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Posts by lisaanusasananan

Hakone Gardens

view of pond from above

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.

Bamboo grove moss

Evergreen bamboo grove

bamboo grove path

Rare Turtle Shell Bamboo

Rare Turtle Shell Bamboo

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.

view of waterfall

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.

deciduous bonsai

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.

Zen Garden - view the raked gravel mimicking water flowing

Zen Garden – view the raked gravel mimicking water flowing

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.

Fragrant osmanthus flowers next to the tea house perfume the air

Fragrant osmanthus flowers next to the tea house perfume the air

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!

Deciduous wisteria vines cover this arbor walkway and will erupt in purple blossoms in spring

Deciduous wisteria vines cover this arbor walkway and will erupt in purple blossoms in spring

Oakland Sloped Garden

looking down

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.

BEFORE: creosote railroad tie staircase

BEFORE: creosote railroad tie staircase

M Brace raised bed area looking up slope

AFTER: Timber tie staircase winding up slope

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’.

AFTER: timber tie stair case winds down slope

AFTER: timber tie stair case winds down slope

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’.

AFTER: Reading perch under Coase Live Oaks

AFTER: Reading perch under Coast Live Oaks

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.

AFTER: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone wall

AFTER: Play room. Shade tolerant grass and playground fiber overlook the raised veggie boxes with blueberry patch above existing stone 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.

BEFORE: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

BEFORE: Eucalyptus tree breaking through mortared rock wall

AFTER: fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

AFTER: fire pit area reusing existing broken concrete to create drystack wall

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.

Towering eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter

Towering eucalyptus create a great amount of leaf litter

Eucalyptus leaf litter

Eucalyptus leaf litter

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.


AFTER: View of fire pit room and various new and existing retaining walls. Old stone and concrete are artfully combined with existing broken concrete.

Yosemite Valley: Winter Wonderland


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

Japanese Gardens Inspire

Japanese Garden Design

Japanese gardens immediately evoke a sense of calm and serenity. When I think of Japanese gardens I envision mossy granite stepping stones meandering through a shady forest and delicate yellow Gingko leaves fallen on the ground. I think of gravel and evergreens and maybe even a trickle of water. Why is this, and what makes Japanese gardens different from other garden styles?

Shoji Screen Entrance

Traditional Japanese gardens are a true art form creating stunning, graceful and dynmanic combinations with stone, gravel or plants. Evergreen plants provide a calm backdrop for seasonal blooms and autumn leaves. Color is used sparingly to provide the most impact amongst the evergreens. The use of a majority of evergreens creates an immediate sense of tranquility because many different leaf and flower colors can be stimulating to the viewer.

Foliage color is important in a Japanese inspired garden

Japanese Inspired Front Garden

Detailed paths make you slow down to observe the detail of what the path is made of, as well as intentionally guide you in different directions to appreciate views. Rather than strong axially views, Japanese gardens are more natural and full of discovery. Meandering stepping stones with moss, or paved stone paths combining smooth pebbles and rough irregular granite pieces create art under your feet.

Meandering Paths of a Japanese Influenced Garden

Balance is valued over symmetry. Boulders, in groups of different shapes and odd numbers are selected and placed strategically to mimmick the random beauty of wild mountains. Hard boulders are softened by carpets of gravel or groundcover below to echo the rivulets of water. Hard boulders are softened by a trickle of water to mimick waterfalls or the sound of rain.

Boulder Water Feature

While there are many more subtle and complex components of a traditional Japanese garden, it is easy to be inspired by how they make you feel. Whether you are lucky enough to walk through one and experience it, or just by looking at images, think of what appeals most to you about Japanese gardens and try to incorporate that into your own garden. Here are a few images of Japanese inspired gardens we’ve installed over the years.


Japanese Inspired Garden

Water Feature and different Stone Patterns

A meandering path

A Green Roof for our Chicken Coop

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After many months of pondering, I finally planted up the empty void atop our family chicken coop and turned it into a beautiful green roof. Even though the roof is fairly small, I see it everyday from our second story home, so it is very important to me. I considered wanting a green roof with a natural meadow look that would just turn golden in the summer months or a collection of California native wildflowers interspersed amongst creeping sedum. In the end, I chose a mix of succulents and fescues, all very hardy and requiring hardly any maintenance. I am happy with the end result because it is extremely easy to care for, requires very little water, and looks good throughout the seasons.

I chose the succulents because I needed something that could withstand the shallow four inch depth of the roof. I know the groundcover sedums are very popular for green roofs for the very fact that they spread wide without a lot of water and have considerably short root structures. But since I would be looking at the green roof everyday, I wanted something with bolder leaves and more texture. I chose seven different varieties for the green roof including: Echeveria, that has rosettes ranging from one to five inches in diameter. They are different hues of grey-blue, mauve, and burgundy. Interspersed are some Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ and Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’ to set off the bold leaves of the Echeveria. Along the edges I put in a few draping purple flowering plants, Convolvulus mauritanicus. to soften the edges.

I chose all of these plants for their durability and low water requirement, important aspects to consider when planting a green roof. I will use the spray hose to water them a few times a week, until they get established since I did not set up an irrigation system. I think the succulents will flourish with the temperate San Francisco climate and ability to survive with little water.

One thing I did not anticipate was the chickens eating the succulents when left to freely roam the garden. I went a little overboard at the nursery and bought some succulents to plant at ground level, only to discover the chicks, and my daughter, love to pluck the fleshy leaves off! For now, I am keeping my favorite varieties on the roof to divide and live on so I can root them in the garden beds later on and not care if they get plucked.

Easy Access to your Garden

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When we moved to San Francisco, I chose to live in the top unit and my sister chose the bottom. Six years later, I realize now, how maybe I should have put more thought into that decision.

To get to the garden I have to walk down 2 flights of narrow side stairs, through a dingy, dark, damp basement, and up five more steps to our garden oasis. The end result – I barely use the garden.

My visions of drinking hot green tea, sitting on my backyard patio in this carefully concocted fragrant garden oasis, with the cool San Francisco breeze on my face has yet to happen. Instead, in the chaos of watching my sisters’ children, I longingly look at the double doors that open right out onto the deck and the mere three steps down to the lawn. Poof! Magically, I am in the garden smelling the sweet blossoms of the lemon tree, feeling the San Francisco morning dew on my toes. It makes such a difference being IN the garden rather than viewing it from above.

Bottom line, decks and patios that allow easy access between your house and the outside make a huge difference. This is especially important for postage stamp sized gardens, with limited space, which are very common in dense urban areas like San Francisco. The seamless flow from a public area inside, like the living room or kitchen onto a substantial deck or backyard patio really increases the useable space and blurs the distinction between the inside and out. Convenience is key! Perhaps I’m lazy, but just the thought of making the trek to the garden stresses me out.

My goal is to save up a mini trust fund to build a balcony and a spiral staircase down to our backyard patio. For now, I will begin to research the building codes for my San Francisco block so I can figure out what the setbacks are for spiral staircases and where it will have the least impact on my sister’s view downstairs and can easily connect to our backyard patio.

Water Features in Garden Design

Trickle, trickle, trickle. Splash, splash, splash. You’re sitting in your garden and suddenly you are transported to a romantic courtyard in Barcelona or a gushing waterfall in Kauai. A water element can add a dream-like experience to your garden as well as be functional.

Water features in garden design:
• help to mask noisy streets or noisy neighbors
• help to cool a stone patio on a blistering summer day
• make use of a blank wall or hide an ugly eyesore
• create a destination point in any sized garden
• provide a water source for birds and other wildlife

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A water element creates visual and acoustic beauty in the garden. It can be in the form of a simple overflowing urn or boulder or a sheet of water trickling over textured pebbles or colored tiles. Built into a hillside with boulders and smooth river-washed stone, a water element can echo nature’s ponds and streams, creating a new habitat for aquatic ecosystems. A reflecting pond creates a place for contemplation and helps small spaces appear larger. A ground level water runnel bisecting patios, paths, or planting areas adds geometry and movement. A water element can even be in the form of an Endless Pool which provides exercise, play, and relaxation all in one.

If water moves you, our designers can work with you to consider what type of water element makes the most sense for your lifestyle and how it may be incorporated into your garden design.