Spirit of the Southwest

An earthy palette and drought-tolerant landscaping create a heavenly hacienda in Thousand Oaks.

By Amelia Fleetwood

Photo by Geri Elfman

Casa de Maya is a model of rustic elegance and desert beauty.

“I didn’t want to be just another old ballerina!” laughs Geri Elfman, landscape designer for the Casa de Maya Ranch House in Thousand Oaks. Elfman, who owns Hawkeye Landscape and Design, danced as a young woman with the Chicago City Ballet. But 20 years ago, motherhood and a move to Topanga, Calif., inspired her to change course.

When her two daughters bypassed their mother’s love for dance, and instead developed a passion for horses, Elfman hung up her ballet slippers for good. She and her family embraced a decidedly more “outdoorsy” lifestyle. Elfman earned an associate degree in horticulture and design, named her company after Hawkeye, her favorite horse, and never looked back.

Early on she was inspired by Garry Hammer, known for seeking out and experimenting with exotic plants worldwide. Elfman explains: “Garry is ultimately responsible for bringing in the more sustainable plants commonly enjoyed in so many gardens — the succulents, agaves and aloes from Australia, Africa and Mexico. Garry started World Wide Exotics Nursery in Lakeview Terrace, where most of the plants that I’ve used at Casa de Maya are from.”

Elfman plants to suit the environment. “Long gone are the days of old-style gardens with lawns and hedges; we just can’t do that anymore.” Instead, she encourages her clients to make more sustainable and environmentally thoughtful landscape choices. “The alternative does not have to end up looking like an Arizona desert-scape,” she assures us. “There are plenty of other choices. Perennials and succulents, for example, can do the job nicely.

“With the drought, I think some people got a little carried away, ripping up their lawns and throwing down gravel, which is not advisable. Gravel heats up the ground and makes everything even hotter.” Elfman prides herself on seeking the middle ground and not adhering to one extreme or another.

Casa de Maya is owned by Maya Haller and her husband, Christopher Parise. They met Elfman through mutual friends.

The Mexicana-style ranch house features authentic Mexican tile, and uses mesquite wood throughout the home, adding character and charm.

The ranch, home to horses, chickens, turkeys and even a tortoise, was already a very sustainable property by way of solar and gray water systems when Elfman took on the project.

All that was missing to complete the property was a large, hacienda-style, stone courtyard. “Designing the courtyard was such fun,” says Elfman. “I love to work with stone.” She created an outdoor world to complement the house, building multiple fireplaces and sculpting seats right out of the walls. There’s even an “Elk Mountain” boulder water feature surrounded by an Australian peppermint tree (Agonis flexuosa) and many Leucadendron ‘Summer Red’ plants, endemic to South Africa and prized for their drought tolerance and colorful flowers.

Elfman hunted down many unusual plants, ones that can withstand the intense heat of Southern California summers. The cactus garden near the front door includes a Euphorbia lambii tree, Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset,’ and Mangave ‘Macho Mocha.’ She used Crassula ‘Campfire’ and Senecio serpens (sometimes called blue chalkstick) as ground cover.

A barbecue area built against the courtyard wall is accented with brightly-colored Mexican tile. Elfman used Grevillea ‘Red Hooks,’ Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta,’ Leucophyllum frutescens, Abutilon palmeri, Cereus peruvianus and Aeoniums to offset the area.

Along the driveway she planted rows of large blue agave, Palo Verde, and Chilean mesquite trees to shade the upper garden of Fouquieria splendens, Aloe merlothii and manzanita ‘Howard McMinn.’

She plants sparingly, knowing that over time the area will fill up as the plants grow. “When I am looking at a landscape I am seeing what it is going to look like in five years. I have to put on my goggles that take me into the future.”

Elfman describes her style as “instinctive and fluid.” She likes to spend time before she begins a project, getting to know her clients as people. “My crew doesn’t just come in and do the job and leave. They also get quite emotionally involved with what we are doing; we have been working together so long that we have a rhythm to the way we work.”

Elfman is drawn to many types of gardens. “I enjoy them all, but I have my own style; I work with what is there and what is going to look good, while still trying to give the clients what they want. Overall, I am trying to achieve a calming effect. Even a small area should give off some relaxation, some pleasure.”

It is all about a “feeling” for Elfman. She will ask her clients: “Tell me, what is the feeling you want to have when you walk outside?” Then she will fill in the blanks with the shades and the colors and scents.

Hawkeye Landscape Design

Feline resident Timmay appreciates a warm rock among the succulents.


Dried chilis, howling coyote, cactus — unmistakable emblems of the Southwest decorate the courtyard’s charmingly old-fashioned “post office.”


Succulents, cacti and shrubs together give the garden diversity and dimension. Clockwise from the corner: Grevillea ‘Red Hooks,’ Bilberry cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans), Black Rose Aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’), giant false agave (Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’), Crassula hybrid, Sunburst Aeonium, Aloe ‘Blue Elf,’ and Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens).


A fireplace, built-in seating and artful decorations create the ideal ambience for outdoor living.



Back to top