I often think that I’m quite lucky to have the job I have. Not only to do I get to be creative, work with great people (both in and out of the office), and spend parts of my work week outdoors, but I have the advantage of being able to be part of a design/build firm and see the projects I design with my clients come to life. I’ve met a lot of designers over the years, professionally and in school, who don’t always get to see their projects BUILT. Learning about construction has been invaluable to me, and has certainly made me a better designer, in the 7 years I’ve worked for Lazar Landscape. I also have the confidence of knowing that I work with some of the best construction crews in the business, and they can artfully install whatever I come up with (and sometimes, come up with even better ways to do it). That’s why I’m so, so honored to have won first place in the Design/Build category at the CLCA Trophy Awards this year. The bulk of the awards are based on installation and maintenance, so being recognized for being part of a design & construction team feels really special.
In this particular case, I had the advantage of working with truly inspired, thoughtful clients. When I first met Pam and Dan, Pam told me she said she might have to accept that fact that ‘We may never have a truly useable garden.’ She and her husband had recently bought their Rockridge home. There was a lot they liked about the house, but at the time, saw the garden as a drawback. They faced the same issues a lot of Bay Area homeowners are familiar with. We live in a climate where indoor/outdoor living is absolutely possible and valuable; but close quarters, sloped landscape, less-than-ideal soil conditions, and an inherited garden that didn’t match their lifestyle posed a real challenge. Luckily, they realized the drawbacks meant opportunities, and I’m thrilled I got to work with them to make their garden an extension of their home.
The previous owners loved Australian plants, and had packed the mostly shady garden with them, and it had become quite overgrown. There was a failing chain link fence covered with ivy that ran around the front and one side of the property. The garden sloped towards the back of the house, to a shady garden which was also sloped towards a neighbor, so there was almost no flat space. The front yard had a small lawn, and keystone walls along the driveway and bordering the concrete front walk. Pam had carved out a vegetable garden from the sunniest corner of the front yard. They couldn’t use their driveway since their cars scraped on the uneven concrete surface, and it was too narrow to open both doors- a real drawback if you’re moving kids and groceries in and out.
The back yard had 2 small sand-set Arizona flagstone patios, and a lot of planting, but not much useable flat space. There was an existing deck off the second story kitchen with a lovely custom railing, which was a nice sunny spot for coffee; but it was too narrow to comfortably fit a dining table. With a 2 year-old daughter and a second child on the way, the clients wanted a safe, open space for their kids to play, and to be able to take advantage of a fairly large yard. Pam also really, really wanted a saltwater hot tub – spas being her very favorite way to relax. Keeping an area for growing vegetables was also a priority, and keeping existing plants that could be integrated into a more cohesive design was also important to Pam, who loves to garden.
Designing this garden took several months as we went through multiple concepts. Replacing the unattractive fence was a high priority, but it took some convincing to get Pam and Dan to consider eliminating the fence entirely along the front yard sidewalk. Instead of replacing the chain link with solid fence, we chose to create a border using a hedge of Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’. The variegated foliage makes a unique edge while retaining privacy, but doesn’t block out the neighborhood entirely, which is important to the family in their new home. Pam and Dan both say this is one of the best decisions they made in the design process. We kept the front gate and vine arbor, but we painted them a deep brown color which really showcased the new planting. The side fence was also painted in this color, and is mostly solid, but has a top section with staggered pickets that mirror the railing design on the back deck. We planted vines on Pam & Dan’s side of the fence, but threaded them through to the neighbor’s side so they could share the landscape.
We replaced the keystone walls with Napa Basalt wall stone, both mortared with a Bluestone cap and drystacked where possible, and replaced cracking concrete paths with mortared Connecticut Bluestone. We replaced the driveway with new concrete, including a synthetic lawn strip, after determining that a planted strip might not stand up to the shade, wear and tear. We pushed the wall along the driveway in to widen it, adding a strip of pebble so the wall could drain without creating a mess on the driveway. We also added a small trash enclosure screen at the bottom of the driveway and planted creeping figs in a narrow planter along an older wood fence.
Moving to the side yard, we sought to create a comfortable transition between the deck from the kitchen, where the family spends a lot of time, and the back yard. This included replacing the keystone walls with Napa Basalt terraces, Bluestone stairs and landings with Napa Basalt risers, carefully placed lighting, and a unique planting design that really appealed to Pam’s love of dynamic foliage and texture. This is one of her favorite parts of the garden, and is also one of the most viewed as it is a main focal point from the hot tub and adjacent deck.
The location of the spa was another challenge, as privacy in the back yard is somewhat limited, and a significant portion of the back yard is below the upstairs deck. Pam wanted the spa to be easily accessible from the deck stairs, but didn’t want to be under the deck. In this case, we used the existing topography to our advantage. We built a PTDF retaining wall and backfilled it with a mix of native and new soil to create a flat planter. This helped screen an old concrete retaining wall that borders the neighbor’s driveway, and allowed us to plant screening shrubs as well to soften the tall fence and create a green border next to the spa. Along wall we built a Trex deck and stairs in a similar color to the existing upper deck, and matched the railing design for continuity. We set the spa on a concrete pad below the deck. The redwood cap on the retaining wall creates a seat that you can use while in the spa. So while the new deck is only a few feet off the ground, the spa is sunken, and still feels private. Finally, we screened an awkward transition between a new and old fence with a freestanding living wall, which is the backdrop to the spa and a focal point when you enter the garden gate. The new walls and deck allowed us to flatten most of the rest of the garden. Typical sod lawn wasn’t possible- it was too shady and the family really wanted to restrict most of their water use to the vegetable garden and small front lawn, so instead we installed a Syn-Lawn synthetic lawn that needs no water or mowing, but stands up to two active kids and Lola (an adopted Rottweiler). The planting in back utilizes drip irrigation and is congruous with the front and side yard plants. A small water feature by the Owners, a playhouse, swings, and yard art and sculpture collected by the owners complete the garden, making it a totally useable, family friendly landscape. The design took advantage of the existing conditions and made them work for the new garden, and also used creative ideas to compose a unique and beautiful space. Our terrific construction crew made it all come together with careful attention to detail and diligence. Our clients love it, and so do I.