Posts from the ‘fire’ category

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Oakland Sloped Garden

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I had the pleasure of working on a job in Oakland where my client’s goal was to salvage as much of the existing landscape as possible. At the same time they really wanted an area for raised beds, a small play area for their little one, and more useable spaces in their sloped garden. It was challenging because the existing landscape had layers of different materials built up over the years with a slick and rickety creosote railroad tie staircase. Each retaining wall was made from pieces of stacked broken concrete, stone, and wood, creating levels that were not useable. One thing was for certain, the railroad tie staircase had to go.

Before: Creosote railroad tie staircase

Before: Creosote railroad tie staircase


After: Timber tie staircase winding up slope

After: Timber tie staircase winding up slope

Rebuilding the staircase allowed us to reroute it to maximize existing spaces and to safely access the sloped garden. The old staircase was unnecessarily wide in some parts, eating into valuable useable flat space. The new staircase starts out wide and welcoming near the house, but then narrows into a utilitarian staircase as it winds up the slope to the various garden ‘rooms’.

After: Timber tie staircase winds down slope

After: Timber tie staircase winds down slope

The first room houses the raised vegetable garden. We kept the existing drystack stone retaining wall because it was in good condition but built out another retaining wall on the downslope to create a flat area for the raised beds. This was the sunniest area in this Oakland garden which was mostly covered in shade from huge Coast Live Oaks and eucalyptus. We used metal ‘L’ brackets called M Brace from Art of the Garden for the raised beds. 2×8 pieces of redwood slip into the metal brackets. The raised beds can be configured into different sizes depending on the space, simply by trimming the wood to the desired length. The frame is then filled with soil and ready to be planted. There’s lots of wildlife in this Oakland backyard so we installed a wire mesh of gopher barrier at the bottom of each of the raised beds before filling with soil. This will prevent any underground gophers and moles from coming up through the bottom of the raised beds and harvesting the veggies for themselves.

The second room was the one-person reading perch. It is nestled under the dappled shade of the Coast Live Oaks and made of two small drystack stone retaining walls. We kept the patio small so as not to disturb the sensitive root systems of the oaks. We were also able to keep all the existing soil on site by not overcutting into slopes and using all the soil fill to create level ‘rooms’.

After: Reading perch under Coast Live Oaks

After: Reading perch under Coast Live Oaks

Walking further up the stairs, the third level room is dedicated to play. There is a small patch of shade loving lawn next to a play area. This level was already established in the existing landscape by the blue rock retaining wall. We were able to enlarge the level area by consolidating two failing shorter stacked concrete retaining walls into one three foot high retaining wall. Above this wall we dedicated to edible plants. We planted a blueberry patch with a mix of different varieties to provide a longer season of harvest with edible thyme to trail over the wall.

After: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone wall

After: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone wall

Finally, at the very top of the sloped garden, you reach the fire pit. This room existed in a dilapidated unusable state before because the huge eucalyptus tree roots had busted open the stone retaining wall. The stone was mortared together, leaving a huge crack right in the middle of the retaining wall. The existing patio underfoot was uneven and hard to access by a small offshoot of a staircase, only 18 inches wide. We reused the existing stacked concrete debris and created a new drystack concrete retaining wall further away from the eucalyptus root. The drystack nature of the retaining wall will move and shift as the roots grow, hopefully, not for a long time since we gave it more room to expand. The floor of the fire pit patio is decomposed granite which will also be forgiving and easy to repair if the roots decide to make an appearance.

Before: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

Before: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

After: Fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

After: Fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

All throughout this Oakland landscape we inserted fruit trees and edible plants. Rosemary and sage are used in planting beds amongst ornamental perennials. Fragrant lemon verbena and lavender attract hummingbirds. A strawberry patch grows just above the raised vegetable garden area. Kiwi vines grow on the fences. Persimmon, fig, pear, apple, plum, lemon and kumquat trees dot the sloped garden and fight to win the battle against the dense layer of eucalyptus leaves that can easily smother plants.

Towering Eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter

Towering Eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter


Eucalyptus leaf litter

Eucalyptus leaf litter

Limited sunlight, eucalyptus droppings and a mishmash of materials were all challenges in this Oakland backyard. Thanks to my clients, who were open to trying new things and appreciative of the whimsy and beauty of reusing materials, we were able to create a functional, beautiful and purposeful landscape. The overwhelming slope is safely accessible and provides a daily journey through shadow and light. This sloped garden, full of wildlife continues to evolve as the plants and trees grow in and the raised vegetable garden gets changed through the seasons.

After: View of fire pit room and various new and existing retaining walls. Old stone and concrete are artfully combined with existing broken concrete.

After: View of fire pit room and various new and existing retaining walls. Old stone and concrete are artfully combined with existing broken concrete.

Dream Project

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Sometimes the fates converge, and you find yourself working on a dream project. Let me start by saying I love, love, love designing gardens around mid-century modern homes. So when I arrived at an appointment to meet my future clients and saw their home, I have to say I got a little excited. Then I met my clients, who are awesome, saw the beautiful work they had done to their open floor plan interior, and listened to their wish lists for their garden, and my heart melted a little. Their outdoor space was begging to be incorporated into their lifestyle! I was beyond happy and excited when I got the call that they had chosen to work with me on their project.

For the most part, the garden designed itself. While old and a bit dilapidated, the site had good bones and a circulation pattern that couldn’t be altered much. In other words, the spaces or garden rooms were identified; I just had to develop them. The main challenge in the front garden was an extremely unsafe entry. A previous owner had installed Saltillo tiles on the existing concrete entry. They were mossy and slippery, unevenly sloped and some of the tiles were popping off. The hand rail was slightly wobbly wood in dire need of sanding. It had disaster written all over it! The home is situated near the top of a steep slope, but there is enough flat space to allow for a quaint seating area for the homeowners to connect with their neighbors.

Before: Back entry

Before: Back entry

After: Back entry

After: Back entry


The back yard has multiple access points; there were three sets of doors off of the house; a side path from the front garden; and a unique second street entry at the back of the house required sort of a second entry from the street and access from the detached garage from that street. There are three main useable areas in the back garden in which to incorporate my clients’ wish list that included: an outdoor kitchen, a quiet peaceful garden space off of the master bedroom, space for entertaining fairly large groups of friends and family, a fire element and a water element, a place to grow food, and safety (the Saltillo tiles were continued throughout the garden) that included new fencing with locked gates, lighting and hand rails.

Before: Dangerous front entry stairs

Before: Dangerous front entry stairs

After: Safe front entry stairs

After: Safe front entry stairs

The biggest challenge in making the front entry safe was raised by building codes that came into being after the house was constructed. We had to push the entry staircase toward the house to accommodate setbacks, and that in turn required us to build a wall on the upslope. The stairs followed the natural grade on the original design and did not require a wall. It was a happy accident, though. The wall turned out beautiful and really anchors the front garden and compliments the home. The homeowners elected not to tackle a large portion of their slope that is covered in ivy, and the staircase separates the ivy and landscaped areas nicely.

These homeowners are not dyed-in-the-wool modernists, but have a fun, almost whimsical eclectic, contemporary approach. Hardscape material selections were made to tie into the house. We used a combination of precut stone, random stone, gravel and aggregate tile details, and a combination of ledge stone and stucco walls. I originally designed a stone fireplace, but the homeowners elected to use a bold stucco color to tie the elements together. I always tell my clients that they get to live in their garden long after I’m gone. I have many ideas and strong opinions, but they are the ultimate voice in how their garden evolves.

Before: Stucco wall and tile patio

Before: Stucco wall and tile patio

After: Fireplace and bench

After: Fireplace and bench

Some of my favorite elements in the garden are the cantilevered fireplace with a succulent garden on top and the barbecue countertop and matching bench. We used a single slab of Brazilian slate (it’s huge) for the countertop, which like granite allows for a mostly seamless countertop. We left the surface natural and used a sealer to prevent staining and honed the edges so they’re smooth and bring out the deep color of the stone. We had a metal frame fabricated and used the leftover stone to create a bench that ties into the fireplace. It’s a great place to sit on a chilly night.

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I always say I have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to work with extraordinary people – both my clients and coworkers to create beautiful useable spaces. This project was the epitome of why I so love what I do.

Charming Winter Gardens

Welcome Winter!

Although the weather outside is frightful, the garden can still be delightful! Although this cold snap here in the San Francisco Bay Area is causing us to complain and stay inside, there is still a lot to appreciate in your garden this time of year.

Including berries! Berries brighten up any garden in winter. Cotoneaster dammmeri, a groundcover, native Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a large growing shrub, and Hawthorn (Crataegus ‘Washington Hawthorn’), a small scale tree, are always reliable berry producers. Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a classic holiday shrub with its dark green, glossy foliage and bright red flowers. Mahonia varieties produce smoky blue berries, but like Holly, need a male counterpart nearby as a pollinator in order to get results.

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

Don’t forget to appreciate beautiful bark. Even after these plants drop their leaves, there is a show to behold. Ninebark (Physocarpus) shrubs have rough, peely bark that is a unique garden element. Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’), a small to medium sized tree, and the Redtwig Dogwood shrub (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) have coral and red twigs that really stand out, especially against a darker foliaged evergreen shrub or tree.

The beautiful hellebore flowers - charming in any garden!

The beautiful hellebore flowers – charming in any garden!

And of course every garden should have some winter bloomers, they do exist! Camellias come with bloom colors ranging from pure white to dark red, there are even variegated and ruffled ‘peony form’ blossoms, and different varietals bloom at different times from September to March. But that’s not the only option. The Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea) is a fast growing but non-aggressive vine that is perfect on a fence or arbor with it’s pendulous clusters of lilac and deep purple blooms. Heaths (Erica carnea or E. darleyensis) are hardy shrubs with masses of small pink, white or rosy purple flowers, and look right at home in a variety of garden styles, particularly with California natives and Mediterranean gardens. Finally, evergreen perennial hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) love part shade and come in a range of bloom colors from chartreuse to mauve to burgundy.

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it's late and cold!

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it’s late and cold!

Finally, having lighting in your garden will enhance your winter garden, even from the indoors. Using uplights in your lighting scheme can help showcase the structures of the trees, even deciduous ones. Lighting also provides safety during the winter time by highlighting entrances, paths and stairs. It can also be used to showcase garden sculptures, or water features like the photo above, which are focal points all year round. Lighting could also help coax the party outdoors – to the fire pit area or outdoor fireplace for roasting marshmallows, I mean we do live in the San Francisco Bay Area, compared to other parts of the country it’s not that cold!

Enjoy your winter!

Outdoor Firepits and Fireplaces


As a San Francisco girl, I sometimes miss hot summer nights. My family and friends love spending time in our garden, but we’re often chased out by the fog rolling in around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We started having “brunch-b-ques” because we’ll frequently have a warm morning and early afternoon that turns cold by traditional barbeque time.

Then we installed a firepit. It absolutely changes the garden experience even in the chilliest garden retreat. Firepits and outdoor fireplaces can be fueled by wood, propane or a natural gas connection from your home. There are pros and cons to each of the alternatives.

If you’re considering wood burning, you may need to make sure it’s allowed in your city and county due to environmental codes. Wood burning firepits can be very affordable – but remember that you have to move a lot of wood. Also be ready for a smoky experience – and the sparks that go with it. Make sure you locate your firepit or fireplace away from structures and low-hanging branches. If you’re considering an outdoor wood-burning fireplace, careful attention must be paid during the design process to ensure proper draw from the chimney and adequate chimney height. While a wood-burning fire is rustic and evocative of campfire getaways, you need to mindful of the time it takes for it to burn. You should also have an ash bin handy.
Check out the wide variety of styles of firepit styles here.

Propane firepits, like many wood burning firepits are handy because they are portable. They’re also easy to turn on and off. Propane is relatively inexpensive, but you do need to make sure to have a spare tank handy. It’s a real bummer when the fire dies before the party! I’ve also found that the heat from a propane firepit never seems as inviting as a natural gas or wood-burning firepit. Designs are improving, but some prefab models aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing.
Natural gas firepits and fireplaces are generally more expensive at the onset than the other options because you have to install a gas line and build a structure to support it. This typically requires a permit for the gas and sometimes the structure if you’re building a fireplace. Once installed, they’re the most convenient and affordable. Because they are stationary, natural gas firepits also provide an opportunity to create a beautiful “outdoor room” in your garden that enriches the space and ties in with the architecture of your home. There is also the constant ease and convenience of being able to turn the fire on and off at will.

Whichever fire element you choose, firepit or fireplace; wood-burning, propane or natural gas, you can be sure that it will add much more time and enjoyment to your outdoor experience.