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Posts by marioherrada

Proportion and Scale in the Garden

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.

Before: top heavy, slender post arbor

Before: top heavy, slender post arbor

After: Posts are in proportion to overhead structure

After: Posts are in proportion to overhead structure

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.

Before: Narrow entry walkway

Before: Narrow entry walkway

After: Wider entry walkway

After: Wider entry walkway

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.

Before: Opportunity for sculpture does not exist

Before: Opportunity for sculpture does not exist

After: Sculpture set in the new landscape

After: Sculpture set in the new landscape

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.

Downton Abbey and the English Garden

Well a year has come and gone and a new year is upon us.  For the third year in a row the New Year also brings us a new season of Downton Abbey.   The third season begins this Sunday, January 6th, on PBS.  Along with the intriguing story line and great interiors we are also treated to wonderful views of the landscape surrounding the great English manor house, Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey has used Highclere Castle to film the exterior shots since the series began.  It seems the creators of the show are enchanted by Highclere Castle’s location and frequently include wonderful shots of long views within the estate parkland.   This is understandable since Highclere Castle estate sits on 1,000 acres and dates back to the 8th century.

Charles Barry designed Highclere Castle and building began in1839.  Charles Barry also designed the Houses of Parliament in London.  You can’t help but notice the resemblance.  The Estate is presently owned by the Carnavon family, who acquired it in 1679 from the Bishops of Winchester who had owned the Estate for 800 years.

Before I go over the landscape, I want to go over some of the historical details of the grounds of Highclere Castle.

The 1,000 acre parkland was original designed by Capability Brown at the end of the 18th century.  Capability Brown was a proponent of the more relaxed English garden style and designed close to 170 garden parks and fine country estates.  His style broke away from the traditional formal garden style popular in France.  Capability Brown’s design style attempted to mimic nature; trees and ponds were scattered throughout the landscape.  In addition to the parkland and arboretum, the present garden also contains The Secret Garden and Monks’ Garden.

The current owners, Lady Carnavon and the 8th Earl of Carnavon oversee the Highclere Castle gardens.  The owners not only maintain the original scheme but also actively add to the garden.

The first season of Downton Abbey begins in 1912, at this time the garish display of Victorian bedding plants was out of fashion.  The trend was a more relaxed ‘country house’ style of herbaceous borders and rambling roses.  Lady Carnavon adheres to this relaxed Edwardian garden style in her new planting.

As early as the 13th century fruit trees were planted in the garden.  Today fruit trees (peach, nectarine and quince) can be found trained on the brick garden walls.  Roses, blue and white Agapanthus, Lavender and Penstemons have been added to the undulating borders of The Secret Garden.  Rose varieties include ‘Penny Lane’, Alberic Barbier’ and ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.  Giant white-flowered mophead Hydrangeas also can be found in The Secret Garden.

If you want to capture the feeling of an English garden, regardless of the size of your own garden, there are several key elements to keep in mind.

Use a large variety of plant varieties even in small flowerbeds.  Shrubs and perennials of the same variety should not be planted en masse.  If you do plant en masse, use varieties that seem wild.

Plant perennials that do not need trimming.  Instead choose those that ramble through the border.  Remember that you want to avoid the ‘designer’ look and lean towards a more natural feeling.

Eliminate straight rows and geometric planting patterns for trees and shrubs.  Plant in odd numbers to get away from symmetry and rigid formality.

Pathways and planting beds should be curved.  Avoid straight lines and square beds.  Even hedges should be allowed to grow in a more natural style.

If you decide on using sculpture in the garden, choose something that looks aged.  The piece should be pastoral and peaceful, not new and modern.

Even if we do not live in a grand English estate set in acres of rolling parkland we can still use key design ideas that embrace Capability Brown’s time tested theories.  These ideas can be used regardless of the garden size or location.

In the mean time, with the long winter nights ahead of us, its great to sit back, relax and watch the drama unfold on Downton Abbey.  Once the series has run its course we will be that much closer to spring and spending time in our own gardens.

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.

Courtyards and Garden Design

The quintessential mission style courtyard was first introduced to California by the Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan order in 1769. California, like the Andulusia region of Spain, has a climate suitable for indoor/outdoor courtyard living. These early courtyards traditionally were walled gardens with a central fountain.

The courtyards served as work places for making bricks, tanning hides and keeping livestock.
The early California Mission architecture was the template for many of California’s civic buildings and residential houses in the 1920’s. The courtyard was part of this traditional architecture and served as the link connecting the home to the garden.

The important physical elements of garden design in a residential courtyard have always been water, walls and sky. Equally important in the garden design are the qualities of intimacy, security and quiet the space provides.

I recently have had the opportunity to restore a neglected courtyard for a 1929 Mission style home in Oakland. The house has the traditional Mission design elements – arches, stucco walls, barrel tile roof and wrought iron gates. Unfortunately, the courtyard’s garden design had none of the fine details that read “Mission courtyard”.

The existing courtyard was filled with struggling plants, uneven sod-lawn, poorly placed flagstone stepping stones and uninviting entry steps. Creating a new garden design for the courtyard required demolishing the existing hardscape and plants.

The Courtyard Before

The Courtyard After

The “make over” of the new but traditional courtyard garden design now incorporates curved vanilla limestone entry steps, vanilla limestone flagstone patio, drystack retaining walls and a traditional fountain.

The new garden designs plant material includes Mediterranean style plants such as Choisya, New Zealand Flax, Kangaroo Paws, Agonis, Agapanthus, Sea Lavender, Carex, Blue Oat Grass and ‘Hidcote’ Lavender. In between the flagstone you will find Blue Star Creeper, Campanula, Sea Thrift, Ground Morning Glory and several varieties of Thyme. To complete the look the large pots have been filled with ‘San Diego Red’ Bougainvillea and white Sweet Alyssum.

Another Before shot of the Courtyard

Another After Shot of the Courtyard

Low voltage lighting enhances the nighttime courtyard experience. Path lights allow you to safely navigate the steps. Up-lights, placed between plants and wall, accent the stucco walls. Down-lights, attached to the eaves, softly illuminate the curved entry steps. Underwater lights, in the fountain, highlight the rustic centerpiece of the garden.

Before shot of the courtyard

After shot of the Courtyard

All of the elements in the remodeled courtyard enhance and support the architecture of the home and the needs of the clients. The courtyard is filled with color, fragrance and the pleasant sound of trickling water. The homeowner enjoys all of these elements both day and night.

Collecting Garden Books Outside of San Francisco


Collecting new, vintage and antique garden books is a passion of mine.  Currently I have over 600 garden books and the collection is growing like a weed.  Since the subject of gardening covers a wide range, so do my garden books.  In my library you will find garden books dealing with garden history, botany, maintenance, garden design and garden designers.

Finding garden books in San Francisco is never a problem.  We have an abundance of great local bookstores and I am familiar with most of them.  In fact I can tell someone how to get from the front door to the garden section at most of the local vendors.


Finding garden books outside of San Francisco has become a habit of mine.  With a little research on the internet, shopping for garden books out of town can be productive.

Three cities that I enjoy shopping for garden books are Miami, New Orleans and New York City.

In the Miami area I have had success at Robert A. Bookseller and the museum gift shop at Vizcaya.

Robert A. Bookseller is located in Fort Lauderdale.  This is a three-storey store filled with an amazing selection of used books.  If you are looking for garden books on tropical gardens this is the place.

While in Miami be sure to visit Vizcaya, the former home of agricultural industrialist James Deering.  The grand house and garden were built in 1916.  After wandering around the ten acres of formal gardens on a warm muggy afternoon, I found refuge in the museum’s bookshop.  Cooling down while skimming interesting garden books is a great way to end the house and garden tour.


In New Orleans I visit three shops in the French Quarter.  They’re all within walking distance of each other.  The three shops are Beckham’s BookShop, Faulkner House Books and Cresent City Books.  Cresent City Books is my favorite, not only because of the great garden books available but also because they have a nice selection of old prints of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.


Now for the Big Apple, New York City.  When I am shopping in Soho and I need to relax I head to Housing Works Bookstore Café.  This is a great place to enjoy a strong cup of coffee while browsing the shelves of garden books.  I would like to see this combination of coffee and books in San Francisco.

The New York Botanical Garden is always on the top of my  “must see” list while in town.  After being amazed with the Irwin Perennial Garden I head over to “Shop in the Garden.”  Shop in the Garden offers a large selection of new, vintage and antique garden books.


I leave the best for last, Strand Bookstore near Union Square.  Strand’s tag line is “home to 18 miles of books” and is a treasure trove for New York City booklovers.  Like Manhattan, navigating Strand Bookstore can be a bit unnerving.   Nonetheless, once I get to the garden book section I pull up a stool and then make the painful decision of how many books will fit in my suitcase.

As any collector of garden books will tell you, there is always an opportunity to add to the collection regardless of where you may be.  In addition, reading a recently purchased garden book while at the airport or on the flight home to San Francisco is always a great way to end a trip.

Boxwoods in the Garden

As a garden designer I have a list of “go to plants” in my head whenever I sit down and begin a planting plan.  The plant list varies from garden to garden.  One list may be suitable for a formal garden, another for a cottage garden and yet another for a modern garden.   Each plant on the list encompasses the style and feeling I want the garden to have.  However, there is one plant that is common to many garden styles and that is the Boxwood (Buxus sp.)

Over the years, boxwood has fallen in and out of favor, but with increased deer browsing and concerns over water use, Boxwood are once again gaining popularity.  They are evergreen, deer resistant and drought tolerant.  Boxwoods are easy to maintain, most require little pruning, will grow in sun or shade and are long lived.  In addition, Boxwoods are versatile and come in many sizes, shapes and growth rate.

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Boxwoods are indispensable in a formal garden.  They add a timeless feel of elegance to the garden.  Picture a pair of columnar Green Tower Boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens ‘Monrue’) flanking a garden gate or set in a row along the garden border.

In designing a cottage garden, Boxwood can be used to create a low border surrounding perennials.  They will add order to the beds during the peak summer flowering season and interest during the quite winter season.  Nothing reads cottage garden like foxgloves, roses and lavender towering and spilling over a Boxwood border.   One wonderful Boxwood for the cottage garden is Green Beauty Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. joponica ‘Green Beauty’).

One of the best uses of Boxwood is in the modern garden.  Here the Boxwood can be the star of the minimally planted modern garden.  Shearing the Boxwood into geometric spheres or cubes both in the ground or in pots will give the clean lined garden a modern sculptural feel.   True Dwarf Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) is a great candidate for shearing into modern geometric shapes.

There are many varieties and cultivars of Boxwood available today and many garden designers are rediscovering Boxwood, the backbone of formal gardens for centuries.