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Posts from the ‘fire’ Category

Outdoor Lighting Adds Value to Your Home

A well-lit gardenIt’s that time of year! The days are getting a longer, and it has me itching to spend more time in the garden. There is no better way to extend your time outside than with outdoor lighting (this includes my real nighttime favorite – fire!). There are many different approaches to outdoor lighting ranging from quick DIY projects to low voltage outdoor lighting fixtures or line voltage installations.

path lit stairsWhen we start thinking about outdoor lighting design – it’s always safety first. How can we design the low voltage garden lighting to efficiently and effectively illuminate areas of transition that will make your garden safely accessible? This is typically best accomplished with path lights, down lights (if you have trees or other high points from which to mount them), stair lights or wall lights where necessary. For security, are there dark areas in your garden or near your home that might benefit from outdoor lighting? In these instances, motion detection lights might be appropriate. Also, is your driveway and house number well lit? This will help visitors (or first responders) find and navigate your home on dark nights. Here at Lazar Landscape, we typically work low voltage lighting into new garden designs and installations – but it’s always possible to add lighting to existing outdoor spaces.

Lighting on stair and fountainOnce you have safe passage through your garden space it’s time to start thinking about creating ambiance and atmosphere. This is frequently done by uplighting key garden features – like specimen trees, boulders, your home’s architecture, or other sculptural elements. Some trees benefit by direct uplighting, whereas other plants are more suited to a wash or silhouette lighting. Low voltage lighting is ideal in all of these situations because it’s relatively easy install if you have a dedicated outlet for the controller. Low voltage lighting wires don’t have to be buried or put in conduit, so it makes getting the right fixture in the right place fairly simple. If you’re an adventurous DIY home hobbyist you might consider tackling a low voltage lighting project by yourself – most people opt to go with a professional installation.

Here at Lazar Landscape, we primarily use FX/Luminaire low-voltage outdoor lighting fixtures because we value the quality of the products. There are certainly other quality outdoor lighting products from which to choose. Low voltage lighting technology is changing by leaps and bounds, with many people opting for LED lights over the once omnipresent incandescent or halogen low voltage lights. The pros of LED are that they’re energy saving and the bulbs should last much longer – which means less maintenance less frequently. You can also get brighter lighting – if you need to down light or up light at greater distances. Also, the market is directing itself toward LED, so this is where we’ll see the most innovation in the future. The cons are that the light emitted from LED lights are colder and starker than halogen, and they cost more. LED lights are continually improving – filters can and should be installed to soften the light.

Solar lighting is another option for homeowners who enjoy DIY projects. I haven’t seen every solar light, but my experience with them is that they light themselves – meaning you see them in the dark, but they don’t really do much to illuminate the garden or make it safer. As with most things, the technology is coming. I’m really impressed with eco-friendly Voltaic’s new USB touchlights, which are LED lights that run through any USB port, including their solar panels.

Other technological improvements include wireless zone remote. A typical transformer installation includes a timer similar to what you might use to control a light in your house. But as technology is improving there are products that allow you to have remote control or wireless wall keypads to control your outdoor lighting. It’s far less invasive than having the transformer switched in your house. You can even utilize a key fob – so you can turn your lights on as you drive up to your house. There are higher tech options that tie into universal remote controls for you house that allow you to control your garden lighting from your computer. It’s probably the wave of the future.

DSC07482If you’re on a lower budget and like taking on your own DIY projects, café lights are an easy solution to garden lighting. Like everything, you can select from a wide range of quality from restaurant grade right down to your typical Christmas string lights or even rope-style LED lights. The Voltaic USB touchlights are also a cost-effective option if you don’t require a lot of lights – or if you want to keep your lights portable. These LED lights are totally waterproof. Candles, be they traditional fire and wax or battery operated or even solar, can be used to create ambiance in a nighttime lights

Weather working with a landscape design/build company or taking on your own DIY projects, outdoor lighting adds so much to your home – security, safety, curb appeal, beauty, and an extension of your outdoor living ability – not to mention increasing the value of your home if you’re thinking about resale. When working on outdoor lighting design the main areas to consider when designing an outdoor lighting plan are: safety and security; curb appeal and added home value; and the functionality of extending the time you can spend in your garden.Weight the pros and cons of halogen, incandescent and LED lights.

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.

Charming Winter Gardens

Welcome Winter!

Although the weather outside is frightful, the garden can still be delightful! Although this cold snap here in the San Francisco Bay Area is causing us to complain and stay inside, there is still a lot to appreciate in your garden this time of year.

Including berries! Berries brighten up any garden in winter. Cotoneaster dammmeri, a groundcover, native Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a large growing shrub, and Hawthorn (Crataegus ‘Washington Hawthorn’), a small scale tree, are always reliable berry producers. Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a classic holiday shrub with its dark green, glossy foliage and bright red flowers. Mahonia varieties produce smoky blue berries, but like Holly, need a male counterpart nearby as a pollinator in order to get results.

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

The bark of the Coral Bark Maple really stand out in a winter garden, this one is newly planted in a great location!

Don’t forget to appreciate beautiful bark. Even after these plants drop their leaves, there is a show to behold. Ninebark (Physocarpus) shrubs have rough, peely bark that is a unique garden element. Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’), a small to medium sized tree, and the Redtwig Dogwood shrub (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) have coral and red twigs that really stand out, especially against a darker foliaged evergreen shrub or tree.

The beautiful hellebore flowers - charming in any garden!

The beautiful hellebore flowers – charming in any garden!

And of course every garden should have some winter bloomers, they do exist! Camellias come with bloom colors ranging from pure white to dark red, there are even variegated and ruffled ‘peony form’ blossoms, and different varietals bloom at different times from September to March. But that’s not the only option. The Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea) is a fast growing but non-aggressive vine that is perfect on a fence or arbor with it’s pendulous clusters of lilac and deep purple blooms. Heaths (Erica carnea or E. darleyensis) are hardy shrubs with masses of small pink, white or rosy purple flowers, and look right at home in a variety of garden styles, particularly with California natives and Mediterranean gardens. Finally, evergreen perennial hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) love part shade and come in a range of bloom colors from chartreuse to mauve to burgundy.

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it's late and cold!

How could you not want to spend time out here even when it’s late and cold!

Finally, having lighting in your garden will enhance your winter garden, even from the indoors. Using uplights in your lighting scheme can help showcase the structures of the trees, even deciduous ones. Lighting also provides safety during the winter time by highlighting entrances, paths and stairs. It can also be used to showcase garden sculptures, or water features like the photo above, which are focal points all year round. Lighting could also help coax the party outdoors – to the fire pit area or outdoor fireplace for roasting marshmallows, I mean we do live in the San Francisco Bay Area, compared to other parts of the country it’s not that cold!

Enjoy your winter!

Outdoor Firepits and Fireplaces

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As a San Francisco girl, I sometimes miss hot summer nights. My family and friends love spending time in our garden, but we’re often chased out by the fog rolling in around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We started having “brunch-b-ques” because we’ll frequently have a warm morning and early afternoon that turns cold by traditional barbeque time.

Then we installed a firepit. It absolutely changes the garden experience even in the chilliest garden retreat. Firepits and outdoor fireplaces can be fueled by wood, propane or a natural gas connection from your home. There are pros and cons to each of the alternatives.

If you’re considering wood burning, you may need to make sure it’s allowed in your city and county due to environmental codes. Wood burning firepits can be very affordable – but remember that you have to move a lot of wood. Also be ready for a smoky experience – and the sparks that go with it. Make sure you locate your firepit or fireplace away from structures and low-hanging branches. If you’re considering an outdoor wood-burning fireplace, careful attention must be paid during the design process to ensure proper draw from the chimney and adequate chimney height. While a wood-burning fire is rustic and evocative of campfire getaways, you need to mindful of the time it takes for it to burn. You should also have an ash bin handy.
Check out the wide variety of styles of firepit styles here.

Propane firepits, like many wood burning firepits are handy because they are portable. They’re also easy to turn on and off. Propane is relatively inexpensive, but you do need to make sure to have a spare tank handy. It’s a real bummer when the fire dies before the party! I’ve also found that the heat from a propane firepit never seems as inviting as a natural gas or wood-burning firepit. Designs are improving, but some prefab models aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing.
Natural gas firepits and fireplaces are generally more expensive at the onset than the other options because you have to install a gas line and build a structure to support it. This typically requires a permit for the gas and sometimes the structure if you’re building a fireplace. Once installed, they’re the most convenient and affordable. Because they are stationary, natural gas firepits also provide an opportunity to create a beautiful “outdoor room” in your garden that enriches the space and ties in with the architecture of your home. There is also the constant ease and convenience of being able to turn the fire on and off at will.

Whichever fire element you choose, firepit or fireplace; wood-burning, propane or natural gas, you can be sure that it will add much more time and enjoyment to your outdoor experience.