Last week I was driving along Skyline Boulevard because I love the dramatic changes the road weaves you through. From the moist, musky, shade of the towering redwoods to the exposed rocky meadows, driving along this mountain ridge is powerful. I drove all the way to Saratoga and encountered Hakone Gardens. I had read about this Japanese garden years before and its majestic bamboo collection, but I never made it out because it seemed too far. Over 100 years old, and the oldest Japanese garden in the western hemisphere, this was definitely worth the wait.
Even in January, the beauty of Hakone Gardens was breathtaking. The evergreen shrubs, like the camellia plant had a few white blossoms hanging on their branches but for the most part, the show-stopping plants were asleep. The bones of this garden were evident and harmonious. Fusing art with nature is the guiding principle in Japanese garden design. With the patience of time, expert craftspeople, designers, builders, and fine gardeners, Hakone Gardens has created a sense of peace and purpose in the middle of residential Saratoga.
The heart of Hakone Gardens centers around the waterfall and expansive pond. Mimicking streams flowing into lakes, this water feature feels like it was created by Mother Nature. There aren’t any awkward boulders in straight lines, or exposed tubes showing the innards of how this thing works. Carefully placed boulders of different sizes were carefully carved into the hillside. With time, the evergreen shrubs grew in around the boulders to nestle them in even more. Koi were keeping warm by the viewing pavilion as there was a sheet of ice formed on the surface of the pond. I can only imagine what the viewing pavilion looks and smells like in the spring when the wisteria is in bloom.
The skeletons of the carefully manicured bonsai were living sculptures. Without the leaves to cover up the intricate branch structure, I was able to appreciate the time and effort spent on each offshoot. Evergreen shrubs are the workhorses in Hakone Gardens all year long, while the deciduous plants that change color and lose their leaves in the winter provide seasonal beauty and interest.
Another guiding principle in Japanese garden design is the importance of creating harmony through materials that are not too loud. Worn, unfinished wood from the Moon House does not compete with the evergreen shrubs and groundcovers that surround it. Bursts of color come throughout the seasons, never all at once. This is so that you can appreciate the cascade of purple blooms on the wisteria vines in spring and the camellia blooms in winter. Evergreen shrubs of osmanthus release the perfume of apricots all year long next to the tea house even though you can barely see the flowers.
This surprise encounter with Hakone Gardens was better than if I were to have ever planned it. I can’t wait to go back in the spring!
When considering design inspiration for a space or a large remodel it used to be that magazines were the go to source for inspiration. I used to take all my mom’s old magazines and cut out images of things I loved and that inspired me. I would then stick them in a notebook I appropriately would refer to as my cool things book. If you think about it there are plenty of magazines to find design inspiration for any style – Country Living, Southern Living, Coastal Living, Home Beautiful, Sunset Magazine, Garden Design etc. – there are even magazines that inspire a whole way of living, like my favorite, Martha Stewart Living.
These days design inspiration is more often coming from online resources. As designers we find ourselves clicking on the internet icon first and foremost to find inspiration for our clients’ projects and we’re noticing more and more clients are sharing their inspiration with us that they’ve gathered online from websites. It seems like even magazines are going online – with every subscription you get a virtual one as well for your device. I don’t find myself creating my cool things books that often anymore. However, I do constantly find my self pinning images to my Pinterest boards. I’ve got one for everything – garden design, for the home, DIY, recipes – you name it I’m sure I’ve pinned it.
A lot of my inspiration has come from an online resource gallery called Houzz. It’s a really amazing resource for all types of projects – landscapes, living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms etc. Houzz allows you to create idea boards for whatever projects you are gathering your inspiration for. It even allows you to ask questions about the image for guidance, directly from the designer. You see, professionals create profiles and upload images of their work onto the online resource. This also allows you to find professionals in your area to design and/or build the work if needed.
As a company we created a profile on Houzz awhile ago and have added a multitude of images that people have in turn added to their idea books. We have even had a few articles published with our work in them for their online newsletter – also a great resource. We’ve had a fun time answering questions asked about plants and materials in our photos. For our clients who have not yet discovered the online resource, we’ve turned them on to it and encouraged them to gather their own design inspirations for our meetings. Even some of our clients have offered their reviews of working with us and allowed us to showcase photos of their projects on our Houzz profile. And because we love what we do and we have awesome clients we were just awarded a Best of Houzz 2013 award in customer satisfaction. Check out our Houzz profile here and get started creating your own Houzz account and idea boards of design inspiration. The clutter of the magazines and cool things books are a thing of the past, when looking for design inspiration – online inspiration is plenty, easily accessible and easily organized.
I had the pleasure of working on a job in Oakland where my client’s goal was to salvage as much of the existing landscape as possible. At the same time they really wanted an area for raised beds, a small play area for their little one, and more useable spaces in their sloped garden. It was challenging because the existing landscape had layers of different materials built up over the years with a slick and rickety creosote railroad tie staircase. Each retaining wall was made from pieces of stacked broken concrete, stone, and wood, creating levels that were not useable. One thing was for certain, the railroad tie staircase had to go.
Rebuilding the staircase allowed us to reroute it to maximize existing spaces and to safely access the sloped garden. The old staircase was unnecessarily wide in some parts, eating into valuable useable flat space. The new staircase starts out wide and welcoming near the house, but then narrows into a utilitarian staircase as it winds up the slope to the various garden ‘rooms’.
The first room houses the raised vegetable garden. We kept the existing drystack stone retaining wall because it was in good condition but built out another retaining wall on the downslope to create a flat area for the raised beds. This was the sunniest area in this Oakland garden which was mostly covered in shade from huge Coast Live Oaks and eucalyptus. We used metal ‘L’ brackets called M Brace from Art of the Garden for the raised beds. 2×8 pieces of redwood slip into the metal brackets. The raised beds can be configured into different sizes depending on the space, simply by trimming the wood to the desired length. The frame is then filled with soil and ready to be planted. There’s lots of wildlife in this Oakland backyard so we installed a wire mesh of gopher barrier at the bottom of each of the raised beds before filling with soil. This will prevent any underground gophers and moles from coming up through the bottom of the raised beds and harvesting the veggies for themselves.
The second room was the one-person reading perch. It is nestled under the dappled shade of the Coast Live Oaks and made of two small drystack stone retaining walls. We kept the patio small so as not to disturb the sensitive root systems of the oaks. We were also able to keep all the existing soil on site by not overcutting into slopes and using all the soil fill to create level ‘rooms’.
Walking further up the stairs, the third level room is dedicated to play. There is a small patch of shade loving lawn next to a play area. This level was already established in the existing landscape by the blue rock retaining wall. We were able to enlarge the level area by consolidating two failing shorter stacked concrete retaining walls into one three foot high retaining wall. Above this wall we dedicated to edible plants. We planted a blueberry patch with a mix of different varieties to provide a longer season of harvest with edible thyme to trail over the wall.
Finally, at the very top of the sloped garden, you reach the fire pit. This room existed in a dilapidated unusable state before because the huge eucalyptus tree roots had busted open the stone retaining wall. The stone was mortared together, leaving a huge crack right in the middle of the retaining wall. The existing patio underfoot was uneven and hard to access by a small offshoot of a staircase, only 18 inches wide. We reused the existing stacked concrete debris and created a new drystack concrete retaining wall further away from the eucalyptus root. The drystack nature of the retaining wall will move and shift as the roots grow, hopefully, not for a long time since we gave it more room to expand. The floor of the fire pit patio is decomposed granite which will also be forgiving and easy to repair if the roots decide to make an appearance.
All throughout this Oakland landscape we inserted fruit trees and edible plants. Rosemary and sage are used in planting beds amongst ornamental perennials. Fragrant lemon verbena and lavender attract hummingbirds. A strawberry patch grows just above the raised vegetable garden area. Kiwi vines grow on the fences. Persimmon, fig, pear, apple, plum, lemon and kumquat trees dot the sloped garden and fight to win the battle against the dense layer of eucalyptus leaves that can easily smother plants.
Limited sunlight, eucalyptus droppings and a mishmash of materials were all challenges in this Oakland backyard. Thanks to my clients, who were open to trying new things and appreciative of the whimsy and beauty of reusing materials, we were able to create a functional, beautiful and purposeful landscape. The overwhelming slope is safely accessible and provides a daily journey through shadow and light. This sloped garden, full of wildlife continues to evolve as the plants and trees grow and the raised vegetable garden gets changed through the seasons.
We have all been in outdoor spaces where we have felt cramped and uncomfortable or in a very large open space where we have felt vulnerable and could not relax. Both of these situations may have been due to the lack of proper proportion and scale of the space. We all dream about having the perfect outdoor space that is both comfortable and visually exciting. Harmonious, outdoor areas where we can entertain a group of close friends or spend time alone reading a book. Part of getting this dream space to work is making sure that the proportion and scale is correct.
Proportion and scale are two important principles to consider when designing an outdoor space. Proportion is the size of an object in relation to other objects in the garden. Scale, on the other hand, is the relationship of an object to a fixed object, usually the human body. Getting the ideal proportion and scale can be the most challenging concept to pull off correctly in the garden.
One of the first things to remember is that each feature or element in the garden is part of the whole. Each element needs to match in relation to the surrounding pieces. In addition, for the sake of comfort, the garden elements must relate to the human body. This is true when selecting plants, furniture, structures and hardscape elements.
Garden elements such as benches, tables and arbors are most functional when they fit the human body. Physical comfort in the garden can not be overstated. A person will feel more comfortable, function better and feel more secure in a garden when size is compatible to the human scale. Sitting back in a comfortable garden chair or dining outdoors under an ideally proportioned arbor are experiences we all appreciate. It is always a designer’s goal to create a space that is both visually exciting and physically comfortable.
A designer will consider proportion when selecting plant material. In the ideal situation, the plants are relative to people, existing plants and the house. A small café table next to a 60 foot Italian Cypress is not a recipe for a cozy corner. Even the balance between the space planted and open unplanted space is worth considering. When people, plants and the house are in proportion the compositions feels balanced and harmonious.
When it comes to hardscape, such as patios and walkways, they should not only be proportional to people but also to the house. A deck or patio should be large enough for entertaining but not so large that it is out of scale to the house. You want to be able to maneuver around a table of seated guest, yet the table should not feel like it is floating in a sea of hardscape. Just the same, an entry pathway should be wide enough for two people to walk side by side but not so wide that it loses the intimacy a home garden should have.
Proportion and scale are also important when selecting garden artwork, sculpture and fountains. The piece should be substantial enough so that it does not get lost in the garden yet it should relate to the garden around it. For example, you don’t want to place a large fountain in the middle of a small garden. This would cause the fountain to become a distraction instead of a focal point. On the opposite end, a small boulder placed in a large lawn would probably go unnoticed.
These are only a few examples of how to use proportion and scale when designing a garden. Proportion and scale are just one of several garden principles worth considering. When you are in a garden where the proportion and scale are correct the space will not only be exciting but also give a feeling of balance and harmony.
If you can’t live with imperfection, and you have the space, designing a comfortable dog run for Fido might be your best bet. I’m currently designing a dogrun, or home dog kennel, for a family with dogs that enjoy the entire dog-friendly garden while their humans are outside, but have a little too much space when left to their own devices. The fenced dogrun will be under a perimeter of oaks, so they’ll be able to enjoy dappled shade and sunny areas for lounging on pet-friendly an artificial turf like SynLawn as well as two gravel areas for doing their business. They’ll also have a “dogport” covering their dog house area for full weather protection against the extremes.
Dog-friendly gardens are near and dear to my heart. I have two dogs (big dog, little dog) who enjoy my little postage stamp of a garden with me. For the most part, they’re perfect gentlemen; they have a few sturdy agaves on which they like to leave their marks, but the agaves don’t seem to mind; and they’d much rather do their other business on a walk than in their garden so any mess is technically due to my laziness. Neither of the beasts are chewers of things, except their squeaky dog toys, so I don’t worry about toxic plants, but it should be taken into consideration. My big dog has an occasional and unpredictable digging problem, but it’s always in the same place. After years trying to fight his compulsion with physical barriers I finally put a bench in front of his dig site with room for him and his dirty obsession. An abutilon fills out the fence above the digging spot so there are no obvious holes in the planting area. And now I can revel in his cute dirty nose rather than wonder which of my favorite plants he destroyed. I’m also conducting an experiment with real sod lawn and SynLawn, a fancy artificial turf (it’s not your grandma’s astroturf), to see which my dogs prefer. So far it’s about 50/50, with the added bonus with SynLawn that there is no maintenance, and the doggone raccoons aren’t digging it up every night. One challenge to consider with artificial turf is that it can get quite hot if you live in a hot summer climate. So far, my San Francisco dogs aren’t having any trouble.My other major problem is raccoons! I won’t even get into the trouble (or vet bills) we’ve seen from these critters, but my biggest dog-related challenge is that the raccoons clearly have a regular route through my garden, and it’s right through my little tropical oasis – and where those little bandits go, so go my dogs. On a rampage. A herd of raccoons and dogs stampede through my elephant ears on a regular basis. This is living with imperfection. Let the fencing commence!!!
If you’re designing your own dog-friendly garden, here are five things to consider:
Paths – dogs will oftentimes stay on designated paths. I designed one dog-friendly garden with a series of paths based on the dogs’ existing paths. Once installed, they were literally able to run circles around the garden – and the people had two seating connected by the patios to enjoy the show. Keep in mind that many dogs like to patrol the perimeter of the garden, so if space allows, consider leaving an open space between your planting borders and the fence.
Shelter and water – whether your dog is strictly outdoors, or frequently unattended, make sure you provide adequate covered space (even beyond a dog house) to protect Rover from the elements. If your dog is alone for longer periods of time, consider a faucet waterer so Buffy never goes thirsty. If you can teach Chester to drink from these handy faucet waterers, and you have an extra hose bibb (consider a splitter attachment) it’s a low-cost solution to ensure constant hydration. The if you can get Max to drink out of the self-waterer, it might be safer than filling bowls with a hose. Research suggests that there may be toxins in your garden hose.Know your dog’s habits – Many traits are breed-specific. If you have an energetic dog, obviously the more space the better. If you have a Houdini escape artist, you may need to fortify the bottom of the fence to prevent him from digging under, and may need a taller fence, or even a covered dogrun for a jumper. If Milo likes to chew on things, make sure he has plenty of weather-resistant dog toys and avoid toxic plants. For all dogs, never use cocoa mulch as it has proven fatally toxic to some dogs.
Plant Wisely – When planting, try to plant larger- sized container plants in masses. Use sturdy plants like ornamental grasses and phormiums especially along borders. Large agaves and aeoniums work as convenient barriers in my garden, but spines at the tips of even the smoothest agaves may pose potential danger. Stay away from toxic plants, particularly if you have chewer. This is why it’s important to know your dog. Borders, either temporary or permanent, can be very helpful in keeping Spot out of your beds. Depending on your garden style, this can include low fencing, boulders or other garden ornament – make it work with the paths. If you have specimen plants, or enjoy vegetable gardening, consider raised beds.
Designate areas for your dog – most dogs and puppies can be trained to use specific areas for their potty needs. I’ve designed several dog-friendly gardens with gravel and and artificial grass like SynLawn spaces for dogs to do their duty. SynLawn is a great lawn alternative if you like the idea of perfection – the artificial turf won’t get yellow and patchy, and you can easily wash it down if it gets soiled. You can install extra drainage – and add an odor-reducer. If you have a male dog fond of marking, consider a marking post. There is a dog park in San Mateo that a large expanse of dirt dotted with fire hydrants. Let your whimsy run wild. If you go for a marking post, it’s helpful to have a water source close by to keep smells from building up. It also helps if you have good drainage underneath If you have a digger – find Lola a space to have at it. In one garden I designed, we inadvertently created a lookout for the pup to maintain his neighborhood vigilance. It’s his favorite spot in the garden.Use these tips whether you’re planning a specific dogrun or thinking about incorporating these main ideas into your dog-friendly garden. They will ensure many happy days in the garden with your pooch. If you need help designing or installing your dog-friendly garden, or want to share your dog-friendly garden, feel free to drop me a line. And don’t even get me started about my custom dog house and dog washing and dog splash ideas!
Growing up in Northern Virginia, summers were pretty gross. The standard 90° heat was rough, but the constant humidity was worse. It was muggy and miserable from mid-June through Labor Day most years, with only the occasional thunderstorm to provide relief. I must admit, I miss those big summer storms. The humidity? I’m more than happy to live without it. The mosquitoes are also on my ‘sure glad I moved to California and got away from THAT’ list.
Because of these conditions, I always wondered why more people didn’t have swimming pools. There were community and club pools that many families belonged to, including mine, to which our parents would haul us most afternoons. My mom didn’t allow my fair skinned brothers and me in the sun between 10 and 2, so we usually rolled in at 3 or 4pm. We were always surprised when school started to find out that a bunch of our classmates belonged to the same pool, because we never saw them. Because we basically swam in the dark. We may not have had any friends at the pool, but at least we didn’t get burned! Thanks Mom!
Anyway, year after year mom would schlep us out to the pool with giant tote bags full of towels, sunblock, books, snacks, earplugs, goggles, and flip flops, pretty much every day. We had a pretty big back yard. Why in the world wouldn’t mom and dad just spring for a pool??? We’d be the coolest kids in the neighborhood! We’d actually see our friends in the daylight! In all the movies and pre-teen literature I was reading in the late 80’s, the kids in California had pools. They would spend whole summers getting tans, perfecting dives, showing off for their older brother’s cute friends . . . that was the life. For a few years, I bugged my parents regularly about putting in a pool. But dad wasn’t interested. For one thing, I don’t think he wanted all our friends coming over and eating all our food (a consequence of being a popular kid . . . you parents out there know how that goes) but his biggest gripe was maintenance. Besides the significant investment of installing a pool, there were the chemicals, the cleaning, and the liability which goes up exponentially when you have a son who is like a cross between Evel Knievel and Curious George . . . basically much more than he wanted to deal with.
When they decided to update our backyard landscape, my parents considered installing an Endless Pool. Endless Pools were a relatively new product at that point (1990), and it was pretty cool to see the demonstration film (on VHS!) about how it would be installed. It wouldn’t have a diving board, and Marco Polo was basically unplayable in a 7’ x 14’ space, but the idea of having a quasi-swimming hole for summer heat relief was good enough for me!!! In the end, it was not to be. Dad opted for a hot tub, which we all used regularly for a few years in the fall and winter. It then sat dormant for about a decade until my parents had it removed. I still say they should have gone with the Endless Pool.
Now, living in California, and working for a contractor, I understand my parents’ reservations regarding pools. Even in the hotter parts of the Bay Area, the large project of pool installation is intimidating. Pools may be great for avid swimmers who want to exercise, or families with kids that can spend hours and hours entertaining themselves in the water, but they come along with daunting costs and maintenance. There is also permitting required, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, many residential lots in the Bay Area have significant slopes to deal with, or just don’t have the space to fit a conventional swimming pool on their property. But these obstacles can be overcome with an Endless Pool.
The Endless Pool continues to solve problems for residents who love to swim and want the convenience of a pool at home- without breaking the bank. They have been improved and streamlined since the company was started in 1988, and have a lot more options available today. The basic premise is the same though- a 7’ x 14’ (minimum) swim area with a motorized current. It is terrific for general exercise, physical therapy, or a dip on a hot day. We’ve installed many Endless Pools over the years, and each installation has been unique. This is one of the things I like best about them- Endless Pools can be worked into a landscape aesthetic that doesn’t interrupt or compromise design. In fact, sloping yards can work to your advantage with an Endless Pool, where the unit can be built into your hillside without having to excavate yards and yards of soil. In some locations, retaining walls can be avoided entirely.
Endless Pools can be fully above or fully below ground; or in between, so that the pool surround can be utilized as a seat wall. The surrounding area could be basically any material you wish. Concrete or stone patios are popular, as are wood or composite decks. I’m currently working on a project with an Endless Pool that will be partially sunken, with stucco walls and a stone cap around the pool, alongside artificial turf. So the area around the pool will be casual and soft to walk or play on, but artificial lawn means no dirt or grass clippings in the pool.
Compared to conventional built-in swimming pools, Endless Pool installation is a simple undertaking. There is still permitting involved in order to supply electricity to the pool equipment, but Endless Pools are technically portable like prefabricated spas, so they don’t necessarily require other permits. And most likely, you can take them with you if you relocate. The smaller swim area means reduced chemicals and maintenance, less energy, and significantly less cost.
If you’re thinking about an Endless Pool and you’re not sure it can work on your property, contact us to set up a site visit and consultation. You can live that California dream I always wanted as a kid, in your own backyard.
In the landscape profession we manipulate nature to create our own little havens, but nothing is more breathtaking than wild nature. I just returned from a winter wonderland in Yosemite Valley and I am always amazed at the beauty that is around each turn. In wintertime, after the New Year, Yosemite Valley is quiet and peaceful. The fallen tree branches and yellow meadow are cloaked in a crisp white icing of snow. You begin to appreciate the shapes and forms of boulders, delicate tree branches, and the lacy patchwork of snowflakes sealed onto car windows. The waterfalls were flowing, creating a cobweb of frozen doilies framing the base of each fall. The show-stopping dogwoods(Cornus nuttallii) that are in full bloom in spring were mere skeletons, asleep for the winter. Instead, the boulders dotting each side of the Merced River, covered with a cap of pure white snow stole the show as the water flowed around the base of each one, revealing the dark granite beneath.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Delicate tree icicles
I am always inspired by the beauty here. It reminds me of the importance of established trees, the grand affect large canopies create for the scale of what is beneath and above. It takes years for them to grow large enough to create impact in a garden and provide a sense of scale to the house and the rest of the landscape. This trip also reminded me of the beauty of a simple element. It is easy to add too much. If there is a beautiful water element in your garden, let it have space. Create continuity with plant material in large swaths throughout the garden to highlight a focal point and add a sense of calm. Mother Nature has lessons to teach us all as we think about our own landscapes.
The Ahwahnee Hotel dining room is at a grand scale, mimicking the feeling you have standing in Yosemite Valley amidst the towering mountains
Ice skating under Half Dome at sunset