Skip to content

Posts from the ‘gardening’ Category

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.

fire

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

5 Tips for a Dog-Friendly Garden

Wingnut is always helpful when testing plants in the garden

Wingnut is always helpful when testing plants in the garden

The first thing I say when a client asks me to design a dog-friendly garden is: “Tell me about your dog.” And “How will Sparky use the garden.” Basically I want to know the same things about the dog as I do about the people I design for. A spastic dog that is prone to jumping and escape is going to require a much different garden design than a more mature dog with hip problems. Some people are interested in creating dogruns, or designated areas for their pups, while others want their furry family members to be part of the entire garden. If the latter is true, my next question is, “Can you live with imperfection?” Even the mellowest canine will invariably cause damage to a garden either with urine, a fondness for laying on your favorite bedding plants, or some other undiscovered behavior. The main goal in designing a dog-friendly garden or dogrun, or a dog kennel is to ensure the happiness and safety of your furry best friend.

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.

SynLawn play area for dogs in a rooftop garden in San Francisco

SynLawn play area for dogs in a rooftop garden in San Francisco

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.

Zeke after a fight with a raccoon - in my bedroom... the green part in his eye is a cut

Zeke after a fight with a raccoon – in my bedroom… the green part in his eye is a cut

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!!!
This raccoon is not dog-friendly.

This raccoon is not dog-friendly.

If you’re designing your own dog-friendly garden, here are five things to consider:

dogs will stay on a path - berms can be a deterrentPaths – 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.

sokolow-branca 020Shelter 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.

Golden Retrievers are an energetic breed that need lots of walks and/or room to run

Golden Retrievers are an energetic breed that need lots of walks and/or room to run

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.

ornamental grassesPlant 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.

Fire hydrant marking posts in a San Mateo dog park combine function, upcycling and whimsy

Fire hydrant marking posts in a San Mateo dog park combine function, upcycling and whimsy

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.

Zeke in the mist

Zeke in the mist

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!

January maintenance tips

Winter in the Bay Area can be a forgetful time in the garden. Since we aren’t necessarily spending our days and evenings outside it’s easy to forget about your garden. However, there are chores that are necessary during the winter months to keep your garden thriving. There are also plenty of fun gardening and enhancement opportunities this time of year too – consider them a bonus! You can ensure a stellar spring garden if you follow these winter gardening tips.

January Maintenance Tips:

Trees and Shrubs: Most shrubs and deciduous shade trees can be pruned now (flowering trees shouldn’t be pruned until after they’ve bloomed) to promote healthy structure and growth during spring time months.
Bonus: Now is a great time to plant fruit trees – bare root trees are now available at many nurseries are typically less expensive than those potted in soil. Dormant fruit trees, like apple, cherry, plum and pear, require a certain amount of hours below 45 degrees to break winter dormancy and produce a healthy crop. Make sure you find the right tree for your microclimate.

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Shop early for spectacular bare root rose varieties!

Roses: For your existing roses, prune no more than half of the new growth from the last growing season. Pinching and pruning encourages vigorous new growth.
Bonus: January and February are the best months to plant new roses, and bare root stock is now showing up in Bay Area nurseries. This time of year the stock should be full with desirable varieties.

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Be sure to rake and clean up leaves from planting beds before they cause damage!

Raking: Stay on top of it. Fallen leaves can damage lawns and choke perennials if allowed to sit for too long.
Bonus: Got kids? Consider it a fun day raking the leaves into piles and playing in them. Got (pre -) teenagers? Make them earn their allowance and assign them the weekend chore.

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

What does a healthy lawn mean to your family?

A Healthy Lawn: This is a great time of year to aerate and fertilize your lawn. Aeration is a simple process that improves drainage and opens the thatch so water and oxygen can reach the roots. This helps microorganisms thrive and break down accumulated thatch build up. It also helps to reduce compaction which occurs naturally over time. All of this combined improves water absorption, produces deep root growth, and encourages a healthier grass that chokes out weeds. Once aerating is complete, fertilize your lawn to ensure a speedy and healthy recovery.
Bonus: A healthy, well-tended lawn improves the value of your property and the aesthetics of your neighborhood, not to mention the enjoyment a lawn can provide for your family.

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Tired of looking at a vacant veggie bed? Plant now there are plenty of veggies to tend to!

Bonus! Veggies! Lots of vegetables want to be planted in fall and winter for spring harvest- it’s not too late! Some of the best to plant now: asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, peas, spinach and turnips. Year round vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes can be planted now too. Maybe this is your year to create the kitchen garden you always wanted – stick to the resolution to eat more locally and garden more frequently!

Rather not get your hands dirty? Call our maintenance department at (510) 444 -5195 to set up an annual maintenance visit. We can get your garden all spruced up for a spectacular spring.

Bonus! Considering design changes in your garden?! Now is the perfect time to have our designers complete your landscape design plans. Depending on the size and scope of your project a design could take 4 – 6 weeks, giving you plenty of time to design and build your garden for enjoyment this year, as soon as this spring!

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.

2012 Statewide CLCA Trophy Award Winners

2012 Statewide CLCA Trophy Award Winners

 

The California Landscape Contractors Association just launched their website on the Statewide 2012 Trophy Award Winners!  

Click the link above to read about our winning gardens and check out some of the other category winners.  We are so very proud of our Designers, Barry Sacher and Mario Herrada, for their winning gardens!  If you want more information, please read our designers’ blog posts on their projects as well.  

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.

Enjoy!

Japanese Inspired Garden

Water Feature and different Stone Patterns

A meandering path