Posts from the ‘outdoor living’ category

Forever Ginkgo

mature ginkgo

It is a well-known fact that mature trees create a sense of scale and space. Tree-lined streets are charming and grand, so much so that people pay extra to live on them. Granted, it must be the right tree, in the right place, and have good form.

One of my most favorite trees is the Ginkgo. Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as Maidenhair Tree is the oldest tree on earth. It dates back to the age of the dinosaurs and remains unchanged to this day. It has survived over 200 million years because it is strong and tough. One might assume that the ginkgo, with its delicate fan shaped leaves and elegant tiered branching structure would not be so resilient. Its’ leaves and hard wood lure very few pests. If ginkgoes get sick or injured, they can sprout aerial roots under mature branches that eventually grow into a whole new colony of ginkgoes upon contact with soil. Because of their resilience, tame roots, and low water needs, the ginkgo makes an excellent street tree.

ginkgo st tree tp    ginkgo st tree

Ginkgoes are show-stoppers every autumn, with rich golden leaves that create the most beautiful leaf litter I have ever seen (besides Japanese maples, another favorite). If you examine a ginkgo leaf you will see that it is unlike any other, with veins travelling from the stem to the tip of the leaf like an elegant fan. They are grassy green in the spring and summer, and then turn a rich, solid yellow in fall before creating a gold carpet on the ground. Because of the thickness of the leaves they don’t create a slippery mess.

ginkgo leaf litter on rocks gingko koi ginkgo leaf litter
Ginkgoes do have, what some may consider, ‘drawbacks’. The nuts borne on the female ginkgo trees reek of vomit. Then again, the nuts are extremely prized in many Asian cuisines and are difficult to harvest, much like pine nuts. I agree it may not be pleasant if a female ginkgo is planted outside a restaurant or as a street tree in a dense urban area. But there are several very striking and widely available fruitless varieties for this purpose, such as ‘Autumn Gold, and ‘Princeton Sentry’. For this reason, male trees are solely used as street trees these days.

Another ‘drawback’ to the ginkgo is that it is slow-growing. Even if purchased in a larger container size, like a 24” box, it doesn’t have a particularly spectacular form or canopy, arriving only 7’ tall and 2’ wide. Its’ awkward adolescent years last much longer for ginkgoes than for humans, but then again, they can live a lot longer than us. The oldest surviving specimen is 2,500 years!

young street ginkgoes still trying to find their form against a fence

Young street ginkgoes still trying to find their form against a fence

Challenging times for an adolescent ginkgo

Challenging times for an adolescent ginkgo


Young ginkgoes being swallowed up by fast-growing loropetalum

Young ginkgoes being swallowed up by fast-growing loropetalum

A cluster of golden ginkgoes peaking above an evergreen hedge

A cluster of golden ginkgoes peaking above an evergreen hedge













So if you are not in the business of flipping houses or are a terribly impatient sort, I strongly urge you to consider a ginkgo. Their beauty, elegance, and longevity will be unmatched in your forever home. Even better, if you are lucky enough to have an established ginkgo, treat it with the reverence and respect it deserves. Consider its’ past and very long future.

gingko leaves floating


mature ginkgo canopy over pond

Landscaping in Times of Drought

I remember when I was a kid in the 70s. There was an oil embargo that I don’t really remember. Then there was a second oil crisis in the late 70’s that had cars lining up for gas for miles. My dad hated Jimmy Carter. And California was in an extreme drought. The drought of the century. There was water rationing – and lawns were on the chopping block. It’s funny how history repeats itself. Today, we’re fighting wars for oil. My dad hates Obama. And California is in the drought of the century.

Back then our neighbor, Mr. Heron, was the first to take charge of the drought situation. He tore out the front lawn and put in that quintessentially 70s granite pebble. The front path dissected the front yard perfectly, and he planted a brick encircled mulberry tree in the center of each of the squares that were once lawn. When he was done, all of the neighbors gathered in front of his house to admire his handywork and water-wise efforts. But maybe not the overall aesthetic of his creation. As we walked back to our house, my dad shook his head. Forget simply keeping up with the Joneses – or Herons in this case. He new he could do better than that.

My dad was a firefighter, and there are two things you should know about firefighters. They are heroes, it’s true, but they also have a lot of freaking time off! One of his fellow firefighters designed gardens on the side. So he and my dad got together and designed our front yard. They put in walls and a courtyard with an arbor, that in my now professional opinion, should have been much bigger to make use of much needed shade, as well as further reducing the area dedicated to lawn. They widened the entry path in a very 1970s staggered aggregate and regular concrete pattern, and created deeper planting beds to reduce the size of the lawn. Even as a little kid, I was fascinated by the process, and in love with the transformation the landscape made to an otherwise plain ranch house. I think this is where I first got my love for landscape design that would lead me to where I am now.

Our front yard was the talk of the suburb. People would drive by – even stop – to admire the beautifully landscaped garden. They’d ask questions about the raphiolepis and agapanthus that bloomed beautifully but required very little water.  Of course these plants were destined to become parking lot plants because of their reliability. My dad’s alternative to lawn was a revolutionary groundcover called Dichondra! It promised to be dark green, low water and no maintenance. What it also meant for us was that we could no longer play in the front yard. Every step on the cushiony clovery mat of dichondra left a footprint – evidence for my dad to know exactly who walked on his low-water alternative to that hideous granite cobble in Mr. Heron’s yard. It also didn’t fare as well as promised in our hot valley sun. He converted the area back to lawn when the drought crisis ended…

While history has a habit of repeating itself, it behooves us to build on what we’ve learned, and not return to our old ways. We Californians live in a drought-prone land. Our population is growing. Water is our most precious resource – and there will be times when its more scarce than others. We believe our job here at Lazar Landscape is to take the “I can do better than that” approach to designing and building outdoor living spaces – gardens and landscapes – and make them water wise. Stay tuned for future posts from us where we explore residential landscapes without lawns, lawn alternatives, beautiful drought-tolerant plants, implementing smarter irrigation systems, and even ideas for responsible sod lawns.


One of the most important principles in achieving balance in a garden is symmetry.   Balance through symmetry can be divided into two schools of thought – Asymmetrical Balance and Symmetrical Balance.

Asymmetrical balance is actually being unbalanced, abstract, or free while still creating unity and balance through the repetition of some garden elements.  Asymmetrical balance is more difficult to perceive and that is the point, it is more natural and relaxed.

Symmetrical balance is where all of the elements of the garden design are equally divided.  Both sides share the same shape, form, plant height, color or planting bed shape.  Symmetrical balance was very popular during the Renaissance period where entire gardens were mirror images from one side to the other.  Formal gardens are almost always symmetrical and give the feeling of stability and order.

Last week I spent a long weekend in New Orleans to attend the California Landscape Contractors Association’s annual convention.  While there, I spent an afternoon enjoying a walk through the famed Garden District.  The Garden District was originally developed between 1832 and 1900 and is considered to be one the best preserved collections of historic southern mansions in the United States.

While taking a stroll along the tree shaded streets I could not help but notice the strong use of architectural symmetry for most of the homes.  Many of the front yard gardens reflected the symmetry of the house.  Most of the homes had nearly perfect symmetry also referred to as “bilateral symmetry” in which both sides are essentially the same but reversed.

Here are two clear examples where the symmetrical house façade is allowed to shine by keeping the landscape to a minimum.  Architecturally strong containers and plant material compliment the design.











These two homes are also symmetrical but rely on the plantings to continue the symmetrical theme yet soften the façade by using a variety of planting textures and leaf color.









In this scenario the landscape planting is not only symmetrical but also an extremely formal feeling with its clipped hard edge.










Finally, as these photos show, the use of symmetry can even be seen in New Orleans’ most famous landmark, the St. Louis Cathedral.   The symmetry is carried into Jackson Square by the plantings and utility fixtures.








Symmetry is a powerful tool in the designers list of design principles.  If you are looking for a formal setting, one that contains a sense of order and balance, symmetry is the way to go.

An update on my veggie garden













Well I am happy to report that my veggie garden is growing quickly! I must say the past rain (wish there was more in our future) really helped my watering schedule and I think was the key to getting our garden established.  We’ve also grown our garden since we last talked – we added a poblano pepper plant and I potted a couple blueberry plants. The blueberries are already producing; in fact I better go out and check tonight! I bought two varieties of blueberries because even though they are self-pollinating – they do better with another variety close by to cross pollinate resulting in a healthier crop, so far they are delicious! I was also just gifted two more tomato plants so it looks like I need to get a few more pots for them – because if you got ‘em grow ‘em and I’ve run out of room in my raised beds!



In the garden right now my tomato plants are full of flowers and have at least quadrupled in size. I just noticed some grape tomatoes are already starting to sprout – It’s so exciting. It’s definitely time for me to get out there and do some pruning on the tomato plants. When you look closely at a tomato plant you see the stem and its’ branches – which hopefully have flower buds popping now- but you will also notice some additional branches sprouting between the stem and branch. These branches only grow leaves and are referred to as suckers. They are not fruit producing and the plant uses a lot of energy to produce them, so my cutting them back you encourage more energy and growth to be directed to the branches that are tomato producing, resulting in a healthier crop. So that’s definitely on my garden to-do list this weekend.


My zucchini plant has grown so much – I think it’s more than quadrupled in size. And this weekend, while watering, I noticed a blossom on the zucchini plant – hopefully a sign of zucchini to come!  Even though watering is considered a chore, it really gives me the opportunity to see what happening in the raised beds and I have totally enjoyed it.  It’s really exciting that not only are the plants growing – they are showing signs of what’s to come. 


Our red pepper plant and the banana pepper plant both have flowering blossoms on their stocks, while the jalapeño shows signs of blossoms to come and the poblano is just a little behind since it’s a more recent transplant.


Finally, I’m also quite impressed that the cilantro seeds I planted.  I couldn’t find any cilantro plants so I decided to start from seed.  I was unsure how it would go because starting from seed seems like daunting task to me, but they are thriving! The person who gifted me the tomato plants grew all hers from seed – and most of them sprouted, which is why she had extra to share.  I’m so impressed, maybe that will be my goal next year – to start everything by seed.  We haven’t used any cilantro yet, but we are already regularly using our basil plant and it is delicious!


If you haven’t planted your veggie garden yet– there’s still time!   Even if all you can do is get out there and plant a few tomato plants in pots to tend to – it will be totally worth it!

Cloud Pruning

After graduating from grad school I completed a fellowship with the Garden Club of Virginia.  The fellowship involved documenting the gardens of Sabine Hall.  Sabine Hall is located in the Northern Neck region of Virginia between the Potomac and Rappahanock Rivers.  The structure is a historical colonial home built in 1737.  The gardens of Sabine Hall were constructed shortly afterward.  The grounds are a series of terraces that follow the contours of the landscape.

On the main terrace, just off to one side, lies an alle’e of English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), said to be part of the original planting plan.  The boxwood hedges have been allowed to grow in a free form style and now resemble large billowy clouds.  Walking along the path left an indelible image in my mind.  This was my first encounter with the calculated yet free form style that some call “Cloud Pruning”.


Typical of most classical styles, cloud pruning has become popular again.  However, this time around most people do not want to wait decades for a boxwood hedge to grow large enough to be shaped into soft curves.  In today’s “get the look quick”, there is a trick.  Select different sizes of boxwood plants from the nursery and plant them close together.

One key item is to select the largest size boxwood available to you.  These large boxwoods will be the back bone of the new hedge and give the new planting a sense of age.  Along with the large boxwood, select medium and smaller size boxwoods.  Placing all three sizes together will create a sense of drama.  In addition, you begin to form the outline of the boxwood cloud.

The “cloud” will still take several growing seasons to look mature but you will be ahead of the game.  The goal is to have each individual boxwood grow into it’s neighbor so that it appears to be one plant.


I recently found English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens “Suffruticosa” in the following sizes –

5 gallon – 18” wide

7 gallon – 26” wide

15 gallon – 30” wide

Using these three sizes together in a calculated and balanced manner is a quick and easy way to get a “cloud”.


The maintenance on a boxwood cloud is seasonal.  Several times a year, hand pruning should be done to maintain and delineate the shape.  Keep in mind, the boxwood cloud may always be a “work in progress”, typical of many plants in the garden.


Garden Tours

Spring is around the corner and that means Bay Area gardeners are busy preparing their gardens for another growing season.   Most gardeners will agree that spring is when their gardens are looking their best.  The flush of fresh leaves and flowers, combined with pleasant weather, are the reasons why gardens in the Bay Area are at their peak during the spring.  This is also why many, if not most, garden tours are held during the spring.

We are fortunate that many organizations allow us to tour both private and public places.  Seeing which plants flourish in a local garden is a great way of learning what plants will work in your own garden.  In addition, you will also be exposing yourself to a variety of garden design styles and garden materials.  Some of these ideas you may want to incorporate into your own garden.









Here is a small list of spring garden tours in the Bay Area-

Magnificent Magnolia Tours – Saturday, March 8, 10:30 AM at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

Ask the Experts: Organic Gardening Tour – Saturday March 15 1:00PM at the Garden for the Environment, 7th Ave, Lawton Street, San Francisco

Tulipmania at PIER 39 – Late February through early March at PIER 39, San Francisco

Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour – May 4th, Self-guided tours of 40 Alameda and Contra Costa county gardens

Moraga Juniors Garden Tour – Saturday May 9th, 10:00AM to 3:00PM

Danville-Alamo- Walnut Creek Spring Garden Tour – May 9th & May 10th, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Garden Conservancy – Open Days Garden Tours – East Bay May 31st

Garden Conservancy – Open Days Garden Tours – Marin County June 7th

Garden Conservancy – Open Days Garden Tours – San Francisco June 21

Check out your local newspaper and on-line for other local garden tours.









When visiting any garden remember your basic “Garden Visiting Etiquette”

– Park your car in the designated areas

– Ask permission before taking photographs

– Turn off your cell phone

– Stay on the paths

– Do not take seeds or cuttings without asking permission

– Do not peak in the windows or ask to use the bathroom

– If you bring children, keep an eye on them

– Do not bring your dog

– Thank your host, on leaving

– If you consider the garden not up to par, wait until you leave before making any comments.

Keep an open mind and enjoy the gardens.




Ornamental Grasses

Today’s garden differs from gardens of the past.  This is partially due to the fact that in today’s garden so many varieties of plants are available to the designer.  One category that has risen in popularity is Ornamental Grasses.  The fact that ornamental grasses offer so much and ask for so little may be the reason. Ornamental grasses have a way of bringing motion, beauty and softness to garden beds and borders.  Ornamental grasses can play a supportive role to other plants or be the star of the garden and provide the focal point.








There are many ways to use grasses in the garden.  Here are a few suggestions.


Grasses can be used in containers and planters.  Grasses mix well with annuals, perennials and succulents adding texture and movement to the arrangement.  Used alone, in a large container, grasses will create a dramatic effect.










As a ground cover grasses provide neat little tufts.  Mixing low grasses, such as Pennisetum, Carex and Festuca, with natural looking “umbilifers’ such as Yarrow (Achillea Sp.), Chelsea Cow Parsley (Cenolophium denudatum) and Queen Anne’s Lace ‘Ravenswing’ (Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’) creates an interesting meadow effect.










Use grasses as hedges and screens.  Tall grasses such as Calamagrostis ‘Karl Forester’ or Miscanthus sin. ‘Morning Light’ create wonderful seasonal screens that catch the light and move gracefully in the wind.









Ornamental grasses can be companions to perennials.  Medium height grasses, such as Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima) or Blue Oat Grass (Helictotricon sempervirens) mix well with perennials such as Euphorbias, Lavenders, Salvias and Sedums.  Grasses will give the perennial flower border greater depth and color.











Now that we are officially in the midst of a drought, grasses are the perfect choice.  Weekly irrigation is sufficient for most established grasses.  Another benefit is that grasses don’t require fertilizer and look better left on their own.  In fact, pest and diseases rarely affect grasses.

What grasses do require to look their best is cutting back once a year in the late winter or early spring.  Cut the clumps back to just a few inches when new growth appears at the base.  You should also divide grasses when they outgrow their area or develop bare centers.

Finding grasses in the nursery was difficult to do 25 years ago.  Today most nurseries carry a wide variety of grasses.  The popularity of grasses has risen because they require low maintenance, have a long flowering season and are rarely bothered by disease and pest.  Today you can find a dramatic array of grasses for many landscape uses.

Cooling Off a Hot Garden


This existing Lafayette garden was dominated by a pool and restricted on all fours sides by existing structures. The ample glass double doors led you out to two small patches of lawn without any real useable space. The harsh, reflective sun off the main house made being outside unbearable.



The design changes the primary space directly outside the double doors. This main patio is paved in cooling grey/blue tones of Connecticut bluestone and an overhead arbor defines and cools the space below. Planting areas against the house and at each arbor post soften the hard lines of the patio. Orange trumpet vine creates shade for the eating area below but also helps to cool the back of the house blasted by afternoon sun. Japanese Maple trees and Crape Myrtles create additional shade for the back of the house and define spaces. Two burgundy spheres nestled in the planting areas overflow with water to draw people into different areas of the garden. Cooling veins of lawn and Dymondia groundcover break up large concrete pads to create informal secondary spaces.



arbor against house

TOMATOES!!! And More Confessions of a Delinquent Gardener

Well, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve added to our blog, which means I can add delinquent blogger to my list. But I have good reason! We’ve been busting at the seams over here at Lazar Landscape. Our roster is full of new and interesting landscape projects – and wonderful clients to go with them. I look forward to sharing as we move through the design phase – and into construction. There hasn’t been a dull moment all summer, and now here we are in fall – my favorite time of year!

photo 3In May I wrote about attempting to grow tomatoes in my San Francisco garden. As you know, I’m a delinquent gardener, so I didn’t really get around to planting my tomatoes until the middle of June. I planted a grafted cherry tomato, a regular cherry tomato, and an early girl in my recently acquired faux bois tree planter. They looked absolutely darling, and I liked the idea of growing a cherry tree. Get it – cherry tomatoes in a faux bois tree?  A couple of weeks after that, I picked up a tomato cultivar called “Bloody Butcher.” I bought the bloody butcher a few days before I was scheduled to have foot surgery, and didn’t quite get around to planting it, but I did nestle it into my Meyer Lemon container hoping it might get some water. Then I had my surgery, which was a lot more debilitating than I had lead myself to believe. That combined with one of the gloomiest summers I can remember in San Francisco, and a tremendous influx of really fun and challenging projects here at Lazar Landscape, and I reverted to my most delinquent garden state yet. Who wants to hobble down two flights of stairs to water and tend to tomatoes that would never fruit? Certainly not this delinquent gardener.

photo 4So imagine my surprise when I finally made my way down to that garden, expecting the worst, to find cherry tomato vines in full production – literally bursting with shiny red fruit. The plants themselves look like h-e-double-toothpicks from lack of regular water, but the fruit provides mouthfuls of firm and sweet and sun-warmed goodness. The bloody butcher sent its roots through its four-inch container walls down into the fertile soil where my Meyer Lemon grows – and it too is loaded with, as yet, unripened, but beautiful fruit. I hope our warm autumn weather holds to see if these beauties will ripen.

I love it when an experiment is successful, and I’m looking forward to next season. I’ll start a little earlier, and try to be a little less delinquent. And now when people ask me, I can tell them you really can grow great tomatoes in San Francisco without even trying.



Charming Bungalow Garden

just planted!

just planted!

One of my favorite gardens of the year is the little front garden of a charming bungalow in Albany. It wasn’t a complicated or large project – in fact it’s mostly planting. But it combined three elements that make me love my job so much: though the project was small in scope, the budget was realistic for the vision; my clients are fantastic people who were extremely fun to work with; and the house is just as cute as a button.

When I first met with my clients, they had already cleared the weeds from their otherwise barren front garden, and covered it in thick black plastic. This is a non-toxic method called solarization that basically increases soil temperature to levels that kill simultaneously kills weed seeds (any kind of seed, really), plants and pathogens. Another benefit is that heating the soil helps organic material break down faster and release nutrients that are valuable to new garden plants. Another benefit is that the demo was done – which made way for more exciting budget choices.

napa basalt wall with succulents

napa basalt wall with succulents

The design consisted of drystack rock garden walls to address the gentle slope from the house to the sidewalk, simple gravel path (mostly for the letter carrier) that we jazzed up with tumbled beach glass, and plants that played with the color pallet of that charming bungalow. An iron rail is soon to follow.

My client had a lot of input about the general direction she wanted the garden to take, but trusted me to understand her vision and create the planting plan. I selected plants that can take the relatively harsh conditions of sun and wind, while still providing color and order. A forest pansy was a must-have in the garden. The beautiful stained-glass quality of the heart-shaped burgundy leaves combined with the colors of the house and painted concrete walkway drove the colors in the garden to pinks and yellows and chartreuse. Succulents and Mediterranean shrubs and perennials are massed throughout.

a short 90-days later!

a short 90-days later!

I have to say the solarization was a tremendous success – particularly in plant growth. It’s hard to believe the rapid growth rate of the plants in a short period of time. Though weeds are attempting a comeback, I have rarely seen such weed-pulling diligence as what the homeowners exhibit. The little postage-stamp garden is a stunner.

I don’t want to only credit the solarization in the success of the garden. I firmly believe that lovely, generous people generate abundance and life all around them – so it goes that it would evidence itself in my clients’ bungalow garden.

Ok – there is a fourth and very important reason I loved this job. One of my awesome clients is a professional baker. Two words: almond torte. Not just any almond torte – a perfectly chewy, light where it should be, dense where it should be, almondy all the way almond torte. They were gifts to my crew and I for working on the project, and I will remember it always.