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Rockridge Garden Renovation: 2012 CLCA Trophy Awards Winner!

I often think that I’m quite lucky to have the job I have.  Not only to do I get to be creative, work with great people (both in and out of the office), and spend parts of my work week outdoors, but I have the advantage of being able to be part of a design/build firm and see the projects I design with my clients come to life.  I’ve met a lot of designers over the years, professionally and in school, who don’t always get to see their projects BUILT.  Learning about construction has been invaluable to me, and has certainly made me a better designer, in the 7 years I’ve worked for Lazar Landscape.  I also have the confidence of knowing that I work with some of the best construction crews in the business, and they can artfully install whatever I come up with (and sometimes, come up with even better ways to do it).  That’s why I’m so, so honored to have won first place in the Design/Build category at the CLCA Trophy Awards this year.  The bulk of the awards are based on installation and maintenance, so being recognized for being part of a design & construction team feels really special.

In this particular case, I had the advantage of working with truly inspired, thoughtful clients.  When I first met Pam and Dan, Pam told me she said she might have to accept that fact that ‘We may never have a truly useable garden.’  She and her husband had recently bought their Rockridge home.   There was a lot they liked about the house, but at the time, saw the garden as a drawback.  They faced the same issues a lot of Bay Area homeowners are familiar with.   We live in a climate where indoor/outdoor living is absolutely possible and valuable; but close quarters, sloped landscape, less-than-ideal soil conditions, and an inherited garden that didn’t match their lifestyle posed a real challenge.  Luckily, they realized the drawbacks meant opportunities, and I’m thrilled I got to work with them to make their garden an extension of their home.

The previous owners loved Australian plants, and had packed the mostly shady garden with them, and it had become quite overgrown.  There was a failing chain link fence covered with ivy that ran around the front and one side of the property.  The garden sloped towards the back of the house, to a shady garden which was also sloped towards a neighbor, so there was almost no flat space.  The front yard had a small lawn, and keystone walls along the driveway and bordering the concrete front walk.  Pam had carved out a vegetable garden from the sunniest corner of the front yard.  They couldn’t use their driveway since their cars scraped on the uneven concrete surface, and it was too narrow to open both doors- a real drawback if you’re moving kids and groceries in and out.


Hungerbuhler Site Analysis 0297_rockwell_02The back yard had 2 small sand-set Arizona flagstone patios, and a lot of planting, but not much useable flat space.  There was an existing deck off the second story kitchen with a lovely custom railing, which was a nice sunny spot for coffee; but it was too narrow to comfortably fit a dining table.  With a 2 year-old daughter and a second child on the way, the clients wanted a safe, open space for their kids to play, and to be able to take advantage of a fairly large yard.   Pam also really, really wanted a saltwater hot tub – spas being her very favorite way to relax.  Keeping an area for growing vegetables was also a priority, and keeping existing plants that could be integrated into a more cohesive design was also important to Pam, who loves to garden.

Designing this garden took several months as we went through multiple concepts.  Replacing the unattractive fence was a high priority, but it took some convincing to get Pam and Dan to consider eliminating the fence entirely along the front yard sidewalk.   Instead of replacing the chain link with solid fence, we chose to create a border using a hedge of Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’.  The variegated foliage makes a unique edge while retaining privacy, but doesn’t block out the neighborhood entirely, which is important to the family in their new home.   Pam and Dan both say this is one of the best decisions they made in the design process.  We kept the front gate and vine arbor, but we painted them a deep brown color which really showcased the new planting.  The side fence was also painted in this color, and is mostly solid, but has a top section with staggered pickets that mirror the railing design on the back deck.  We planted vines on Pam & Dan’s side of the fence, but threaded them through to the neighbor’s side so they could share the landscape.

Before Side Yard FrontAfter Side Yard Front We replaced the keystone walls with Napa Basalt wall stone, both mortared with a Bluestone cap and drystacked where possible, and replaced cracking concrete paths with mortared Connecticut Bluestone.  We replaced the driveway with new concrete, including a synthetic lawn strip, after determining that a planted strip might not stand up to the shade, wear and tear.  We pushed the wall along the driveway in to widen it, adding a strip of pebble so the wall could drain without creating a mess on the driveway.  We also added a small trash enclosure screen at the bottom of the driveway and planted creeping figs in a narrow planter along an older wood fence.

Moving to the side yard, we sought to create a comfortable transition between the deck from the kitchen, where the family spends a lot of time, and the back yard.  This included replacing the keystone walls with Napa Basalt terraces, Bluestone stairs and landings with Napa Basalt risers, carefully placed lighting, and a unique planting design that really appealed to Pam’s love of dynamic foliage and texture.  This is one of her favorite parts of the garden, and is also one of the most viewed as it is a main focal point from the hot tub and adjacent deck.

Before Sideyard BackAfter Sideyard BackThe location of the spa was another challenge, as privacy in the back yard is somewhat limited, and a significant portion of the back yard is below the upstairs deck.  Pam wanted the spa to be easily accessible from the deck stairs, but didn’t want to be under the deck.  In this case, we used the existing topography to our advantage.  We built a PTDF retaining wall and backfilled it with a mix of native and new soil to create a flat planter.  This helped screen an old concrete retaining wall that borders the neighbor’s driveway, and allowed us to plant screening shrubs as well to soften the tall fence and create a green border next to the spa.  Along wall we built a Trex deck and stairs in a similar color to the existing upper deck, and matched the railing design for continuity.  We set the spa on a concrete pad below the deck.  The redwood cap on the retaining wall creates a seat that you can use while in the spa.  So while the new deck is only a few feet off the ground, the spa is sunken, and still feels private.  Finally, we screened an awkward transition between a new and old fence with a freestanding living wall, which is the backdrop to the spa and a focal point when you enter the garden gate. Deck Area BeforeDeck Area AfterLiving WallThe new walls and deck allowed us to flatten most of the rest of the garden.  Typical sod lawn wasn’t possible- it was too shady and the family really wanted to restrict most of their water use to the vegetable garden and small front lawn, so instead we installed a Syn-Lawn synthetic lawn that needs no water or mowing, but stands up to two active kids and Lola (an adopted Rottweiler).  The planting in back utilizes drip irrigation and is congruous with the front and side yard plants.  A small water feature by the Owners, a playhouse, swings, and yard art and sculpture collected by the owners complete the garden, making it a totally useable, family friendly landscape.  The design took advantage of the existing conditions and made them work for the new garden, and also used creative ideas to compose a unique and beautiful space.  Our terrific construction crew made it all come together with careful attention to detail and diligence.  Our clients love it, and so do I.


Backyard BeforeBackyard After

Small Garden Design – and how we won the 2012 CLCA Award

ImageMany believe that designing a small garden is simple and without challenges.   This is not always the case.  The reality is that the smaller the space, the more every inch counts.  In a small garden nothing is hidden, so the bones must be strong and everything well planned.  Using quality material also plays an important role. I kept all of these things in mind as I designed this award-winning small garden.

Having just returned from the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) convention, where I received a first place state trophy award in Small Residential Install (very exciting), I have reviewed the design challenges I encountered while designing a small garden for a 1960 classic ranch house.  The design process included overcoming challenges unique to small garden design.

One of the biggest challenges was how to make the small garden interesting and consistent with classic ranch house architecture.  Knowing that the small garden would be viewed all at once from the many windows and doors of a classic ranch house was always on my mind.   I designed the garden to reflect the open floor plan of the 1960 ranch house, and to relate to the open views of the surrounding hills from the garden.  Creating small, compartmentalized garden rooms was out of the question.  I chose to give the garden an open feeling, and let the views of the surrounding hills act as a backdrop to the small garden, which gives it a larger feeling.  Adding interest to the small garden was accomplished by designing a split-level garden, using a variety of complimentary hardscape surfaces that connect the small garden to the ranch house, and installing a strong but limited plant palette that cohesively pull the garden together.

The split-level garden is only one step down, but this one step down visually makes all the difference.  The dining area and kitchen are flush with the bluestone patio and connected by two sets of French doors.  The curved lines of the bluestone patio soften the bones of the small garden.  The “Trex” (wood composite) cantilevered deck is flush with the master bedroom and is connected by one set of French doors.  The garden flows seamlessly from indoor to outdoors.  Both the bluestone patio and Trex deck step down to the gravel garden.  Using quality materials like Trex and bluestone in a small garden is vital since it will be visible close up.  The plus side of a small garden is that considerably less material is needed compared to a large garden.

ImageAnother challenge was color in the garden.  I limited the color of hardscape material, and designed with a limited plant palette in order to give the small garden cohesion and a feeling a greater openness.

The client painted their classic ranch house a cool gray with cream colored trim.  Choosing Connecticut bluestone, in an ashlar pattern, was a natural fit for the patio.  The Trex deck color is “Gravel Path” gray and compliments the house color.  The ¾” “Tuscan Gold” stones for the gravel patio is a mixture of soft gray, cream and beige stones.  The cream limestone squares accent the gravel patio and are one of the few items from the original garden that I reused. The bluestone, Trex, gravel and limestone work together to create a visually pleasing foundation for the plant palette.

The color palette for the plant material was also limited to cool colors, with the exception of the burgundy leaf accent plants.  Various shades of green and white variegated leaves, as well as white flowers, give this small garden a sophisticated feel.  The light color palette also makes the small garden appear larger.  The limited color palette is compensated with a variety of textures such as the hard-lined dwarf English boxwood hedge and the soft Carex ‘Blue Zinger’ grass.

ImageOne more challenge in designing a small garden is adding significant features to act as focal points.  The bluestone veneered seat is not only useful extra seating when entertaining guests, but also acts as a strong focal point within the garden and from the house.  Color was also used as accent and focal points. My clients chose to reuse their red ceramic pots.  I responded by adding burgundy red plant material such as red Japanese Maples and multi-colored New Zealand Flax ‘Jester.’  Careful placement of plants and pots pulls the entire design together.

The open space in this small garden is full of visual interest, supported by quality material and a limited, carefully selected plant palette.  The end result is a garden that not only reflects the high aesthetics of the client but also meets their desire to have a garden that lends itself to indoor/outdoor entertaining. I’m proud of this project, and honored that Lazar Landscape was recognized by CLCA.

Keep these ideas in mind when you’re thinking about your small garden design – use quality materials like bluestone and Trex, limit your color palette in plants and materials to create a more open feel, pay attention to the architecture of your home and use views beyond your garden when possible. Feel free to contact Lazar Landscape if you have questions about your garden – big or small.

Confessions of a Delinquent Garden Blogger

It’s been quite some time since I’ve updated my garden confessional. But I have a good reason – I’ve been spending tons of time outside enjoying my little microcosm. It helps that October and November have been absolutely incredible. My thirty day challenge did wonders for my garden and the time I spend in it. That was the goal, of course. My delinquent gardener days are over!

This is as far as we got before Lazar Landscape did it’s magic!

Speaking of goals, I have one major confession left. When I started my thirty day project, my husband and I were committed to doing everything ourselves – like we always have. But as the days ticked away and we were getting closer to a party deadline, we called in the real garden installation professionals – Lazar Landscape! I have to say, it was an amazing experience. I’ve worked here at Lazar Landscape for over ten years. I see the amazing work our crews do for our clients – but I’ve never been on this side of a project. My husband and I had gotten very close to completing our mission, but we had three time consuming challenges that we just ran out of time on. Miguel and his team finished everything on our list in two half days that would have taken us two or three more weekends! It was such a pleasure and relief to come home and have my garden back. I suppose I shouldn’t write a testimonial for my own company – but it was an awesome experience! I feel like the guy in that old Hair Club for Men ad – I’m not just the design manager at Lazar Landscape – I’m a member!

The first project was replacing our old gravel in our firepit area. From the second we installed the California Gold gravel five years ago, I hated it. I actually quite like the gravel in many gardens, but never liked it in ours. We switched to crushed black basalt, which is a pretty gray when it’s not wet. It really makes all of the colors around it pop and anchors the garden. I love it next to the lawn. I don’t know how they did it, but our crew got rid of all the old gravel – so clean. The removal alone would have taken me at least a day, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it as clean. How do they do it?

Good Dogs Await Their Lawn

Oh, the lawn. After much hemming and hawing, we decided to go with real sod. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision, but our dogs love it! We did artificial turf stepping circles leading up to the real sod – it’s been near impossible to maintain them with real sod. So far, so good. Team Lazar Landscape retrofitted our irrigation and fixed some funky bender board while they were at it.

The last thing on our list was to fix some benches we rescued from a job site. They needed legs and stabilization. It was the first thing that I sat on when I got home – and they’re a great addition to evenings by the firepit.

A nice way to greet the day

At the beginning of September, I would wake up dreading the view out my window. Now it’s the first thing I do. It’s so nice to take my morning coffee into the garden and start my day with the meditative act of weeding and communing with my plants and hummingbirds. And to start thinking of the next project!

CLCA Convention and Trophy Awards 2012!

Mario and I are getting excited for our Southern California excursion!
The CLCA (California Landscape Contractors Association) is having its annual convention this week in San Diego. Two Lazar Landscape gardens are up for Trophy Awards, which the CLCA uses to recognize excellence in design and construction. Other events this week include marketing seminars and site visits to vendors in the San Diego area. The awards dinner has a Caribbean theme. I’m trying to get Mario to wear flip flops and a dreadlock wig, but so far he’s not biting. We’re crossing our fingers that we come out on top!!!
Here are a few photos from the gardens – one is located in Orinda, the other in Oakland.
Trophy Award Nominee
CLCA Trophy Award Nominee

Plan now to enjoy later – Fall Bulbs!

Fall is the perfect time of year to get your garden ready to enjoy next spring. It’s the time to add perennials, groundcovers and shrubs as they will establish from the rains and not necessarily require supplemental water from irrigation systems. It is also the time to plant bulbs that will pop up after you’ve forgotten about them come spring time. The flowering spring time show you will get from your bulbs will be well worth the early effort, however, you have to plant you bulbs before winter to ensure this gorgeous show happens.

You will need to select locations in your garden that get adequate sunlight and have good drainage. Bulbs will not thrive in areas of poor drainage. If you have clay soil, like many areas in the bay area, be sure to loosen the soil at least a foot deeper than the recommended planting depth (typically you loosen the soil 2” – 3” below the planting depth in well draining soil) and amend soil with peat moss to help with drainage. Don’t forget to plant the bulb pointy end up with about 3” – 4” top soil covering the tops. When selecting your bulbs from a nursery be sure to hand pick bulbs without soft spots or mold, or order from a vendor like Van Engelen Inc, who can send high quality bulbs to your residence.

Small Hycinthoides bulbs for a client’s garden!

When ordering your bulbs a good rule of thumb to follow is 4 large bulbs per square foot, or 9 small bulbs per square foot. It may seem like a lot per square foot in your garden, but it will not disappoint. Also, take into consideration that some bulbs, like tulips, require refrigeration chilling for 6 weeks before they can be planted in the ground.

Large tulip bulbs that are being chilled for a few more weeks

In milder climates like areas within the san francisco bay area we are lucky that some bulbs we plant “perennialize” and we don’t have to plant them every year, like in other parts of the country. The daffodil is one of the most popular planted bulb in the bay area. It typically returns each springtime in our gardens and is also deer proof. A showy plant that is deer proof in this area is hard to come by, so plant your bulbs this fall and enjoy them come spring!

Large and small bulbs, check back next spring and we will show you the results of our fall bulb plantings!

Fall Color in Seattle

Just got back from a long weekend in Seattle, and was reminded about why I love this city. Living in San Francisco, I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the many awe-inspiring views of the landscape – built and natural twining together in a fabric of architecture and sky and water and green. It never gets old. I feel the same way about Seattle – except I don’t live there – so the awe-inspiring views inspire that much more awe. October visits are that much more special because of the fall color. Breathtaking! It’s the sort of trip that takes me out of the gardens I create and reminds me to consider THE LANDSCAPE.

When I go, I love to visit Gasworks Park. It was the site of the last operational coal gasification plant in the United States. The city of Seattle purchased the land to create a park in 1962. Though not accessible to visitors, a good portion of the gasworks stands as a monument to its technology. The signs warning swimmers of the toxicity left in Lake Union tell the other side of that story… But I love it when city planners get it right! The views from this park are tremendous – downtown (and the Space Needle) seemingly rises out of Lake Union as sea planes touch down. Charming water craft go to and fro, and houseboats ring the edge of Lake Union. And did I mention fall color? Amazing.

If you’ve never been, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a must. I give another tip of the hat to Seattle in reclaiming this former toxic UNOCAL petroleum transfer and distribution site, and creating a green public space in the downtown area. Olympic Sculpture Park is part of the Seattle Art Museum – and it’s always fulfilling to see sculpture in the landscape, particularly one as amazing as the views of Puget Sound. From its inception, the Seattle Art Museum had a vision for the park to be a connection between the built and pre-built environment. That dedication is evident as you walk through the sculpture garden and experience the native flora. Did I mention the fall color?

I’m always fascinated by the dry stack rock walls in Seattle. They’re everywhere – and they’re HUGE! We could never build anything like these here in California. I was snapping some photos to show folks and had to get my friend in one of them to get a sense of scale. Elena is an average-size woman – not a gnome! Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we can typically build dry stack walls 3’ high or shorter. Amazing! This wall was along our Fremont shopping trip. I’m also fascinated by what I call “root lava.” The roots of these trees fill up the spaces they’re allotted – and then keep spreading, which is kind of like Platanus racemosa, but more exciting to see on vacation.

Running around to see all of those sites makes a girl hungry! Good thing Seattle is a foodie’s dream city. We enjoyed delicious baked eggs at the Fat Hen, some crazy cheddar bacon biscuits with and egg baked right in at Oddfellows, phenomenal housemade ham and butter sandwiches from Melrose Market, and the much anticipated and highly enjoyed Delancey pizza. But the piece de resistance is the Caribbean Roast sandwich from Paseo. While none of this is particularly landscape related, who doesn’t want to see good food?

As fun as traveling is, it’s always great to come home to our city by the bay. And while our region isn’t necessarily known for fall color, there are fantastic options for bringing that feeling into your garden. Think about trees like Japanese Maples, especially Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku’, Crepe Myrtles, Chinese Pistache, Scarlet Maple, Flowering Dogwood, Liquidambar, Gingko biloba and Persimmons to name just a few.