As a homeowner, you’re used to seeing your property a certain way. You look out your window or walk from your driveway to the front door, and see the same issues every day: lack of screening from the street, crumbling retaining wall, disease-ridden Rhododendron. Whatever the problem is, it can be difficult to get your mind around. And it makes sense to address the issue that’s bothering you the most. But it may give you tunnel vision. As designers, we get to walk into your space with fresh eyes, and see opportunities and constraints. Our job is to present you with viable solutions to your landscape problems. What are the things you can’t change; what has to change; and what would you love to change, if your budget allowed for it. It’s not important that you know exactly what you want your garden to look or feel like- we can help you with that. It is nice, however, when you can identify what’s bothering you the most.
When I met Ed & Deborah, they were pretty much at their wit’s end with their small front garden. With a house in the Oakland Hills on a steeply sloping lot, they understood that changes in elevation were par for the course, and that the front yard would always be primarily a transition space. But the transition wasn’t working for them. Most of their useable outdoor space was confined to their deck, which wrapped around the house and extended out, provided a spectacular west-facing view. They primarily used their garage entry to get into the home. The front entry stairs had been designed to be rustic, but after many years of use, had gone past rustic and into treacherous.The original plan had simply run its course.
The Boxwood hedge at the top of the yard didn’t provide great screening, and with a new rambunctious puppy, couldn’t provide enough security either. With no street lights, the uneven entry stairs needed better lighting to be safe. But besides all that, they just didn’t love it. The garden didn’t match their contemporary style, and they wanted to update it. At the same time, they are very conscious of their setting, and wanted the redesigned garden (and accompanying home renovation) to look and feel appropriate for their surroundings.
Space along the road was also an issue. My clients hoped to incorporate a slightly larger street parking space in front of the house, creating more room for guest parking, and also the opportunity to pull further off the road. Even a few feet would make a significant difference. Like much of the hills, the neighborhood has no sidewalks. But my clients, along with many of their neighbors, use the hills for exercise and to walk their puppy, but there are a lot of blind corners and their home is on a main street, so there’s a fair amount of traffic. Incorporating a slimmer profile at the top of the garden (we ended up with a 16” wide wall and fence on top vs. 4’ wide Boxwood hedge) would significantly improve the parking area without sacrificing interior garden space.
They wanted an entry that better reflected their aesthetic, provided more screening and security, increased safety and curb appeal, but didn’t feel over-imposed. My goal as a designer is to honor the environment and respect the architecture of the home, while incorporating a personality into the landscape that reflects my client’s aesthetic while solving their problems at the same time.
Ed and Deborah were open to ideas, but were also very clear on what they didn’t like. We went through a few conceptual iterations, but figured out relatively quickly where the priorities lay, and how the entry would be laid out. Even in their small space, we quickly recognized the opportunity to improve the layout to create a much more generous entry, which included a small patio, and to incorporate a water feature that utilizes the large retaining wall to create a focal point from the bay window at the front of the house, and emphasize the patio as a resting point on the way down the stairs.
The challenge came when it came time to pick the materials. These were tougher decisions. In a landscape measuring roughly 25′ x 20’, but requiring nearly 80 linear feet of retaining walls and 60 linear feet of fencing, the hard materials are a focal point from every direction. Further, a specific color palette was instituted with the home remodel in the exterior paint and trim, so the fence material, stain, rail and light fixture finishes, stone and concrete work all had to work together. This is always a priority, but is even more crucial in a small space. Coordination of these elements was imperative. It was achieved through adherence to an earth-toned color palette, and mixing natural materials with sleek modern fixtures. Using blind-mortared Elk Mountain Ledgestone Veneer on concrete block meant strong structural walls that don’t look overly modern or engineered. The stone picks up the colors in the stained Cedar fence and the warm colored concrete. With careful coordination, we created a space that feels of the environment, reflecting the natural surroundings, but with a contemporary bent.
Further, with such limited planting area, the plant palette needed to be simple, but impactful. The old planting was a mix of shrubs and perennials that had textural variance and similar water needs, and some were quite successful, but the overall effect was a bit haphazard and messy. Many plants were overgrown; including the Boxwood hedge which dominated the entry and took up space along the road. In the new planting scheme, a more organized approach was incorporated. A Himalayan Birch, Emperor Japanese Maple, and Unique Rhododendron were the largest plants, triangulated to offset the entry gate and provide screening and structure. The rest of the plantings were simple; repeating espaliered Camellias, Bellflower, Coral Bells, Mondo Grass, Azaleas and white-flowering Anemone, with space for Deborah to plant annuals throughout the year. We also incorporated white Iceberg tree roses, as roses are a favorite of Ed’s, and he and Deborah have maintained an impressive potted Rose garden on their sunny back deck for many years. Tidy Creeping Fig vines frame the water feature and soften the large main wall, while evergreen Bower vines climb the side fences and create a foliage backdrop when the trees are dormant in winter.
The space is bordered by a new Cedar fence, which incorporates a seamless design, screening the posts and hardware, and the clients installed a custom copper cap to add a unique finish. The entry gate has a metal frame, powder coated to match the modern-styled handrail, which mimic the rich bronze color of the light fixtures and paint on the entry level exterior walls. The architect of the client’s remodel added an exterior mirror (a valuable trick in a small garden to create an illusion of larger space) and a rain chain which eliminated the need for a downspout from the overhanging eave. The Owners provided large bronze pots for new and existing plants, softening the house walls and creating a uniformity that effectively finishes the cohesive look of this classy garden.
In nearly 8 years working for Lazar Landscape, this project has been one of my favorites. The difference in the ‘before and after’ photos still amaze me. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what was there before, but I can still remember Deborah telling me to ‘watch my step’ the very first time I came down the uneven stairs. It was wonderful working with clients who were willing to listen to ideas and consider options, and were able to see the big picture: they realized that their front entry was (and is) the gateway to their home and should represent their contemporary aesthetic. And they took the time and put in the effort to make all the right decisions. The garden continues to evolve, and watching it develop has been satisfying- it’s one of those gardens where you have no idea what lies behind the perimeter, but you walk in, and feel like you’re in a lovely, comfortable space that is and integral part of a beautiful contemporary Oakland home.