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Endless Pools


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.Image

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.


Borders in the Garden

There are many ways to create borders in your garden, to delineate spaces, create outdoor rooms, give a sense of enclosure, or add privacy. When we think of hemming in an outdoor space, we often think of wood or metal fences. There are many types of fences, using varied materials- we could do several blog posts just about them! In this post we want to talk about fences but also walls and hedges as ways to border your garden.

Curved Wood Fence
Fences are typically made of wood or metals like wrought iron or aluminum. Most cities and counties have a height limit of 6’ for fencing (without a permit variance), which can provide privacy and screening from streets or undesirable views. But fences don’t need to be that high, or be solid, to create a barrier between private and public space. Even a 3’ fence can create a border, or an open style fence like split rails or wire mesh give the sense of entering a space. Fences can also be planted with vines to create a green wall to provide a living fence with seasonal change.

Lattice Fence with Vines
Walls are also a way to border in your garden. Freestanding walls are another form of fence, and can be veneered with stucco or stone to create a more formal and solid barrier. These walls can also be up to 6’ tall, or a combination of wall and fence adds a dynamic twist to your garden edge.

Stucco with Welded Wire Mesh
Of course we can’t forget planting borders, like hedges. The old standby, the Boxwood hedge, is often what people think of when hedges are mentioned- and they are often a great choice for a low maintenance, solid hedge. But many plants can be trimmed into hedges, including shrubs that flower, are fragrant, or have interesting foliage year-round. Borders don’t have to be sheared like Boxwood hedges either- a line of perennial grasses or a uniform row of low shrubs can be left in their natural form and still create a strong border.

Ask us about fences- we have ideas that will work in any garden space.

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

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

Landscape Terminology: Perennials & Annuals

Perennials                           Mixing up the terminology between perennials and annuals is a common mistake.  And as with most things, there seem to be exceptions to the defined rules, which make identifying plants as either annuals or perennials tricky.  Here are the basics.  Perennials live at least 2 years, many of them much longer.  Technically trees and shrubs are perennials- but most of the time, this term refers to herbaceous (soft-stemmed) plants.  Geranium, Yarrow, Daylily, and Beardtongue all fall into this category.  


Here’s where it can get confusing:  there are deciduous perennials that die back every winter.  Fountain Grasses (Pennisetum) and False Spiraea (Astilbe) are deciduous perennials.  They appear to die in winter, which might cause some frustration with your landscape designer, but not to worry.  They’ll be back!   We also have an advantage, plant-wise, in the Bay Area- there are plants that we can grow as perennials here that behave as annuals elsewhere because of colder weather.  Yet another reason that the Bay Area is superior living!

Fountain Grass

Annuals                                                Annuals live their whole life cycle (germination, growth of shoots and leaves, flowering, seeding, and death) in a year or less.  They can be some of the most colorful, fastest growing, and most exciting plants in your garden, but unlike perennials, they won’t necessarily make a return visit to your garden unless you allow them to seed.  If you cut annuals all the way back before they have a chance to ‘set seed’, you may not see them the next year.  This can be kind of a bummer, because you have to resist the urge to prune plants that look, well, dead.  But you can deadhead them (cut off just the blooms) over the course of their season- this not only keeps the garden looking neater, it encourages the annuals to flower more in order to produce seed.  This is survival of the fittest, people.  Plants will find a way to reproduce!!  There are both cool and warm season annuals . . . we’ll get into that later.  Plants that fall into the annual category?  Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena), California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica), and Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnata).    These are easily grown from seed, or for those of you that enjoy strolling around a nursery, head to Annie’s Annuals in Richmond for 4” pot starts- the selection is spectacular.

California Poppy

Landscape Terminology

I’ve noticed that I have developed a bad habit. I employ certain terminology that is commonly used amongst my colleagues and other landscape professionals when I’m meeting new clients, assuming they know exactly what I mean. I’ve realized that some people may have no idea what I’m referring to when I say ‘hardscape’ or ‘swale’ or ‘perennial.’ Sorry about that! I’m a work in progress. At least I don’t say ‘expresso.’

Over the next several months, I’m going to be regularly blogging about landscape terms, in an attempt to clarify for our clients and friends what all this terminology means. Have a term you’re confused about? Ask me! I welcome your feedback! Today, we’ll start with some of the most commonly used terms when we’re discussing landscape and landscape design.

This is an umbrella term that covers everything on your property, outside of structures like your home or garage. Your patio, your pool, your trees, your lawn, your vegetable beds, even your low voltage outdoor lights are all part of your Landscape- and all can be incorporated into your Landscape Design.

Basically, hard stuff. Usually refers to flat paved areas with materials like stone, concrete, or brick, but we even consider gravels to be ‘hardscape’, even though they are permeable. There are a lot of materials that can be used to hardscape an area to make it more useable. Check back here for more on that topic.

The soft stuff. Lawns, trees, shrubs, flowering perennials, grasses . . . basically anything that grows outdoors can be considered softscape. The word Landscape is often used interchangeably with Softscape, to describe any planted material.

When I was a kid, I thought ‘evergreen’ referred to plants like Pine or Spruce trees- plants with needles or cones that don’t shed their leaves every fall. As it happens, evergreen plants can be trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, or groundcovers- any plant that keeps its foliage all year round. Broad Leafed Evergreens (BLEs) are plants that have foliage broader than a needle. Camellias, Boxwoods, and Hollies all fall into this category. Furthermore, conifers (needle-leaved plants that produce cones) can be deciduous, losing their foliage each year. Crazy, I know.

This word refers to plants that die back once a year, usually in fall or winter. Basically they look dead and you get really annoyed with your landscape designer, but then a few months later, tada! They come back looking refreshed and go through the whole cycle again. Many of the plants with the most spectacular show throughout the seasons are deciduous – flowering cherry and Japanese maple trees, Hydrangeas, Black-Eyed Susans, Crape Myrtles, Dogwoods, Poppies . . . . these plants all take a nap in winter and come back the next spring.

Stay tuned. My next blog post will explore the oft-confusing but thrilling world of annuals vs. perennials!

Raised Beds in Your Bay Area Garden

Looking around the San Francisco Bay Area these days, raised beds seem to be everywhere. We couldn’t be happier. The Slow Food movement and increasing interest in growing our own food has made them a valuable tool in a lot of local gardens, where the soil is, well, awful. It can be devoid of organic matter, which is a requirement of successful edible gardening. As an avid gardener myself, I spend a lot of time wondering what happened to all my topsoil. How can soil erosion be that bad on a relatively flat lot? And why I don’t start my own pottery business since everything I turn out of the ground is CLAY? Trying to establish plant roots in that environment feels like fighting a losing battle. How can you make the most out of your garden space and ensure that your soil has necessary organic matter?

If you want to grow your own, raised beds could be the answer.


Having your vegetables above ground means control- not easy to come by when you’re dealing with Mother Nature. You can more easily address pest or disease issues. You can handpick the soil and amendments that are most appropriate for what you want to grow. Based on the height of your beds, you could potentially eliminate crouching, kneeling or stooping to harvest or weed- which we all know can be tough on our backs & knees. Further, you aren’t limited to growing areas defined by your existing garden layout. You can install raised beds on top of stone, concrete or gravel patios, decks, some roofs, even along asphalt driveways. In smaller gardens, this ‘square foot gardening’ tactic can create a layering effect utilizing both edibles and perennials to make the most of your space.

In my garden, a large section is partially shaded by Pittosporum trees. Not much sun is a problem I can handle. But the soil underneath is full of tree roots, devoid of nutrients and hard as rock, even in winter after substantial rains. My solution? Raised beds. The soil in my raised beds is ideal for my plant roots. I’ve found a few vegetables that can thrive in part shade (Kale! Radishes!) and even customized my beds by painting them, creating a colorful backdrop in the darkest part of my garden.

So what else can raised beds do? Designed properly, raised beds perform double duty: a wall of your bed can serve as a retaining wall, preventing soil erosion while providing ideal soil conditions for growing vegetables, perennials and flowering shrubs. We all know that planting can help control soil erosion, and if you construct a structural wall to delineate the back of a raised bed, you can reduce the possibility for soil erosion even further. For those of you with steep slopes, disturbing the soil or existing planting can actually increase the chances of soil erosion. Carving out an accessible area to focus planting with a combination retaining wall & raised bed leaves the remaining slope above undisturbed, and create a flat space below for you to easily access your beds, relax, and enjoy the view.


There aren’t many. Installing raised beds can be more costly than planting the old fashioned way (i.e. holes in the ground). But even with extensive soil amendment in traditional planting, essential nutrients will eventually leach out of the compost and the soil will revert to its prior condition. With raised beds, you can replace or amend soil with organic matter much more easily. We’ve done a lot of planting at Lazar Landscape in the last 30 years, and have seen firsthand the amazing difference in growth rate with plants grown in native soil versus raised beds. Plant roots are so much more easily established in the nutrient rich, aerated soil of raised beds, and the resulting growth can be spectacular.

You don’t have go strictly edible with raised beds either. We recommend mixing perennials with your edibles. There are many colorful perennials that are not only beautiful, but attract beneficial insects to help you combat pests. They create a cool contrast to leafy greens, bold squashes and sweet strawberries. They also keep portions of your beds looking pretty when you’re changing crops, as recent harvests can leave all-vegetable beds looking a bit sad. As many of you Bay Area gardeners have discovered, a kitchen garden featuring fresh herbs is wonderful to have on hand. Added bonus? Deer and gophers leave Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Chives and Parsley alone. On that note, individual beds are much easier (and less expensive!) to protect from wildlife than a whole garden. Simple welded wire screens over or around raised beds can keep deer and gophers out, not to mention raccoon, squirrels, birds, or Tucker (my neighbor’s Springer Spaniel. He likes to dig around my sweet peppers).

Not interested in an urban or suburban farm? Raised beds aren’t just the realm of vegetable gardeners. There is a raised bed for any garden style. Raised beds can be built out of concrete, brick or stone- whatever style best suits your garden aesthetic. The important things to remember are making sure your beds include appropriate drainage, and if you are growing edibles, you should steer clear of pressure treated woods- the metals used to treat the material can leach into your soil, and your edibles. This is a great time to get started. Have questions or need help with your own raised beds? We’re here!