Posts from the ‘design build firm’ category



One of my favorite garden spaces are courtyards. They are romantic and practical at the same time! They are contained and enveloped by the house, oftentimes creating amazing places to use and view nature up close. Due to their proximity to the house, courtyards often contain a patio that can be used as an extension of the livable space inside the house. Courtyards become places to enjoy a cup of tea on a comfy lounge chair, while surrounded by the lushness of plants and nature. They are easy to access because of their close integration with the architecture, either at the same level as the house or just a few steps down from the house. I would love to have a house with a courtyard.  Being two stories above, I have learned from experience that easy access to the outdoor space is tremendously important if you ever want to use it.



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Oftentimes, courtyards are contained by walls on all fours sides. This provides a sheltered, intimate experience away from cold winds. Courtyards are small enough to tackle and create great opportunities for detail.


The details can be in the form of focal points such as water features or tiles inlaid in the steps or walls. Wall treatments can be in the form of playful paint colors or scented vines and shrubs softening the walls. Courtyards provide an opportunity for aromatic plants to warm and waft into the house. Natural stone paving can pull together the house color and flooring to create a cohesive, complementary surface to view and use. Gravel paving can also create a sensory experience, and offers a more rustic transition to the rest of a rambling garden.




Finally, A Welcoming Entry Garden to Match Its House


The first time I saw this beautiful California Mission style inspired home, there was definitely a disconnect between the entry and the architecture. My clients and I worked to make the garden entry just as detailed and as welcoming as the house. The front was a hodgepodge of materials built up over time. Pink slate was flaking off and encrusted with dirt, while there were at least three different level changes from the front door to the driveway and entry steps, creating tripping hazards and chopping up the space.

While we couldn’t alter the size of the entry steps that much due to the constraints of the existing cedar tree and driveway location, changing the material of the entry helped dramatically to create a cohesive and welcoming entry. The sandstone we chose was lighter than the former pink slate, with warm shades of yellow and brown running through. The paving stone, as well as warm Kennesaw ledgestone walls replaced the dark moss rock that was there before and immediately brightened up the ground plane beneath the dense shade of the cedar trees. We were able to increase the treads of the stairs, and reduce the riser heights for a more comfortable journey down to the front door, rather than having to focus on the precarious steep stairs that funneled visitors to the front door. A short three foot high retaining wall was built just in front of the arched entry window, creating a resting place for visitors and a safe transition spot to travel down the new side stairs.




2Estates10Replacing the cracked concrete driveway that was flanked by a structurally questionable deck helped tremendously to finish off the front of the house. The colored concrete driveway is a nice tan that complements the warm brown in the stone and rests peacefully in the background. This allows the architecture of the house and the stone to shine, while the driveway remains subdued.


Short ledgestone columns with an ornamental pot above calls attention to the entry stairs and a third accentuates the middle of the grand arched window. Wrought iron handrails and gate pick up details from the original ironwork inside the house and complement the black iron details in the exterior lighting fixtures.

Fragrant blooming white plants help to brighten the shade beneath the cedars. A sarcococcoa hedge creates an informal barrier along the road, while silver astelia and limelight hydrangea complement existing pink camelias. Variegated foliage such as dianella and winter blooming daphne also help to lighten the shade all year long. Burgundy cordylines planted above the columns create accents of bold color in key areas that contrast with the light stone.

Before, the entry was disjointed and distracting.  While the layout of this front garden entry did not change drastically, the change of materials from dark to light and the details in the finish work really make the architecture of the house pop.


Finding Zen in Your Garden

When I first met Tracy about her landscape project, she expressed her frustration, even desperation over the state of her garden. In a relatively small space there was a cacophony of different levels and materials. The space made you feel uneasy. It didn’t feel safe or restful. She and her family didn’t spend time in their outdoor space. She said her end goal for the project was to have a feeling of a Zen garden.



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This was one of those moments as a designer when I knew I needed to keep asking questions. My thoughts about a Zen garden didn’t really align with Tracy or her family or her lifestyle. She didn’t want to spend hours raking gravel and striving for nirvana. In my work, I find the concept of Zen, like Feng Shui is frequently used to describe the ideal or feeling my clients want to achieve in their finished garden. This always begs the question: “What does a Zen garden mean to you?” So, after further conversation, we edited the Zen garden concept into eliminating the visual noise that was her outdoor space, and creating peaceful, useable garden rooms that she could enjoy with family and friends. Further, the use of different materials should be as minimal as possible.

Important elements for Tracy to get her version of her Zen garden were: a water feature, a place to eat, and a place to gather around a firepit. We also had to work around the fig tree her daughter named Bob.

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The main challenge was tackling all of the grading and material issues. Garden access was through a bedroom door that lead to a rickety deck. From the deck you had to step up to a sloped aggregate patio with all of its wood expansion joints popping out or rotten. You also had to step down to a narrow path along the house that lead to a side entry. The goal was to eliminate most of the levels and use a high point in a corner of the garden to create an elevated seating area.

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Through the design process we created four different spaces. There is a dining area, a built-in seatwall around a firepit, a wall fountain water feature on which you can adjust the flow of water and sound, and a space to sit back and enjoy all of the other spaces. We considered and quickly ruled out lawn in the garden. While there is a lot of hardscape in the final design, the size of the space didn’t lend itself to dividing it into smaller parts. And again, our goal was to eliminate the visual noise of too many materials. The firepit and surrounding bench are at the high point of the garden, the height of which is ideally seat height at the main patio level. I used this to our advantage by defining that space as the dining area so the wall became a seatwall. The whole garden is outdoor living at its best.

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The final design includes a bluestone patio and loon lake ledgestone walls and water feature. We plumbed and existing modular grill to natural gas and painted the stucco to match the house. Planting is masses of subtropical plants that provide color the feeling of peaceful Zen Tracy was looking for. Bob stands tall behind the water feature and spreads his limbs over the bench at the firepit. He never looked happier! What’s better is the space has been transformed into Tracy’s Zen ideal of a safe, peaceful space for family and friends.

Fireplace Transforms Shady Garden


I just returned from visiting a garden we installed over a year ago. It is amazing to me how the work we did has turned into the main hub of the garden. My lovely client said, “I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner”. Every time we meet, we always convene on the new patio, admiring the fragrant plants filling in and the focal point, the fireplace. My clients use the garden almost every night. I mean, they really, really use it. The gas fireplace allows them to keep warm under the shady Cedar tree every night while they light up their charcoal for the Weber barbeque. Many delicious dinners and weekend lunches are prepared out here. The lowered height of the fireplace wall allows them the perfect height and width to use as a counter for placing their platters of food as they barbeque. They were adamant they didn’t want a monster built-in barbeque with sink and fridge. They had limited space and warmth was their top priority. They were exactly right. A built-in barbecue would have cluttered the space, blocking off either side which would eliminate the open feel they were looking for. Now, the star of the garden, the fireplace, can be freestanding without any competition.


The established Cedar tree posed the greatest challenge for this garden renovation. The placement of the new fireplace, on the precipice of a slope and amongst the established tree roots required careful placement of concrete piers to avoid root damage. Consultation with an arborist and engineer on site was required throughout the construction process. The bluestone patio was set in sand with native soil mixed into the base to allow for the least amount of shock to the roots. Fragrant, dog-resistant plants were also challenging to grow beneath the canopy of the Cedar tree and amongst the root system.


The existing wood-burning brick fireplace was dangerous and unusable in its location under the cedar canopy. The new gas fireplace provides a safe and sheltered heat source for our clients as well as a focal point for the renovated garden. Removal of the existing 8’ high fence revealed ocean views our clients enjoy almost every night as they barbeque and relax by the fire.





The location of the existing fireplace and large shrubs blocked off the patio space from the rest of the garden. Relocating the fireplace and planting lower growing plants and stepping stone path opened up the feeling and spaciousness of the entire rear garden.



Japanese Saw for Pruning Bamboo Culms

Carefully pruned running bamboo forest at Hakone Gardens

Carefully pruned running bamboo forest at Hakone Gardens

I finally found the tool to make me excited about thinning out my bamboo! For the past few years, I’ve been using hand pruners to thin the ¼” diameter culms of bamboo to create a stand of bamboo that was elegant and open. As the bamboo has established a larger root system since planting three years ago, I’ve been pruning out culms that are now 1” or more. The hand pruners are not the job for this because it hurts your hand and takes a long time to cut just one culm out. The hand pruners are also too bulky to navigate through the narrow spaces created by the clumping bamboo. Besides leaving me sweaty and frustrated, the hand pruners left awkward, angled stumps above the ground. I longed for a thin saw that could get in there and create a clean cut at ground level without nicking the neighboring culms.

Gyokucho #840 All Purpose Folding Saw -  Photo by Hida Tool

Gyokucho #840 All Purpose Folding Saw –
Photo by Hida Tool

At the recent San Francisco Flower and Garden Show in San Mateo last month, Hida Tool and Hardware Company from Berkeley had a booth where they were selling specialty pruning tools. I had heard about this store of imported Japanese tools for years and failed to make it to their location on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. They were selling a super sharp and efficient narrow saw specifically for cutting bamboo and other narrow branches, even PVC pipe. It folds into its’ sleeve for safety and portability when not in use. It’s official name, Gyokucho #840 All Purpose Folding Saw, was $38 and well worth it.

Clumping Himalayan Blue Bamboo just after planting

Clumping Himalayan Blue Bamboo just after planting


Running Black Bamboo after planting

Running Black Bamboo after planting

Running Black Bamboo screens perimeter in narrow planter

Running Black Bamboo screens perimeter in narrow planter

The three varieties of clumping bamboo I planted have been a great joy to watch fill out over the past three years. The first two years the bamboo stayed in a more shrubby form, but each spring they reach at least a few feet higher than the last year. They’ve finally gotten to the point where their screening is too dense and I can use my saw to play with how open and transparent I want them to be. They are screening the two story cottage our neighbor has in their backyard that creates an imposing barrier along one side of our garden. The culms of the Giant Timber Bamboo(Bambusa Oldhamii), have gone from ¼” to 1.5” in diameter. With this saw, I am able to prune out the thinner culms so the larger ones stand out more and captures the grace and strength associated with bamboo. I still use the hand pruners to trim off the side shoots that obscure the lower portion of the culms.

I want to keep each clump fairly narrow and tall. Our garden is small, so each foot is valuable. Bamboo is known for creating a fast, tall and narrow screen but it does take maintenance.  If you have bamboo, this saw will be invaluable in your repertoire of go-to garden tools. It is also handy for cutting off larger branches of trees and shrubs where a clean cut is necessary.


Bamboo forest at Hakone Gardens


English Cottage Garden Stirs the Senses

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Who knew a tiny Oakland backyard could contain this secret English Cottage garden? When you walk down the short driveway the garden starts to reveal itself in layers through a whimsical wrought iron gate covered with fragrant roses and lush purple clematis. There are so many new and existing plants covering every square inch of soil. The colors and smells wake up your nose and your eyes as soon as you enter.  A huge Coast Live Oak and established Pittosporum undulatum tree create the backdrop screening and canopy for the rest of the garden. Along the sides, we planted a hedge of Podocarpus to create a clean green and narrow screen. Existing established rhododendrons screen the Tudor style garage. The vast majority of the garden is dedicated to planting beds, rather than patios.




My clients number one priority was to be able to view the garden looking down from their eating nook and they were right. The formal half circle of lawn is anchored by a central bird bath. Pink flowering dogwoods anchor each end and enforce the formal symmetry of the half circle, while the planting beds around the brick-lined lawn are whimsical and packed full with flowering plants. Established rhododendrons on the perimeter and a few existing hydrangea make this new garden installation seem timeless. As with many English Cottage Gardens, there are formal lines and symmetry that relate to the architecture of the building. But the formality is never left exposed to be cold and stark because it is softened by the color and texture of the jam-packed planting beds.





Although, the back yard is small, it is able to house several distinct rooms that make the garden feel larger. The first room is the largest when viewed from above. It contains the formal semi-circle of lawn edged by generous planting beds. Directly across from the lawn, separated by a brick path, is the original brick patio and fireplace nook. We had to do some additional brick work and patching due to safety issues but the new brick blends in seamlessly with the old. Splashing mortar on the surface of the brick really helped to disguise the new brick. On the back of the fireplace is a small herb garden complete with an espaliered lemon tree. Behind the fireplace we refurbished the existing greenhouse by framing out a row of different salvaged windows and replacing the roof. A coat of turquoise stain makes it blend in with the original door and siding. Beyond the wrought iron fence, two metal troughs act as raised beds for growing strawberries, tomatoes, and even more cutting flowers. Hard perimeters are always softened by plants. The rhododendrons screen the wall of the garage while the vining clematis and rose weave in an out of the fence. The existing concrete retaining wall separating properties is disguised by the Podocarpus and soft blue geranium.





The biggest challenge in this garden was dealing with the shade the magnificent existing trees and rhododendrons created. Since the Oak and Pittosporum were already established and have large canopies, the lawn and flowering plants below suffer from the shade and leaf litter in the winter time. Additional seed in the winter and thinning of the trees could help, but this is just a fact in gardens sometimes. The symmetry of the lawn and border of roses can’t be changed to anything else. The changes each season brings help you appreciate the garden in different ways throughout the year. When the roses are dormant and bare branches in the winter, the evergreen Daphne perfumes the air with it’s sweet, soapy scent. The winter brings out the beautiful peony blooms of the Camelia, while spring triggers the Rhododendrons to light up with bright purple and pink clouds. The summer brings jaw-dropping displays of puffy purple and pink Hydrangea and peach Alstromeria, while the climbing roses, David Austin Rose and tea rose perfume the air.





Fieldtrip! CornerStone, Sonoma

Ready for the GardensOne of our New Year’s resolution as a design team here at Lazar Landscape is to take advantage of the many landscape related daytrip opportunities available to us in the San Francisco Bay area to spend time together as a team, to gain inspiration and insight for our designs, and mostly to have fun. Our first fieldtrip was to CornerStone in Sonoma, California. The weather gods were kind to us as we strolled through the gardens and surrounding shops.

Earth WalkIf you don’t know about CornerStone, it’s a large gallery of display gardens by local and world renowned landscape architects and designers. The landscape installations change often, so there’s always something new and interesting. If you’re a garden lover planning a trip to the Sonoma wine country, it’s worth stopping by. Admission to the gardens at CornerStone is free. On a beautiful day you can spend hours strolling through the widely varied landscape installations that range from high concept spaces like Pamela Burton’s installation ‘Earthwalk,’ to more natural installations by John Greelee and James Van Sweden, to very utilitarian installations like ‘Attention! Potager’ by Scott Daigre, and a children’s garden by MIG that was quite play

IMG_1219Group favorite installations were ‘Rise’ by Planet Horticulture who always delivers with their amazing plant combinations, and ‘In the Air’ by Conway Cheng Chang. When we think about gardens and landscapes enriching and nurturing our senses, we commonly think about what we see, smell and touch. With a simple construction of culms from Bambusa oldhamii (Giant Timber Bamboo) on a metal frame, Chang constructed an organic flute of sorts that uses the wind in the Sonoma Valley to create simple, beautiful organic sounds. It inspired me to find ways to bring sound into my design to complete the sensory stimulation.

Conway Cheng Chang

reflectingWhen you go, make time for the reflecting pond – a permanent element at CornerStone. It’s the point where the landscaped elements end and the rolling hills and agricultural surroundings begin. I love the meditative quality of a good reflecting pond, and I used those few moments to, well reflect, on how fortunate I am to do the work I do with the people I get to work with.

funky faux boistwo bull dozersThere are great shops surrounding the landscapes at CornerStone. I found an amazing faux bois (or funky concrete tree as I like to call it) at Artefact – and get lots of ideas and goodies from PotterGreen, and the sculptures at New Leaf Gallery pull you into the actual landscape installations at CornerStone. There are also Sonoma wineries represented, so you can kick of your wine tasing right at CornerStone.

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Whether you spend an hour or four, CornerStone is a great stop on any trip to Sonoma wine country.

It’s Miller Time for Landscape Design

Outdoor Kitchen

Outdoor Kitchen

It’s Miller time.

Well not really- it’s the middle of the work day and I’m sitting at a computer, and you are too.  But Miller time is coming.  Most of you probably associate Miller time with 1980’s beer advertising, but I’m taking it a step further.  You see, Miller time, as I’m using it here, is a metaphor for those idyllic moments in life when you can sit back and enjoy the ride.  When you can slow down for just a minute and soak up the atmosphere.  As Northern Californians, we get pockets of Miller time at regular intervals throughout the year.  In most of the country (I’ve lived in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Colorado- I’ve experienced a good cross section of climates) winters are too wet or too cold, and summers are too hot, too muggy or too buggy.   Our locationally-challenged counterparts have limited precious moments when the weather and the pace of life magically combine and allow them to really enjoy their surroundings.  For so many of our fellow Americans, these moments occur so rarely, they can’t be anticipated.  That means scrambling around at the last minute trying to put together a barbecue or a pool party or a friendly game of badminton before the mosquitoes or 90% humidity arrive and ruin the whole show.

In Northern California, we don’t have that problem.  We are the lucky ones.  For us, Miller time is always just around the bend.  And it’s time to take advantage of it.

Californians understand outdoor living.  In the landscaping business, there is a lot of emphasis on gardens being extensions of our homes.   We talk a lot about useable outdoor space, and because of our regular periods of Miller time, useable outdoor space is imperative.   But the truth is we deserve better than useable.  We deserve beautiful.  We deserve spectacular.  We have to suffer terrible drivers, poor public schools and questionable civic leaders.  We should be able to make up for that with fabulous landscapes that we are thrilled to spend time in, throughout the calendar year.  Our gardens should pull us outdoors, into lounge chairs around firepits and to tables on stone patios under vine arbors dripping with flowers.  They should inspire us to plant vegetables or to kick the soccer ball around with our kids.  They should beckon us with romantic lights down toe paths, around corners and under trees.

Play Structure

Play Structure



Grill with a View

Grill with a View

Deck with Chairs

Deck with Chairs


I’m talking to you.  You know who you are.  Picture yourself standing at your sink rinsing out your coffee mug, staring at your patch of sad grass and tired shrubs, with the cracked patio which slopes TOWARDS your house, so you have standing water after heavy rains in your basement where your son is trying to create a Lego metropolis, and is causing your carpet to mold.  Don’t be a prisoner in your own home!  Don’t drive down the street and sigh with misery when you approach your own front walkway because you are so ashamed of the landscaping that you inherited, never liked, can’t use, and have no idea what to do with.

The highest concentration of annual Miller time, from April to October (or even November, these days, thanks global warming!) is fast approaching.  This means it’s time to design (or redesign) your garden, so that you can have it built this spring and will be able to enjoy it the way it should be enjoyed.  Think you have a challenge that can’t be overcome?  Too steep of a slope, or too little sun?  Not enough time or not enough money?  Poppycock!   You’ll never know what your options are until you talk to a designer.  This is what we do, and we are pretty good at it, last time I checked (see CLCA Trophy Awards, 2012, and the testimonials on our website for proof).   Some solutions require an investment, it’s true.  But to get the most out of your space, to raise the value of your home, to improve your quality of life, isn’t it worth it?   There’s a solution.  Let us help you find it.

We can complete small projects, sprucing up your planting, adding lights, or fixing walls, in a few weeks.  Larger projects can take a few months, sure, but there’s still plenty of time to get your garden designed and likely completed before the best weather comes.  We have the best produce in the world.  We brew the best beer and produce the best wine.  We have the best weather.  Let’s get outside.

It’s Miller time.

Adirondacks & No Mow

Adirondacks & No Mow

Landscape Rail Options

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What makes a good landscape rail?

It has to serve its purpose while complementing its surroundings. When I am designing and realize a rail needs to be installed for code reasons, I am initially disappointed. This disappointment comes from the fact that the rail might obstruct a crucial view or make a space feel too enclosed.  Bulky pickets on a guardrail can look so busy and distract from the house and garden because it is a vertical element that sticks out like a sore thumb.  It is also an added expense that might not fit into a tight budget. But code is code for a reason and if there is danger of falling off a patio or deck, or tumbling down a long stretch of stairs, following code is a must. When the project is finished, I usually love the effect the rail adds to the garden. There are a lot of options out there and the rail can really complement the architecture of the house or add whimsy to the garden. There are also low profile options to help achieve the function of safety while not being obtrusive.

Metal handrail follows the curve of the stone staircase

Metal handrail follows the curve of the stone staircase

Handrail vs. Guardrail

There are two different types of rails. Handrails are simply a top rail to grasp, while held up by posts. They usually line the side of steps. While code can change from city to city, the general rule is if there are more than four steps, you need at least one handrail 34”-38” high from the tread of each step. Guardrails have the top rail along with pickets down below to keep you safe and contained. Guardrails are needed for staircases, patios, and decks that are 30” or more above grade. Guardrails need to be at least 42” tall with pickets that have an opening less than 4” wide.

craftsman style rail


Wood rails are perfect when they blend into the architecture and existing decking. Oftentimes, if a new wooden deck is being built, extending the 4×4 foundation posts up through the decking to create the posts for the guardrail is easy and more cost effective. Wood rails are very appropriate for Craftsman style houses. Because of the bulkiness of wood, rails made of wood definitely don’t go unnoticed. There are opportunities to create whimsical cutouts in wood panels if you want to create a more solid barrier. You could also combine wood posts and wood caps with metal pickets to create a rhythm of solid posts, and more transparent panels. The width of the wood cap is usually a minimum of 3.5”, making it a convenient coaster for drinks.

wood panel craftsmanstyle rail

Copper pickets and wood posts and caps

Copper picket guardrail with wood posts and caps

Metal and Wrought Iron

Metal and wrought iron rails are sturdy, long-lived work-horses in the garden that offer a lot of flexibility. Unlike wood, they can be easily curved to follow a curved staircase. They can be powdercoated different colors and finishes to add an extra level of detail. Metal and wrought iron can also be shaped into very intricate and playful patterns to create an artful statement in the garden. The strength of metal allows it to have skinnier posts and rails, creating a much more see-through effect compared to wood.

upclose metal rail whimsy

nautical white metal rail



black metal handrail


Cable rail finishes off a sleek and modern garden.  It can also be used if you want to achieve the feeling of spaciousness.  The horizontal stainless steel woven cable comes in a variety of diameters which are all very thin and unobtrusive. The cable can be threaded through wooden posts if part of a wooden deck, or through metal posts for a more modern look.

endless pool deck cable rail

Metal and cable rail

Ipe and cable


If you really want to keep the feeling of spaciousness or must capture a view, glass panels are the way to go. The thick, tempered glass panels provide safety and protection from wind while allowing full views.

glass rail and spiral stair

Incorporating Garden Art

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are fortunate enough that our yards can act as an extension of the house, a place to gather, entertain and enjoy the weather. Like a house being a reflection of your self and your lifestyle, your garden should too.

This is why homeowners typically have items, like sculptures, they wish to incorporate in their garden design, or why once a garden is built they find the perfect place to add finishing touches of garden art. Many homeowners wish to incorporate artful touches into their garden design, which are beautiful pieces of organic garden art.

There are many factors to consider when incorporating sculptures into a new garden – Do they want to be permanent structures, or would a home owner like to move them on a whim – is it important to be a focal point, or would they rather be kept a secret to discover as you meander in the garden?









Like a fine collection of art, this garden features sculptures that became permanent fixtures in the landscape. Each sculpture is placed methodically to take advantage of different viewpoints when in the garden, or the house, and compliment the surrounding views where ever you find yourself.









This garden features metal sculptures that are placed throughout the garden to discover. The large garden features different levels providing many spaces to tuck in the sculptures and showcase them among the plants.










It’s always fun to return to a garden and see how the homeowner has “moved in” once the job is complete. Finishing touches include patio furniture, potted plants and items like bird baths and sculptural art pieces. Finding the perfect place for these items depends on personal preference. I love discovering pieces hidden among the plants, like this stone Buddha head. A little bit of whimsy adds a lot of personal character.




Whimsy can be added organically in the garden too. This moss rock labyrinth under an existing fruit tree adds fun character while protecting and preserving the tree from the newly installed lawn.


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When there is a need for a screen from an unappealing view, a vertical garden can create a living piece of artwork in the garden. The plant types and colors add visual interest making an unfortunate view and unique and interesting feature wall.


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Also important when considering sculptures in your garden is lighting. That way when you’re enjoying your time outside in the evenings you can still be enjoying your garden art. Even when you’re enjoying your garden from the indoors during the colder months you can still enjoy your garden art if its well lit. This Blue Agave instantly becomes an organic sculpture in the garden, when highlighted during the evenings by the low voltage lighting the organic sculpture has even more impact!

Whatever garden art you decide to incorporate into your garden the number one rule is to enjoy it, like any art, it should evoke a sense of excitement, place and personal preference.