat for owls who made these trees their home.
The Herbrandsons worked for two years to create a botanical experience that is rich in color regardless of the season.
“We like bugs. We wanted a garden that attracted them,” Dean said.
The Sapote tree planted by the previous owners a-buzz with bees and except for the one month out of the year where it loses its leaves. Their garden is full of native plants that require little water. The Peninsula peacocks are especially fond of the succulents.
“We have to plant new succulents every week. The birds eat all the leaves, and when they can’t get a firm grip on the plant anymore, they yank out the whole thing by its roots,” Dean said. There are Winter Lavender, Beach Cannas, Crepe Myrtles, Aloe Vera plants with orange blooms, and double and single Trumpet vines, all amidst a perfectly contoured outdoor environment that has individual rocks fitted together like a puzzle. Some of the boulders Dean collected serve as resting places. Others, including the boulder with the fossilized whale vertebrae, create the feeling of a sculpture garden.
The couple’s goal was to create an outdoor environment for entertaining that stretched to the very top of the property. This proved to be no easy feat. Each one of the slabs of stone from India weighed 300 pounds. They were brought in on pallets. It would take a whole day for three workers to make one or two steps. The end result is the Huntington Library gardens meets Hollywood’s Greek Theater — in Palos Verdes.