Skip to content

Posts from the ‘water’ 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

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!

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

Fall Color in Seattle

Just got back from a long weekend in Seattle, and was reminded about why I love this city. Living in San Francisco, I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the many awe-inspiring views of the landscape – built and natural twining together in a fabric of architecture and sky and water and green. It never gets old. I feel the same way about Seattle – except I don’t live there – so the awe-inspiring views inspire that much more awe. October visits are that much more special because of the fall color. Breathtaking! It’s the sort of trip that takes me out of the gardens I create and reminds me to consider THE LANDSCAPE.

When I go, I love to visit Gasworks Park. It was the site of the last operational coal gasification plant in the United States. The city of Seattle purchased the land to create a park in 1962. Though not accessible to visitors, a good portion of the gasworks stands as a monument to its technology. The signs warning swimmers of the toxicity left in Lake Union tell the other side of that story… But I love it when city planners get it right! The views from this park are tremendous – downtown (and the Space Needle) seemingly rises out of Lake Union as sea planes touch down. Charming water craft go to and fro, and houseboats ring the edge of Lake Union. And did I mention fall color? Amazing.

If you’ve never been, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a must. I give another tip of the hat to Seattle in reclaiming this former toxic UNOCAL petroleum transfer and distribution site, and creating a green public space in the downtown area. Olympic Sculpture Park is part of the Seattle Art Museum – and it’s always fulfilling to see sculpture in the landscape, particularly one as amazing as the views of Puget Sound. From its inception, the Seattle Art Museum had a vision for the park to be a connection between the built and pre-built environment. That dedication is evident as you walk through the sculpture garden and experience the native flora. Did I mention the fall color?

I’m always fascinated by the dry stack rock walls in Seattle. They’re everywhere – and they’re HUGE! We could never build anything like these here in California. I was snapping some photos to show folks and had to get my friend in one of them to get a sense of scale. Elena is an average-size woman – not a gnome! Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we can typically build dry stack walls 3’ high or shorter. Amazing! This wall was along our Fremont shopping trip. I’m also fascinated by what I call “root lava.” The roots of these trees fill up the spaces they’re allotted – and then keep spreading, which is kind of like Platanus racemosa, but more exciting to see on vacation.

Running around to see all of those sites makes a girl hungry! Good thing Seattle is a foodie’s dream city. We enjoyed delicious baked eggs at the Fat Hen, some crazy cheddar bacon biscuits with and egg baked right in at Oddfellows, phenomenal housemade ham and butter sandwiches from Melrose Market, and the much anticipated and highly enjoyed Delancey pizza. But the piece de resistance is the Caribbean Roast sandwich from Paseo. While none of this is particularly landscape related, who doesn’t want to see good food?

As fun as traveling is, it’s always great to come home to our city by the bay. And while our region isn’t necessarily known for fall color, there are fantastic options for bringing that feeling into your garden. Think about trees like Japanese Maples, especially Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku’, Crepe Myrtles, Chinese Pistache, Scarlet Maple, Flowering Dogwood, Liquidambar, Gingko biloba and Persimmons to name just a few.

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.

Succulent Garden Extravaganza

Our design department field trip to the Succulent Garden Extravaganza was super fun. The folks over at Succulent Gardens put on a real nice shindig. We enjoyed the presentations, our fellow succulent lovers, and good barbecue – and we all came back with lots of new plants for our gardens. Here’s a collage of some of our favorites from the day. Stay tuned to the next “The Delinquent Gardener” for garden photos.