Archive for ‘February, 2013’

Patio Furniture

Spring is just around the corner and it is time to start thinking about warm-weather alfresco entertaining or perhaps enjoying your morning cup of coffee in the garden. In order to truly enjoy and experience your garden you need proper patio furniture. Outfitting your outdoor space with the ideal patio furniture is key in making the space both functional and stylish. There are several important items to keep in mind when acquiring your patio furniture, such as your garden’s sun/shade patterns, how you plan on using the space, and your style preference. Storing and maintaining patio furniture are also equally important and should be considered.

Be sure to place the patio furniture in a location that is physically comfortable. The space should have plenty of sunlight to lift your spirits yet not be uncomfortably warm. You can mitigate extremely hot, sunny areas with umbrellas, arbors or awnings. Dappled shade is great but avoid extremely shady areas, as they tend to be cold and drafty. Keep in mind both the view you get while sitting in your favorite outdoor chair as well as how the furniture looks when viewed from the house. The right patio furniture makes a wonderful focal point.

When choosing what type of patio furniture you need, be sure to consider how often you will use it. You may also want to keep your budget in mind. If you are planning on using the patio furniture daily, comfort and durability are essential. Look for cushions with springs and soft fabrics. You can choose from chairs, dining tables, sofas, end tables and ottomans and create an outdoor living room. If your budget is small ,or you only plan on using the space occasionally, invest in only a few basic items.

Once you have made a list of what patio furniture you will need, consider what material it should be made of. Patio furniture should be able to stand up to the harsh outdoor environment. In windy locations, be sure the furniture is constructed of heavy materials such as wood or wrought iron. If wind is not a factor, and you want to be able to move the furniture around the garden, you can choose aluminum, wicker or rattan. Seek out cushions covered with outdoor fabric and filled with polyester fibers that filter air through them and dry out quickly. With our morning fog, this is important as synthetic outdoor fabrics won’t mildew or stain as quickly as natural fabrics. Outdoor fabrics are also made to withstand sunlight, preventing them from wearing or fading over time.

The style of patio furniture you choose depends on your aesthetic preference but be sure to keep the style of your home and garden in mind. Several popular patio furniture styles are as follows.


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Casual – Nothing says laid-back like a pair of Adirondack chairs or an oversized hammock.


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Modern – Contemporary patio furniture styles tend to be clean lined and oversized.


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Retro – Iconic furniture form the ‘50’s, 60’s and ’70,s has become popular in today’s garden.










Metal – It’s a lightweight, long-lasting and hard wearing material.










Eclectic – This is a great “one-of-a-kind” look.


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Country – Weathered wood is a great option for rustic style gardens.


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Built-in – Permanent seating is both a space and money saver.


Keep in mind that each material requires different cleaning and maintenance methods. Regardless of what material you choose, remember that monthly cleaning and maintenance will keep your patio furniture looking its best and make your investment last longer. Most outdoor furniture can be cleaned with soap and water. If you choose to use a pressure washer, keep it at a low setting. In addition to cleaning, check with the manufacture about additional maintenance steps you can take to help your furniture last longer.

As the last rains of the season keep us indoors, spend sometime going through design magazines or go on-line and get ideas on what type of patio furniture suits you best. Get out of the house and take a “window shopping” trip to the retail outlets and check out what is new. If classic or retro furniture is your style, a trip to a flea market, garage sale or salvage yard may be the best way to find that perfect piece. Once you have created the ideal outdoor room take time to slow down and enjoy your new space.

Hillside Entry Garden

I recently had the pleasure of designing and overseeing the installation of an entry garden for a house in the Kensington hills.  The house is a 1949 ranch house with a brick entry patio and situated just below street level.  The house was well taken care of and in great shape but the landscape was in despair.  The garden was showing signs of being long neglected and the existing hardscape was in need of an update to reflect the owner’s personal aesthetics.

Although the staircase and walkway were functional, both lacked character and interest.  The entry staircase was an industrial-looking concrete staircase/landing running straight to the brick entry walkway.  Adding to the visual distress was the inappropriate metal handrail running along both sides of the staircase and landing.  Both lacked character and did not enhance this charming ranch house.  A brick walkway was poorly installed and not wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  A general rule of mine is that all front-entry walkways should be generous in size and allow two people to hold a conversation while walking to the door.  The entry walkway is not the place to play “follow the leader”.

The clients had consulted with friends and other designers before contacting Lazar Landscape.  They compiled a list of issues they wanted the new landscape to address.  Their main concerns were:

  • Getting up and down from the front door to the street level in a safe yet aesthetically pleasing manner.
  • Create a beautiful and interesting visual focal point from the front door.
  • Install a diverse, environmentally friendly, yet low maintenance entry garden.

As is typical in so many gardens we design and install, the entire project was to be completed within a tight budget.

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In order to keep the project within budget, I decided to keep the top portion of the concrete staircase and landing as well as the Pressure Treated Douglas Fir (PTDF) wall and Moss-rock retaining wall.  The lower portion of the concrete staircase and the brick walkway were scheduled for demolition.  All plants (including weeds) on the hillside and the gopher damaged sod-lawn were also on the list for removal.

The ranch house had recently had a major remodel to the interior and a fresh coat of paint to the exterior.  The new exterior color scheme was a modern combination of light gray for the main body of the house, medium gray for the base of the house and cream for the window trim.  The best stone for the hardscape, complimenting this new paint color (and falling within the budget) was full-range Connecticut Bluestone set in a random pattern.  Connecticut Bluestone was used as a veneer on the existing concrete step treads and landing.  The same stone was also used on the new step treads, the new-mortared walkway and stepping stones running through the garden.  To cover the risers (face of steps), we chose colored stucco.  The color selected was LaHabra’s ‘Silver Grey’.

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To create a beautiful and interesting visual focal point from the front door, we installed a large water feature directly across the front door.  A 4-foot curved wall was constructed behind this water feature.  This 4-foot wall is 18 inches high on the backside and creates the perfect place to sit when you are at the staircase landing.  The new staircase begins on one side of the new wall and wraps around it before connecting to the original concrete landing.  The original brick walkway was replaced with a 5-foot wide Connecticut Bluestone curved walkway.

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The client and I selected a large ceramic urn to become an “over-flowing” water feature.  The large ceramic urn was set within a large 6-foot diameter circle of 3/8” Tuscan Gravel.  The fountain pump and plastic water reservoir sit below the ceramic urn and gravel bed.  Giant Yellow Kangaroo Paws, Blue Chalk Sticks and Orange Carex were planted within the gravel and gracefully surround the fountain.  The combination of this large ceramic urn and colorful accent plants create a strong focal point in the entry garden.

The plant material was carefully chosen to be bird friendly, colorful, water-wise and low maintenance.  The previously existing, water-thirsty, sod-lawn was replaced with drought tolerant perennials, billowing grasses and a no-mow sod-lawn.  This plant palette requires only seasonal maintenance to keep looking its best.  All perennials and grasses were set up on a water saving drip irrigation system.

Other amenities include a new, clean-lined metal handrail and FX-Luminaire low-voltage lighting.  The lighting includes pathlights along the staircase for safety, uplights for accenting garden trees and downlights for a “moonlit” effect on the fountain.  Gopher baskets for all plants and gopher netting under the no-mow sod-lawn, gravel beds and ground cover were also installed.

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Visiting this garden is always a pleasure for me.  The garden seems to always be in motion.  Grass plumes wave in the breeze, water in the fountain bubbles up and flows down the side of the large urn, humming birds and dragonflies dart about, giving a once static space the feeling of a truly living garden.

Landscaping Adds Resale Value to Your Home

garden roomsSo – you want a beautiful landscape, but this is your five-year house, or at least not your forever house. Should you invest? How will it affect the resale value of your home? Before answering these questions, ask yourself a few more. Can you live with your outdoor space the way it is? Are there improvements you can make now that will allow you to enjoy your outdoor space while you live in your home that will also help the resale of your house when you’re ready to move?

garden levelsI’m not a professional realtor, but there is a lot of information on the subject. A general guideline suggested by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is that you should invest 5 – 10% of your home’s value into your landscape. And a well-designed, installed and maintained landscape can add much as 20 – 30% on the resale value of your home. Not a terrible ROI. One of the challenges we face working in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Lafayette, Orinda and Moraga is that we’re frequently working on slopes – sometimes very significant slopes – that require retaining walls. This sort of landscape construction challenge can affect the bottom line on a project. If you live on a slope that needs a lot of walls, the 5 – 10% guideline might not apply.

more curb appealAs you think about where to start, a focus on real curb appeal gets buyers through the door – and leaves a lasting impression as they walk away. Studies show that when comparing homes with similar features and prices, a well-designed landscape is a key selling feature. And a beautifully landscaped home typically sells at a faster rate than a similar home with a tired or non-existent landscape. A garden that needs a complete makeover could be a costly endeavor that a prospective buyer might not want to take on.

major transformationIf you’re truly thinking about landscaping for resale only, focus on a design with great bones – classic lines and materials that will stand the test of time – and maybe stay away from permanent features that someone would want to remove or change, or that might require a lot of maintenance – like portable spas and large, non-pool water features, mazes, etc. Focus on key areas – curb appeal and useable spaces close to the home. Built-in features like firepits and outdoor kitchens are major attractions to perspective buyers.

shady playIf you’re on a tight budget and timeline, mulching is a great way to identify planting beds without having to invest in a lot of plants. Focus planting on key locations in the garden – like the front entry or a focal point in the garden – and then plant it up! Depending on budget, new sod is relatively cost effective, but make sure you have proper irrigation. When thinking about plants, many homebuyers in California have two things on their mind: low maintenance and low water!

The Thing!Our founder, Gary Lazar, always tells a funny story. It might date him (and me) a little because when I shared it with some of the younger people here at Lazar Landscape, I got puzzled looks. Follow along if you will. Gary used to drive a Volkswagen Thing* (this is the part that got the confused stares – no one knew what a “Thing” was) that wouldn’t go into reverse. All of the forward gears worked fine, so for years, Gary could only park The Thing in a location and/or position that he didn’t have to go into reverse. Even though it was a funny experience, it caused him a certain amount of trouble and stress. When it came time for him to move west, he needed to sell The Thing – and he spent the money to fix the transmission so The Thing would go into reverse and someone would buy it. For a few short days he luxuriated in his ability to put The Thing into reverse. He could park anywhere. All of his driving was unobstructed. In the end, he still sold The Thing, but it still drives him a little crazy that he didn’t do it earlier so he could more thoroughly enjoy it.

al frescoI guess I’m using The Thing as a parable. If possible, plan your garden as much in advance of your projected sale as possible. Consider working with a landscape architect or designer, or a landscape design/build firm like Lazar Landscape. Working with a professional will allow you to outline your aesthetic and budgetary goals. If you’re not ready to take on the full landscape installation, a master plan of your landscape can be implemented in phases over time as budget allow. You will also get to enjoy your landscape as it grows – and a well-maintained, mature garden with established plants is a huge incentive to homebuyers. Don’t be like Gary, fix The Thing while you can still enjoy it!useable space

Outdoor Lighting Adds Value to Your Home

A well lit gardenIt’s that time of year! The days are getting a longer, and it has me itching to spend more time in the garden. There is no better way to extend your time outside than with outdoor lighting (this includes my real nighttime favorite – fire!). Backlit Firepit

There are many different approaches to outdoor lighting ranging from quick DIY projects to low voltage outdoor lighting fixtures or line voltage installations.

Path Lit StairWhen we start thinking about outdoor lighting design – it’s always safety first. How can we design the low voltage garden lighting to efficiently and effectively illuminate areas of transition that will make your garden safely accessible? This is typically best accomplished with path lights, down lights (if you have trees or other high points from which to mount them), stair lights or wall lights where necessary.

For security, are there dark areas in your garden or near your home that might benefit from outdoor lighting? In these instances, motion detection lights might be appropriate. Also, is your driveway and house number well lit? This will help visitors (or first responders) find and navigate your home on dark nights.  Here at Lazar Landscape, we typically work low voltage lighting into new garden designs and installations – but it’s always possible to add lighting to existing outdoor spaces.

Stair and Fountain LightingOnce you have safe passage through your garden space it’s time to start thinking about creating ambiance and atmosphere. This is frequently done by uplighting key garden features – like specimen trees, boulders, your home’s architecture, or other sculptural elements. Some trees benefit by direct uplighting, whereas other plants are more suited to a wash or silhouette lighting. Low voltage lighting is ideal in all of these situations because it’s relatively easy install if you have a dedicated outlet for the controller. Low voltage lighting wires don’t have to be buried or put in conduit, so it makes getting the right fixture in the right place fairly simple. If you’re an adventurous DIY home hobbyist you might consider tackling a low voltage lighting project by yourself – most people opt to go with a professional installation.

modern light fixturesHere at Lazar Landscape, we primarily use FX/Luminaire low-voltage outdoor lighting fixtures because we value the quality of the products. There are certainly other quality outdoor lighting products from which to choose. Low voltage lighting technology is changing by leaps and bounds, with many people opting for LED lights over the once omnipresent incandescent or halogen low voltage lights. The pros of LED are that they’re energy saving and the bulbs should last much longer – which means less maintenance less frequently. You can also get brighter lighting – if you need to down light or up light at greater distances. Also, the market is directing itself toward LED, so this is where we’ll see the most innovation in the future. The cons are that the light emitted from LED lights are colder and starker than halogen, and they cost more. LED lights are continually improving – filters can and should be installed to soften the light.

Solar lighting is another option for homeowners who enjoy DIY projects. I haven’t seen every solar light, but my experience with them is that they light themselves – meaning you see them in the dark, but they don’t really do much to illuminate the garden or make it safer. As with most things, the technology is coming. I’m really impressed with eco-friendly new USB touchlights by Voltaic, These cute little LED lights run through any USB port, including Voltaic’s portable solar panels. You can light up the night on the move! I’m definitely going to get one of these!

Al fresco diningOther technological improvements include wireless zone remote. A typical transformer installation includes a timer similar to what you might use to control a light in your house. But as technology is improving there are products that allow you to have remote control or wireless wall keypads to control your outdoor lighting. It’s far less invasive than having the transformer switched in your house. You can even utilize a key fob – so you can turn your lights on as you drive up to your house. There are higher tech options that tie into universal remote controls for you house that allow you to control your garden lighting from your computer.The technology is only getting more exciting!

If you’re on a lower budget and like taking on your own DIY projects, café lights are an easy solution to garden lighting. Like everything, you can select from a wide range of quality from restaurant grade right down to your typical Christmas string lights or even rope-style LED lights. The Voltaic USB touchlights are also a cost-effective option if you don’t require a lot of lights – or if you want to keep your lights portable. These LED lights are totally waterproof. Candles, be they traditional fire and wax or battery operated or even solar, can be used to create ambiance in a nighttime garden.

Restaurant-quality cafe lights on custom fraom

Restaurant-quality cafe lights on custom fraom

Whether working with a landscape design/build company or taking on your own DIY projects, outdoor lighting adds so much to your home – security, safety, curb appeal, beauty, and an extension of your outdoor living ability – not to mention increasing the value of your home if you’re thinking about resale. When working on outdoor lighting design the main areas to consider are: safety and security; curb appeal and added home value; and the functionality of extending the time you can spend in your garden. Weigh the pros and cons of different kinds of light from halogen, incandescent and LED lights. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small project, light up the night and spend more time outside!

All About Walls 2: Drystack Edition

drystack napa basalt

My last post (February 1st, in case you missed it!  Riveting stuff!) was an introduction to wall-building theory.  Now let’s start getting into different types of walls commonly constructed in the Bay Area.  First, one of the most commonly built walls in residential landscape construction:

‘Drystack’ Stone Walls

When walls are referred to as ‘Drystack’ or ‘Dry Set’, it means they are constructed without mortar (cement) to hold them together.  This is one of the oldest wall construction techniques on earth, and uses stone, or in some cases broken pieces of concrete or other blocky materials, to retain soil.  Even though this is a simple and thus relatively inexpensive wall building practice, there are some principles that must be followed to ensure successful, long-lasting retaining walls.


As I explained in my last post, properly built walls include a footing.   This is a portion of the wall which lies below the top of the adjacent surface (grade).  With most drystack walls, at least 1 course (horizontal layer) of stone is buried to create the footing.  The ultimate height of your wall will determine the depth of the footing- a taller wall requires a deeper footing to support it.  Even curbs or edgings will have a few inches of the stone buried below grade.

Drystack Moss Rock

Drystack Moss Rock retaining walls

Constructing a Drystack Wall

A drystack wall is constructed using the principles of gravity and friction.  Larger stones, or a mix of sizes, are preferable to small stones in order to maximize both principles.  Vertical seams will weaken a wall, so proper wall construction overlaps joints as much as possible.  The flattest side of each stone is what you see, so the ‘face’ of the wall has a uniform look.  Angular types of stone will fit together tighter, with smaller joints, and will actually become stronger as the wall settles.  Rounded stones, like the ones found in river beds, are obviously tougher to stack- they don’t have as much surface contact within the wall, so there is less friction.  One great advantage to drystack walls is that they drain naturally.  Water weeps through the small openings (joints) between stones, relieving pressure behind the wall.  Other types of walls require additional components to ensure drainage, because water pressure can severely compromise wall strength.


Unlike most mortared, poured, or pier-supported walls, which are constructed to be upright (plumb) drystack walls are battered.  They are built with a slight tilt against the soil being retained, which reduces force on the wall.  So,if you were looking at the wall from the side, (in section, see below) it would appear to slant just a bit towards the retained area.  This allows the wall to settle over time without compromising stability.  As we know in the Bay Area, the earth moves.   Even without tremors, water and time will compact the soil above the wall.  If a drystack wall is properly built, patios, paths, even driveways can be constructed near the retaining wall and the wall will hold.  However, a more structural retaining wall may be a better choice in some landscapes, depending on the conditions and to ensure longevity.  If the earth moves enough, even a perfect wall could fail.

battered retaining wall

Battered Drystack Retaining Wall

Cut and Fill with Walls

‘Cut and Fill’ is a term you have probably heard in relation to retaining wall construction or grading.  With so many sloped landscapes in the Bay Area, creating flat spaces often means moving soil.  Removing soil from a site (especially with limited access, like 3’ wide side yards with old, treacherous stairs, which most Bay Area homes seem to have) can be extremely time-consuming, and thus, costly.  If you can keep soil on site and utilize it to enhance your landscape instead of removing it, you can streamline your construction project. ‘Cut and Fill’ means cutting (removing) soil from part of your landscape, and using it to level depressions or infill low areas elsewhere.  Here’s where retaining walls come in.  We can take sloped areas and use retaining walls along with cut and fill to create level spaces.  See the section detail below.  There are a couple of important things to remember with cut and fill.  First, the cut soil expands as you move it, which needs to be taken into account when you’re calculating how much soil to is being relocated.  The material gets broken up into pieces when it is cut, and gets fluffy (highly technical terminology here).  Second, to prevent the fill soil from settling too much and disturbing the retaining wall holding it up, it must be compacted.  Even with careful compaction, fill soil is less stable than native soil, and less stable than it was before cutting.  For this reason, we don’t use drystack walls as often to retain fill.  Reinforced or mortared stone walls are likely better suited to holding filled soil.

cut and fill detail

Section of cut and fill with retaining walls


Because there are a lot of types of stone available to use in wall construction these days, drystack walls can vary significantly in appearance.  Some stones are very monochromatic, while others are quite colorful.  Some have an angular, blocky appearance, while others have more rounded edges or are longer and flatter.  When improperly built, any drystack retaining wall will appear sloppy.   In some landscapes, a sleeker look is preferable, so even a perfectly constructed drystack wall may not fit the bill.  But drystack is simpler to build and less expensive than constructing other types of walls, so the technique in itself shouldn’t be written off.   There is probably a material out there that would suit your design aesthetic, even if you lean towards a contemporary style.  And stone isn’t the only option– brick can also be used in drystack wall construction.  Broken concrete woudn’t be my first choice in most cases, but recycling a broken-up patio or driveway to create a wall that can be obscured is environmentally considerate and can help extend a budget.  

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Drystack Three Rivers Stone

drystack brownstone

Drystack Brownstone retaining wall


I had intended for this post to be about different types of retaining walls, but I got on a drystack bender (this happens) and here we are.  I’ll get into other types of walls next time.  For now, I hope these posts are informative about the landscape elements you see in your neighborhood.   But I also hope they help to explain why we, as designers, recommend certain materials or construction techniques over others.  We want to give you the garden that looks best with your home and suits your personal style, but we’re also considering your budget and trying to help you prioritize your project goals.  Charming drystack stone walls are budget friendly, naturally draining, and can serve multiple purposes to level spaces and create an architectural focal point in your garden at the same time.

Green Lacewing, Aphids, Roses and Photography – NorCal Trade Show


Yesterday our design department took a field trip to the 33rd Annual Spring NorCal Trade Show in San Mateo. This was our first time at the trade show and while it was primarily geared towards nurseries and retail stores, we learned some new trends in the landscape industry that could benefit our clients. The highlight of the show was a seminar by gardener and landscape photographer, Saxon Holt.

We’ve all seen live ladybugs for sale at nurseries. Once set loose in the garden, they eat annoying little pests, like aphids, leaf hoppers, and scale. They offer a natural alternative to chemical pesticides that can pollute our soil and water and the veggies and fruits we are trying to grow. Apparently, due to some bad weather this year, ladybugs will not be as prolific this year. We are in luck, as we learned the green lacewing will swoop in and eat even more pests than the cute ladybug. Each larvae of the green lacewing can eat up to 1,000 aphids per day. Compare that with the 50 aphids one ladybug can eat in a day. Besides eating aphids, they eat mites, thrips, moth eggs, and whitefly. The larvae of the green lacewing will eat for 21 days in your garden until they hatch into delicate, green-winged dancers. They continue to reproduce in your garden until they can’t find any more pesky aphids to eat. 1,000 to 4,000 larvae of the green lacewing are available by mail and come in batches delivered to your door. You can read more about them here:

green lacewings

Green lacewing adults, eggs and larvae. Look closely!

Amongst many of the traditional ornamental pots at the show, CompoClay showed off their modern, sleek, green designs. They differentiated themselves by touting their eco-friendly raw material that has the ability to look like stone, clay, metal and wood, while still being strong and safe for humans and the earth. Their line ranges from vertical walls to modern sphere planters, to rustic urns. Their prices also seemed competitive with the traditional glazed pots of the same stature. Here’s more information at their website,

  compoclay vert wall compoclaycompo

Be on the lookout for the newest trend in groundcover roses. This new line of true groundcover roses is called ‘Drift’ and it is available in seven colors. We’ve always used the ‘Carpet’ rose as our go-to groundcover rose because it is dependable, easy to care for, and a prolific bloomer. It gets tall canes from time to time that have to be removed in order to remain low to the ground, but the ‘Drift’ series is said to solve the problem. This series is a cross between big groundcover roses and miniature roses. They are said to stay at 18” high and 2 to 3 feet wide, perfect for smaller gardens or to brighten up a small spot in an already established garden.

 saxon holt

It was an informative day ended by an even more informative seminar given by Saxon Holt, famous garden photographer. His presentation focused on how to take really good pictures of gardens so that we can show off the beauty of California gardens. In California, it is difficult to take successful pictures because of our harsh sun.  Whether it is a planting combination you love or the serpentine line a path draws you through a meadow, you must have an intention with each picture you take. Mr. Holt supplied all the photographs to the most recent East Bay MUD book, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region. This is a beautiful, informative and practical book every Bay Area gardener should have on the shelf. He said the best way to inspire people to make beautiful gardens is to take beautiful pictures of them.





The Benefits of Mulch in your Planting Beds

As a construction project comes to an end and the walls and patios are built, the irrigation is set and the plants are planted there is one final task to complete – the installation of mulch.  It really makes a project seem complete, the finishing touch that makes the garden really pop.  It looks great and completes the garden, but the installation of mulch in a garden has many benefits and is a task that should be completed every couple of years.


The benefits of mulch in your planting beds:

Water retention – Mulch reduces the amount of water that will evaporate from your soil allowing you to water less.  A layer of mulch acts like a protective top soil that will keep the ground cooler and allow it to hold in more moisture, especially during summer months and during times of drought.  .

Weed control – Acting as a layer of top soil, mulch inhibits the growth of weeds by trapping them underground without light to properly germinate.  Although some weeds will inevitably grow and break through the surface, mulch is a natural form of weed control and helps keep weed pulling to a minimum.

Soil quality – Mulch improves the quality of your soil as it naturally breaks down and disintegrates (which is why it needs to be applied every couple of years).  The nutrients in mulch help improve the water retention and movement in both sandy and clay soils.


Types of mulch:

These are the common types of mulch we install at our jobs here at Lazar Landscape.  Depending on the look and the conditions of the site you could use any of these varieties in your landscape.

This is 1/4" fir bark, a fine clean look, but may blow away in windy areas due to its size

This is 1/4″ fir bark, a fine clean look, but may blow away in windy areas due to its size

This is fir bark mulch in a 3/4" size, great for a family friendly yard!

This is fir bark mulch in a 3/4″ size, great for a family friendly yard!

Shredded Cedar mulch, clean, brown look for a hillside

Shredded Cedar mulch, clean, brown look for a hillside

Shredded redwood mulch - a redish, brown color, but also great for hillsides.

Shredded redwood mulch – a redish, brown color, but also great for hillsides.

Playground mulch, great for play areas - bonus no splinters!

Playground mulch, great for play areas – bonus no splinters!

Tips for installing mulch in your planting beds:

–        Before applying a new application of mulch to your planting beds, be sure to complete a thorough clean up existing weeds.  This will allow the mulch to do its job of inhibiting weed growth by trapping the seeds below the soil.

–        Water planting beds prior to mulch installation to allow the mulch to trap moisture in the soil from the start.

–        Apply about a 2 inch depth of mulch to planting beds to reap all the benefits mulch has to offer for your garden.  And remember the finer the mulch, the quicker it will naturally break down. This may require the frequency of application to increase.

And finally remember the cost of the material is inexpensive, but it is a time consuming task so set aside a good amount of time to complete the installation.  Or you can hire someone, like Lazar Landscape, to haul and install mulch to your planting beds for an instant improvement in your garden!

Grapevines in the Garden

Living in San Francisco is enjoyable and exciting but sometimes you need to get out and explore the outlying areas.   We are blessed with the fact that no matter in which direction we drive we will not be disappointed.  This past weekend I headed north to the Napa Valley.  The drive through the Valley holds a particular charm this time of year.  The light is clear and intense, highlighting the stark contrast between the meticulously pruned grapevines running through a carpet of the neon yellow mustard.  You can’t help but be calmed by the rhythm of a vineyard as it glides along the surface of the hills and valleys.

Spring time in the Napa Valley

Spring time in the Napa Valley

Grape Vineyards after winter pruning

Grape Vineyards after winter pruning

Capturing this feeling at any scale is feasible.  With careful planning, a small vineyard is possible even in a residential garden or suburban hillside.  Following a few basic guidelines will allow you to enjoy the beauty of a small vineyard and also provide you with grapes for eating or wine making.

Grapevines do best in full sun, which means about 7 to 8 hours per day.  Less light can lead to a multitude of problems including lower fruit production, poorer fruit quality or increased powdery mildew.  The site should have good airflow and a southern exposure.  A gently sloping site with southern exposure is ideal as this typically has the warmest temperatures.

Grapevines will grow and produce fruit on a wide range of soil types.  If it is wine you are after, the best wine quality often comes from vines that are grown on less fertile and rocky soils.  This is because less fertile soils often produce smaller grapes.  This is desired for winemaking because it gives a greater skin to juice ratio.  For table grapes, where large fruit is desirable, deep, rich soils are preferred.  Keep in mind that rich soils will also produce rampant vegetative growth.

Just as important is good drainage.  Avoid heavy clay or waterlogged sites.  Roots tend to grow deep; some can reach 15 feet deep, although most of the roots can be found in the top 3 feet of soil.  Before planting, you may want to have a soil test done to check pH and organic matter levels.  Apply the recommended soil amendments as needed.

One of the first questions to ask, if you are looking for more that just a few vines, is “How much space do I need?”  Grapevines are planted in rows that can be as little as 8 feet apart.  Vine (post) spacing within the row can be 6 to 9 feet apart.  North-south rows maximize sun exposure.  Northeast-southeast rows reduce sunburn problems in warm climates.

The best time to plant the vines is in early spring.  The vines can be purchased as bare-root or as potted plants.  Planting holes should be dug 1 – 1 ½ feet away from the post.  If you are planting potted plants, before you place the plant in the hole, gently pull and straighten the roots so that they will spread out inside the hole.  The top growth of the plant should be cut back so that it has 2 or 3 buds and positioned at an angle towards the post.

Due to the fact that grape leaves are prone to fungal diseases, it is best to water the vines at the soil line and not overhead.  Drip irrigation is the best choice.  Set up a drip irrigation emitter at the base of each plant.  With the water supplied directly to the root zone, there will be less water lost to evaporation.

Remove weeds from around the base of plants by either hand pulling or with a garden hoe.  Keep at least a two-foot area weed-free around the trunk.  If using a string trimmer for weeding, be sure not to get too close and cause damage to the trunk.

Don’t expect fruit right away.  During the first three years after planting, the vines are establishing their roots and growing the stems.  Fruit production generally occurs in the fourth or fifth year after planting.  The vines should be allowed to grow wild during the first year.  Pruning should begin the second season and take place in the winter or very early spring, before the buds begin to swell. Properly pruning the vines is important in order to get maximum fruit production.  Since fruit is produced on new growth you should prune the old wood to two to three buds every year.  This will stimulate the new growth.  In a small garden, restricting the size of the plant can be important.


Three types or species of grapes are available today:

–        American varieties (Vitis labrusca), such as Concord and Niagara

–        European varieties (Vitis vinifera), which for the most part are the wine, table and raisin cultivars grown in California

–        American hybrids, which are crosses of European and American species


In general, American types are more cold-hardy than European varieties.  European varieties generally require a longer growing season to mature their fruit, making them ideal for California gardens.  However, most grape varieties need some summer heat to produce good quality fruit.

We have all seen the yellow mustard plants in-between the rows of grapes or the roses planted at the edge of a vineyard and wondered why.  The reasons are that the mustard plants are there to help add vital supplements to the soil.  Mustards also contain high levels of “biofumigants” that suppress nematode populations.  Roses planted at the end of the vine rows are there to give early warning of mildew problems.

Before: Sunny Hillside perfect for grape vineyards

Before: Sunny Hillside perfect for grape vineyards

After: Grape vineyards designed by Lazar Landscape, installed by other

After: Grape vineyards designed by Lazar Landscape, installed by other

If you have always wanted to have a vineyard on your property or maybe just a few grapevines contact Lazar Landscape.  We will guide you through the process of selecting the best site, proper installation and maintenance of the vines.  Nothing says ‘California Lifestyle’ better than serving table grapes or a bottle of wine that originated from your own garden.

Berkeley Garden Renovation

Lazar Landscape clients Patricia and Peter S. have been in their Elmwood, Berkeley home for more than 40 years.  They’ve certainly seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood, and in their own home, over that period of time.  They have raised 3 children, and are now proud grandparents.  For anyone that hasn’t explored it, Elmwood is a dynamic, friendly neighborhood.  Every time I was on their property working with them on their recent landscaping project, whether I was taking photos, measurements, or going over plans, a neighbor would stroll by and stop to chat.  Some of their neighbors have lived there for many years as well (though few as long as Pat & Peter), and there is a true sense of community, even with the increased development of the nearby commercial district and the proximity to the Cal Berkeley campus.

In 40+ years, a house and property are bound to go through some changes.  In 1995, an enormous Fir tree in the back corner of the property had to be removed due to disease- a difficult decision for the clients, as the tree had been in place longer than the house itself.  (It’s brother survives and is a dramatic feature in the tiny front garden).  Up to that point, the backyard consisted mostly of a small deck off of the house, and a lawn, which was suffering under the deep shade of the tree.  As their children were grown, the need to keep a lawn had disappeared, and even though they were distraught at having to remove the Fir, they saw it as an opportunity to rethink the space to suit their changing needs.  Pat and Peter hired Lazar Landscape to design a lower maintenance landscape where they could entertain guests and use the garden as an extension of their home year round.

Planting, Lawn & Fir Tree, 1995.

Planting, Lawn & Fir Tree, 1995.

New Podocarpus and Plum trees, 1997.

New Podocarpus and Plum trees, 1997.

Podocarpus (Fern Pine) 16 years later.

Podocarpus (Fern Pine) 16 years later.

Lazar installed a large, dry set brick patio, which jogs around the deck to the driveway, giving the small yard a more expansive feel.  New wraparound deck stairs, boulders, stepping stones, a built-in bench, and planting beds create a charming space that has been a wonderful addition to a quintessentially ‘Berkeley’ brown-shingled home.  It won a California Landscape Contractor’s Association award for Best Small Residential Installation, and was featured on a Lazar Landscape postcard!

Original Deck, 1995.

Original Deck, 1995.

New Brick Patio and Deck, 1997.

New Brick Patio and Deck, 1997

Over the years, Pat & Peter have gotten enormous pleasure out of their garden.  The hardscaped areas of brick and flagstone have held up beautifully.  Plants designed to provide screening after the Fir tree was removed have flourished, creating increased privacy in the garden.  Personally, I appreciate how fully these clients understand that landscapes change over time.  They have truly enjoyed watching those changes.  For example, the amount of sunlight in the garden has been reduced remarkably as the larger trees and shrubs have matured, so some of the underplantings have needed to be updated over the years- but until recently, that was about it.  The garden has proved to be low maintenance, especially compared to the water-needy lawn which couldn’t be used during the rainy season, but still needed to be fertilized, seeded and regularly mowed.

New Boulders & Planting, 1997

New Boulders & Planting, 1997

Planting and Boulders, 2013.

Planting and Boulders, 2013.

Then last year, the client’s needs changed again.  Having undergone countless back surgeries and dealing with compromised mobility, Peter had to make significant changes to the home if he and Pat intend to stay there, which they do.  Pat & Peter had to rethink the entry points to the home, both front and back.  The entire front driveway, stairs, and path to the backyard were removed, as was a large planting area in the front which necessitated the removal of a Birch tree, planted by Peter- yet another difficult decision concerning tree removal.  The space was graded and repaved, and reorientation of a retaining wall on their neighbor’s side of the driveway created a larger planting area for their neighbor.   The deck in the backyard was rebuilt in a similar style, but with the addition of a lift, new benches, and adjusted railings.   Involved in that project were Mark Feinman and Surane Gunasekara of Complete Construction, who specialize in disability and accessibility construction; Andre Ptaszynskian, an architect and friend, and of course Pat and Peter.  All of them had the common goal of increasing accessibility, but to do so without compromising the overall aesthetic of their Craftsman home.


Here’s where I come in.  I wasn’t a Lazar employee in 1997 when their first landscape project was completed, but I have seen photographs of the garden and heard tidbits about the project since I joined the Lazar team more than 7 years ago.  Once the accessibility project had been completed, we were thrilled to hear from these clients again, as they hired Lazar to help with planting, irrigation, and rebuilding of a native stone drystack wall in the front yard.  The changing grade in front meant a taller wall, and we were able to mix in moss rock to create a seamless appearance between the new wall materials and the old stone, which are is longer quarried in the Bay Area.


Rebuilt drystack wall, with old and new stone.

Rebuilt drystack wall, with old and new stone.

We worked with the client and their next door neighbor to introduce a planting scheme that links the two properties on either side of the new concrete path.  The site is mostly shady, especially this time of year, so woodland plantings are ideal.  They are also appropriate with the Craftsman style of the home.  We reused Bamboo, Orchids and Irises that had spent years in containers and become root bound, and replanted a large Winter Daphne that had always been a focal point in the garden, but had to be relocated after the landscape renovation.  We added a new Mayten, Fringeflower, Liriope and Coral Bells, repeating some of the successful plants that were part of the 1997 project.

New Deck Stairs and Planting, 1997.

New Deck Stairs and Planting, 1997.

Potted plants and screening shrubs, 2013.

Potted plants and screening shrubs, 2013.


We are lucky at Lazar to have a lot of repeat clients.  Some chose not to construct their whole project the first time, others want to add a few bells and whistles to a mostly completed garden, or take care of that last problem area that’s been bugging them.   In a few cases, our clients have completed a construction project, and then moved, getting to start all over again!  But rarely has this much time gone by between phases of a project, and seeing this kind of garden evolution has been a true learning experience.  It’s been a pleasure to be able to go back into a garden 16 years after it was first installed, and thanks to Pat & Peter’s meticulous records, see the original photos and plans- both before and after the first landscape project.  This second phase of the project was small compared to the first.  Most of our clients do one sizeable project and can make limited adjustments over the years to keep the garden thriving.  But sometimes life throws you a curveball.  Pat & Peter’s willingness to roll with the punches and adapt has allowed them to stay comfortably in their beautiful home.  I’m honored we got to be a part of their garden renovation.  Again!

All About Walls

In keeping with a theme of landscape definitions, I want to introduce the topic of walls.  Nearly all of the projects we construct include some type of wall, most often a retaining wall.  It is the Bay Area, after all- most homeowners have to contend with some amount of slope in their landscape, and creating useable outdoor spaces often requires retaining walls to flatten sloped areas.  There are a lot of nuances to designing and building walls, so I’m going to break wall construction down over the next few blog posts so that you can throw around wall-related terms like ‘surcharge’ and ‘footing’ with the pros.

Curved Stucco with Stone Cap

Retaining walls are used to retain soil- as a tool for leveling ground and preventing soil erosion.  They can also serve as built in seating and to delineate spaces.  People often refer to the building of retaining walls as ‘terracing’.  There are many types of retaining walls, which I’ll be going through in later posts.  First, some basics about retaining walls:

‘Curbs’ or ‘Edging’:  These are very short retaining walls- less than 12” in height.  We use these often when grading (leveling) spaces with a minimal slope, or when building stairs into a hillside.  Along stairs, edging is often referred to as ‘cheekwall.’   As with the Moss Rock edging in the photo below, the edging keeps the stairs free of debris which could wash onto them when it rains.

Timber Ties with Moss Rock Edge

‘Seatwalls’:  We use the term seatwall all the time, although it’s not a technical term.  The meaning is pretty obvious though-  these walls are 14” – 18” tall, roughly the height your chair is from the ground to the seat.  This is a wall that can be comfortably perched on, and which usually requires a ‘cap’ (a flat piece of stone or a wood plank) on a wall of reasonable seat height.  This is a great opportunity to use the walls you need for soil retention as built-in seating, eliminating the need for furniture in smaller areas.  Cushions can be added to make seatwalls even more comfortable, give them a pop of color or reflect your personal style.  In the photo below, a seatwall was built directly in front of a taller retaining wall, creating a back to the seat.  A retaining wall of 3’ or more appears even higher when it is uphill from where you’re standing, so seatwalls can also break up that vertical element- lessening that Machu Picchu effect.

seatwall with cushions

Short Retaining Walls:  Retaining walls less than 3’ in vertical height.  Typically, this is the maximum height a wall can be without requiring a permit or engineering (unless you’re lucky enough to live in Piedmont, where 2’ – 6” is your maximum allowable height.  And I’m betting on that changing in the future, so build your retaining walls while you can, Piedmonters!!!)  In truth, simple wall engineering becomes less feasible when heights of 3’ are exceeded.  The pressure of the earth behind the wall becomes too great for simple wall solutions, so we need to call in the big guns.  By big guns, I’m referring to both materials (Steel I-Beams, for example) and people (namely, engineers).  In the photo below, a series of short retaining walls was installed flanking new stairs on a steep slope.   This is an example of terracing a site.

Napa Basalt Terraces

Tall (Engineered) Retaining Walls:  Walls over 3’ in vertical height.  These walls are for significant slope retention or to affect dramatic grade change.  We’ve installed these walls when carving out a driveway for a house far upslope from the road, to help eliminate damage to house foundations from significant water runoff, and even to keep an eroding road from falling into a client’s front yard.  These walls require calculations and drawings from an engineer, and permits from your municipality.  This usually means a significant investment- some tall retaining walls cost upwards of $500 per linear foot.  If you can safely avoid building walls of this height, you will save yourself a pretty penny.   Sometimes it seems like the most straightforward option when trying to maximize space, but because of aesthetics as well as cost, we install them rarely.

Tall Block Walls

Footings:  All the walls described above are load-bearing walls, even the curbs and edgings.  So they all must have a footing.  This is the portion of the wall that sits below grade (grade being the level of the ground adjacent to the wall).  Think of it like you would the foundation of your house.  You don’t see it, but it’s doing a very important job.  The footing distributes the weight of the retaining wall structure to the soil below, supporting the weight of the wall and the soil behind it.    Often when you see failing retaining walls, it’s because a footing wasn’t included or wasn’t properly installed.   Piers, which are vertical pillars that support walls, are a type of footing.  For tall engineered walls, piers can be 20’ deep or more, which is a significant part of the cost of building them.

Surcharge:  Surcharge is the added weight above a wall.  So if the area above your retaining wall isn’t flat, but continues to slope up, it has a surcharge.  Patios, pools, driveways, or other weighty residential landscape elements are also surcharges.  In some local municipalities, like the City of Berkeley, surcharge on a retaining wall requires engineering and/or permits, even if the desired wall height is less than 3’.

 Wall Section

Drainage:  Drainage is extremely important in relation to retaining walls.  I’ll get more into why as I explore different types of retaining walls, but poor drainage can compromise pretty much any retaining wall, no matter how strong, over time.  Water is powerful stuff, people, and it has to be considered.

Soil Conditions:  This is another integral factor in retaining wall design.  We have varied soil conditions in the Bay Area.  Many of you in San Francisco proper have lots of sand in your landscape, which drains quickly, but doesn’t compact well, which can affect soil stability.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, East Bay residents often have an abundance of clay in the soil.  Ever tried to plant something in August in Oakland?  It’s no picnic.  In fact I’d rather have rocky soil than clay.  Clay soils expand and contract dramatically based on rain, which can cause movement in built walls.

Using best practices in retaining wall design and construction, which consider soil conditions, drainage, surcharge, and local code in addition to style and personal aesthetics, is imperative.   Choosing the best type of wall for your site takes all of these factors into account. Next time, I’ll get into some of the different types of retaining walls we can build, and the pros and cons of using them in your landscape.