Posts from the ‘project summaries’ category

Cooling Off a Hot Garden

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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.

Before

Before

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.

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arbor against house

Oakland Hills: Small Garden, Grand Entry

Entry Garden. Oakland Hills

Entry Garden. Oakland Hills

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.

Old Stairs to Street

Old Stairs to Street

 

New Entry Stairs to Street

New Entry Stairs to Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Old Boxwood Hedge at Street

Old Boxwood Hedge at Street

 

Entry Gate and Fence

Entry Gate and Fence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Old View from Top of Stairs

Old View from Top of Stairs

 

New Landing Patio, Viewed from Top of Stairs

New Landing Patio, Viewed from Top of 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.

 

Old Raised Planter

Old Raised Planter

 

New Raised Planter

New Raised Planter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Old Planting and Wall

Old Planting and Wall

 

New Level Terraces

New Level Terraces

 

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Old Entry Stairs and Rail

Old Entry Stairs and Rail

 

New Terraced Beds with Mirror

New Terraced Beds with Mirror

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Small Garden, Grand Entry

Small Garden, Grand Entry

 

Finally, A Welcoming Entry Garden to Match Its House

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Before

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After

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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after

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Project Summary – Indoor Planting!?

In February of 2011, I was contacted by a previous client.  Lazar had finished construction on her residence in 2009, and I’ve kept in touch with her and her husband over the years.  They were (and are) awesome clients.  We worked on their front and side yards in 2009, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching it mature beautifully over the years.  They also have a great backyard with mature Oaks, and at first I thought maybe I was going to get to look at the options there.   But I was presented with a different challenge. My client’s employer, a California-based organic food company, was relocating to a new space in Berkeley.  The space would accommodate a growing company, and they had a lot of room to work with.  And they recognized they had an opportunity to design the space to suit their unique brand.  As an organic food company in a LEED certified building, they definitely needed some planting!

 

Variegated Foliage Pops.

Variegated Foliage Pops.

This was something of a new frontier for me.  Every project is unique, and tough conditions in the Bay Area come with the territory.  Heavy or nutrient deficient soils, Redwoods casting deep shade with surface roots everywhere, evil Japanese Maple-eating squirrels  . . .  I’ve seen it all.  But my experience with indoor plants had been somewhat limited.  My parents have owned a couple of Ficus trees since before I was born, so I grew up with those, and know how finicky they can be (I managed to kill one moving a mere 7 miles from San Francisco to Oakland), but besides that, I’ve done all my personal gardening and landscape design for others outside.

So I studied, and asked a lot of questions of some local experts.  Sunborne Nursery in San Francisco has been a terrific resource, and I always go there for indoor plants.   Working closely with the client, we came up with a plan.  Initially, there were a few areas that needed a significant amount of planting, both to enhance the entry and divide main passageways from work areas.

Desk Screening, Before

Desk Screening, Before

Desk Screening, After

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like all projects, budget was a consideration, in addition to aesthetics and sustainability.  In the first phase of the project, we chose to mass plant in key areas using galvanized watering troughs.

We needed to customize them and make them appropriate for indoor use, so we had the troughs powder coated in complementary colors to the new paint of the interior offices.  Then we waterproofed the inside, installed drainage valves, and installed heavy load-bearing casters on the bottom.  Some of the troughs were 8’ long and over 2’ wide, so once they were filled with drain rock, filter fabric, potting soil and plants, they were quite heavy.   It’s a good thing we installed the casters, because two years later, the interior of the building has been redesigned, and several of the planters have had to move.

Red Planters, 90 days in

Red Planters, 90 days in

 

Red Planters, two years in.

Red Planters, two years in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The soil we’ve used was a mix of lightweight potting soil and perlite.  In the beginning, the plants were small, and so were the roots.  The soil to plant ratio was pretty high, and initially more than two weeks would pass between necessary waterings, as it took a long time for the soil to dry out.  I learned how different the plants’ needs were, and not just because of species or size.   I noticed that planters a few feet apart, with different exposures to light because of proximity to windows or skylights, dried out at significantly different rates.   It’s also obvious with variance in growth – it’s been fascinating to watch three Rubber Plants (Ficus elastica) in separate containers, just a few feet apart, and how much affect the skylights have had on them.  There is nearly 18” of height difference from one to another.  Two years after the initial trough planting, the plants are established with deep, extensive roots, and the plants drink up all the water between my weekly maintenance visits.

Birdsnest Fern Explosion

Birdsnest Fern Explosion

The principles in the planting design weren’t remarkably different from those I might use in outdoor landscapes.  I chose taller screening and focal point shrubs first, centering them in the planters, and worked outwards, creating a tiered effect.  Trailing plants spill over the edges, and I chose plants with vibrant foliage to pop in areas of dimmer light.  Blooming plants are tougher to come by indoors, especially those with longevity, so I’ve relied on foliage color and texture to provide contrast and interest.

Neoregelia & Cordyline

Neoregelia & Cordyline

I’ve learned an enormous amount about these indoor plants.  For the most part, they’ve amazed me with their resilience.  I’ve divided and transplanted; they’ve been relocated, underwatered, overwatered; and spent weeks being regularly covered with dust from renovation construction.   I definitely lost a few in the beginning.  Because they have been known to thrive in some indoor conditions, I initially tried several types of succulents, but they quickly grew leggy and lost color, so I had to abandon them indoors (though I did get my succulent fix with a topiary installation outside the front doors).

Succulent Topiary Among the Ferns

Succulent Topiary Among the Ferns

Some plants have tripled in size, others seem roughly the same size after two full years, but are still healthy and vibrant.  Last month, I noticed plants flowering that never had before.

Taupe Planters, Two Years Later

Taupe Planters, Two Years Later

In phase two of the project, which is almost complete, we added a couple of Weeping Figs (Ficus benjamina) in bright corners of the office near large windows.  My earlier experiences hold true- Weeping Figs don’t like to relocate.  They drop a LOT of leaves when you find them a new home.  But I’m confident they’ll be happy, as long as we don’t move them again anytime soon.   I’ve also learned some great tricks for indoor planting that I’ve gotten to apply in phase two, with installation following the office renovation.  For example, most indoor plants grow at a relatively slow rate, and can go years without being repotted.   So in some cases it makes sense to leave them in their nursery containers, propping them up in decorative pots with interior saucers or foam, and screening the soil and the container inside with moss.  This means less soil, less potential mess, and less water used over time.

The finishing touch of the most recent plant iteration has been a living wall.  Indoor plants, with their dramatic foliage and bold forms, make for amazing living walls.  This one was customized for this space, with a Birch frame to match the company’s signage.  The plants are kept in their individual pots, and set in waterproof trays attached to a wall bracket.  There are a few inches of space between the back of the bracket and the wall, so there won’t be any wall damage from the water.   Also, underperforming plants can be easily swapped out.  The watering schedule has been a bit of a challenge, as not all of the plants have the same needs, but I don’t mind.  I learn something new about indoor planting design with every visit.  I’ve been maintaining these planters myself intermittently since we started the project, which allows me to stay on top of potential issues, and see the evolution of the planting design.   I’m always saying that being able to spend some of my work day outdoors is one of the best parts of my job, but working on this project has made indoor landscaping a new passion.

Living Wall!

Living Wall!

I’ve read that office plants increase productivity and keep employees happier and healthier.   It certainly looks like the plants have made a difference for these clients, and personally, I love to see a mini-jungle thriving indoors.  Here you thought we were all about outdoor landscapes.  Turns out Lazar loves landscaping indoors too.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Taming a Moraga Slope

Heavy railing brought this home down.

Heavy railing brought this home down.

I love my job. Sometimes you walk onto a prospective job site and you can practically see the future landscape unfold itself right before your eyes. Other sites are more challenging. We got a call from a new homeowner, who just moved into a house in Moraga that had a large backyard, which sounds exciting, except it was entirely unusable. Her goal was to take advantage of her garden and create outdoor spaces that her busy family could enjoy.
DSC02435There were old decks with heavy rails off of the two main living areas. A rickety staircase that may or may not have been to code dissected both levels, reducing usable spaces, and then descended to a small path that only accessed a portion of the garden. There was no access to over half of her garden, and no usable space in the landscape that was accessible. The entire space was frustrating. My goal was to understand how she and her family wanted to use the space – and then work within the parameters of the existing conditions, budget, the requirements of the homeowners association, and the guidelines from the City of Moraga to ensure we designed the garden accordingly.

New stairs make a smooth transition into the landscape

New stairs make a smooth transition into the landscape

Reconfiguring the decks was a key element of the design because it creates usable space directly off of the main living areas, and opens the lovely views of the golf course and Mount Diablo. Her contractor was able to work with the substructure of the decks, and upgrade the actual decking to Ipe ironwood for a clean, modern look. Cable rails open up the views and contemporize the home. Changing the location of the deck stairs increased the square footage of the lower deck, and voila, a second outdoor living space in a space that was previously just a little too narrow to completely enjoy. The owner furnished her decks and garden beautifully, creating individual outdoor living, dining and lounging rooms.
Relax and enjoy the viewThe landscape design focused on terracing the slope into two distinct usable spaces separated by planting areas. The level closest to the house was designed for entertaining and relaxing in the spa. The family opted for a modular hot tub rather than built-in. Rather than plop it on top of the patio, we partially sunk the tub into the slope and built walls at seat height around the perimeter. We located it close to the stairs for fast access from the hot tub to the house. The space also provided the most screening and the best views.
DSC05197The lower level is a lawn area mainly intended for the family’s two golden retrievers. It also functions as a swath of green to pop up the colorful planting plan. The homeowners wanted a lot of bold color, which is provided by salvias, roses, wisteria, phlomis, nepeta and the like.
low voltage lightingThe view of the landscape from the deck is also important. Before design and construction, the property was cut in half by a fence and looked treacherous and uninviting. The finished product visually pulls you into the garden. What once was an unflattering, frustrating, unusable space is now accessible and open on all levels. Low-voltage lighting twinkles on at dusk.
The end result of this project is a tamed slope that quadrupled the useable areas and transformed this Moraga landscape into a neighborhood jewel.

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.

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.

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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!