The job began with a call asking for a bid. When I asked the client if he had a design, he said “No. The site has so many limitations there is not much I can do with it. I don’t want to waste money on a design when the solution is obvious.” This is a sentiment that leads many people to feel that design is a waste of money. Why indeed should anyone pay money to be told to do the obvious?
The reason for this perception is that the ideas we can’t imagine appear nonexistent, creating a state of blissful ignorance of better ideas we can’t see. A key value a good designer brings is the ability to show you possibilities you cannot currently see.
I suggested that it would be highly beneficial to have me review his ideas before spending tens of thousands installing them when there might well be ideas he would like much better than his current plan.
About 50% of clients in this situation say, "No." They don’t want to pay me to review their ideas or create a design. This is the end of the relationship for me. I want to work with clients that understand how much they don’t know because only then will I be able to easily share my expertise and help them by putting it to good use. I’ve spent twenty years developing the ability to spot areas of unnecessary waste, problems with maintenance and comfortable living, as well as ways to improve a home’s resale value and aesthetic appeal. I consider it to be my most valuable asset along with my willingness to take a design all the way through the installation process on time and on budget.
This client was one of the 50% in a call like this that said, "Yes." We met at his house the next day after work and he showed me what he had in mind.
I saw immediately that he had not considered any of the ideas that would really change the site for the better. He loved the ideas I suggested so much that he asked me to come back again for another meeting to refine them and go over costs.
The first call I got from this client was a question about fees. Would I be willing to do a $450 project? Since I don’t have any policies about budget other than that it has to be enough to do what the client wants, I said, "Sure."
When I got there the number had changed. "What would you do for $5k?" We spent an hour of design time looking at how to improve his little condo garden. I told him that I would have fixed bids for each of my ideas when we met again. On the third meeting he surprised me again: "If you had $15k to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?"
I got into a more serious design mode. The more that is being spent, the more profitable and important it is to look at a project from multiple angles. I felt the first thing was to get to know this client more fully. The garden’s sole function was to be a source of joy for a retired bachelor who enjoyed hosting friends from around the world. I decided to start with his art collection.
Touring the house, I noticed the brightly painted walls and the pride he took in showing me his European impressionist paintings. Then it struck me. His favorite painting was of a garden about the size of his condo garden! If he liked the painting so much, surely he’d like having an actual garden like that even more. I felt that what would make it truly original was transferring the bold impressionist colors into what was currently a drab, gray condo garden.
The trick was to do all this without violating condo regulations. The association owned the exterior of the building and so nothing could be altered that would affect the external appearance of the garden as visible from the street. Fortunately, there was a 6’ wall around the garden so I suggested that we go to town below that six foot wall and create a hidden oasis of color.
It was a lot of fun! I brought in the umbrella concept in part because it was a way to sneak above the 6’ limit without raising too many eyebrows. Just as importantly, the umbrellas made the garden more enjoyable in the San Rafael heat. There was one umbrella in particular that I felt passionate about for practical reasons. The client had a screen nailed over the outside of the main sliding glass door that overlooked the garden. The purpose of this was to protect the dining room table from fading and block out the intense afternoon sun. But this screen also blocked the view of the garden from the key window. Unless I could find another way to block the sun the client would be spending a lot of money to improve a garden he would not see.
I thought that an 11’ offset umbrella out at the edge of the property in direct line with the sun would solve much of the problem. I found one with a tilting mechanism that turned the umbrella into a vertical sun-sail. It worked!
I also tackled the issue of reducin sunlight on the table another way: There were some openings in the architecture that currently let light in. I thought the place to start would be to insert stained glass for both shade and light protection. I had some colored Plexiglas cut to the exact size and tacked it into place so that it could be easily removed in the event that the client moved or anyone objected in the association.
Next came the idea of wall-mounted umbrellas with colorful fabrics that would overlap to create a unified shade canopy. In such a small garden wall-mounted seemed key: the large bases on most umbrellas would make the space feel crowded and act as trip hazards. I found a custom manufacturer in China who could make and ship these for $600. each. I was also excited because the umbrellas made the space twice as functional and attractive (the garden would be used in the sun) while costing only 10% of the budget.
The client didn’t have the heart to tear out the gray Trex deck he had recently paid $8k to have installed. I didn’t like the color or the way it made the space feel boxy and smaller. Trex is not easy to paint. I decided to experiment and turned the situation around by finding vivid enamel colors that tied in with the painting and have held up over time.
When I came across an 18th century antique door frame I thought it would fit right in to his favorite paintings. We went from first tacking it up on the wall as an empty frame to buying outdoor vinyl art to insert inside the frame to make it appear that we were looking through a doorway into a European garden. Since the garden art was not big enough to fill the whole door frame, I suggested building a faux gate to deepen the illusion. I also liked the fact that this illusion made a small garden look bigger. As an added bonus, the roses in this picture never got black spots, stopped blooming, or needed pruning!
My client on this project is a Scotsman. He grew up on a large estate, was comfortable operating farm machinery, and wanted a project that would keep him busy for a few years. He loved a deal, and appreciated every one of my moneysaving ideas.
As I took all this in, I was reminded of how different each of my clients are. It’s one of the reasons I begin each design process by asking clients to fill out the extensive landscape questionnaire. It’s job is to help me see a client clearly enough that my suggestions will reflect their values and not my own.
My client was too thrifty to hire me for design initially so we met when he attended one of my classes at the College of Marin. When his garden was randomly drawn from the hat as the sample garden that I and students would practice design in, we all spent four hours looking at the best way to respond to his situation.
He had a large property – several acres. He also had neighbors who were loud sometimes, prompting the idea of introducing a source of white noise that would allow him to be on the deck without hearing them. A water feature came to mind. But knowing his thrift, I first suggested something less expensive: “What about a Bose system with speakers and a water track on an endless loop? It’s no maintenance and much cheaper and would provide you with all the white noise you wanted?”
The single most important idea I had was buying my client a piece of heavy equipment for the job. I knew that without heavy equipment, he would never be able to transform his acreage. This meant either contracting out for it to be done for around $60k or buying a used machine for $30k and teaching my client to use it.
I worked out that if he bought the machine for $30k, used it for two years, and then sold it, he could get the full $30k back or at most take a $10k hit and save a minimum of $50k on contracted equipment. This was an exciting idea. And given his experience with farm equipment as a child, I felt confident he could learn to operate it. I had taught myself how to use this same equipment early in my career when doing land development on Whidbey Island: an 045 Takeuchi excavator with a blade and thumb.
I negotiated and purchased the machine on my client’s behalf, giving him a few lessons. Having just seen how one idea had saved him $50k, my client was convinced that hiring me as a consultant was the thriftiest thing he could do. So he did.
This garden was commissioned for an elderly mother by her daughter. The goal: give the mother a magical place to hang out in for her last years of good health. The daughter’s primary value was to do things right the first time and never have to replace or repair things.
The pictures shown to me by the client in the design stage were in a style that I call Victorian Cottage Charm: white picket fences, beautiful flowers, and a little whimsical. I was initially asked what I thought about the idea of transposing something perfectly symmetrical into the space. However, the space was irregular and to maximize it meant creating an asymmetrical path layout. I suggested that what would look best were winding paths and curves that were functional, with an organic shape.
We visited local material suppliers and settled on bluestone as the daughters favourite material. Initially, we thought to do the pathway in bluestone tumbled pavers. However, since the goal was to use a $30k budget, I suggested DG as a firm and much less expensive alternative. Although initially rejected, when the bid came in at $19k for the tumbled bluestone on all paths and resurfacing a concrete patio, the bluestone became a stage two option. Since DG is a great base for pavers, the bluestone can always be added later on top of the DG.
The focus on never replacing or repairing things led to Vinyl for the fence and Gazebo, both with a lifetime warranty. This was a learning curve for me as it always is when dealing with a new material and supplier. In this case, I would be dealing with one supplier for the vinyl fence and another for the vinyl gazebo.
I had initially thought to build a spacious and fairly simple custom wood arbor over a sitting area for around $4k. But when I found a vinyl kit for the gazebo you see in this garden, I suggested it as being better value at $6k because of how it fit the theme and because it could provide covered seating for dinners in the garden.
We decided to make it into a lit outdoor eating area with a hanging light fixture that matched fixtures in the main house that we retrofitted to operate on the low-voltage light circuit.
We used a lot of light fixtures for such a small garden – around 36 in total. The daughter designs kitchens and brought that attention to detail to the idea of having lots of fixtures and creating small pockets of light.
The project came in at $45k. It’s quite magical. The only drawback that I see is that the mother we created the garden for seems to be afraid of messing up the design when the point of the garden was to give her a nice space in which to fiddle. This as a danger whenever we make things too perfect: it can stop feeling comfortable to live in and the emphasis can shift to the object rather than to enjoying ourselves and our lives in our home. When I built a community dog-oasis for neighbors, I used all recycled materials and down played the workmanship so that everyone on the street would feel comfortable helping me build it and using it.
My first mandate from this client was to re-do the driveway in the picture below. In a situation like this the driveway surface dominates the view regardless of what else is going on. For this reason I prefer to turn what is essentially a functional eye-sore into the most beautiful part of the landscape. I do this by treating it as a work of art rather than a utility surface. On this job we used stamped concrete with a high gloss finish in colors that complimented the house.
You can also see the importance of painting the garage door, adding windows and echoing the house-colors in the fence.
My second mandate was to take a small house footprint and make it feel bigger by making the outdoor space more usable. The goal was to blur the boundaries between the house and the garden so that more of daily living would take place in the beauty of the garden. There are health and financial benefits to this approach as outdoor renovations cost 80% less than interior renovations and it leads to spending more time outdoors.
I decided to focus on integrating the deck outside the front door with the living room. My strategy was to borrow colors, materials and shapes inside the house and bring them outside so that the transition between house and landscape was less noticeable.
This garden is at the base of Mt. Tam. and often gets cold fog blowing through, making eating on the outdoor table uncomfortable. A wind-break (see lower right page) in glass block seemed like a great idea for three reasons:
1. Using glass blocks would integrate the deck space with the inside of the house, where glass blocks had also been used.
2. The glass block partition would not only serve as a wind-screen, but help create the feeling of an outdoor room.
3. The wood frame provided another way to extend the architectural details into the landscape by using the house paint color on the frame and matching the design of the eaves.
Half-way through the job the client mentioned that they were going to throw out their existing BBQ unit to get something more fancy to go with the new landscape. I thought it was a shame to throw out something that worked very well and could not imagine the new stainless steel unit looking much better. The new unit would cost several thousand dollars so I suggested that we get creative and spend that money achieving several goals:
-A fireplace to provide some heat for the cold foggy nights.
-Bring the look of the living room fireplace out onto the deck by using the same stone
-Increase the wind-block by making a wider solid mass than a typical BBQ
-Mask the new BBQ with a stone veneer which is more attractive than stainless steel
-Recycle the existing BBQ and spend about the same price as buying a new BBQ.
The end result was a stone-encased BBQ that doubled as a fireplace, with a chimney and spark arrester. The gas makes starting fires easy and stainless steel lids keep in the heat when cooking food. Because the stone facing was too heavy for the deck I drilled three sonotubes through the deck into the ground below. This design means that the deck can be repaired or re-built in the future without affecting the BBQ.
While our work on this property was more extensive, the story I tell here centers around the challenge of deciding how to improve a difficult driveway. After taking my class at the College of Marin, the client approached me to give them a price on extending a poured concrete wall along the driveway. The concrete concept was going to be expensive ($3070k) and would require permits and engineering. The bigger issue was that because the driveway was so narrow I didn’t think a wall right next to it would make drivers feel more comfortable than the existing ivy. When you are driving an expensive car a few inches away from a narrow concrete wall many people feel uneasy.
My first suggestion was to remove the ivy, grade the slope a little, and plant a hedge of Nandina (heavenly bamboo) at the bottom. This would be more attractive than the wall, harmless to cars, and deer-resistant. The client liked this idea. Because Nandina it is a slowgrowing plant, the plan was to bring in about seventy plants that were already 4’ tall, bringing the installed cost to around $18k.
Then the client brought up their interest in vertical gardens. Their thought was to put a vertical garden on a bare piece of concrete on the house. Aesthetically this was a great idea. However, using the prefabricated vertical garden sections they had found which cost $100 per 3’ section and another several hundred to plant each one it would be very expensive per square foot. It got me thinking that we could make a more extensive and useful vertical garden on the newly graded driveway slope for much less per square foot.
My goal was to save the client money by getting rid of the prefabricated sections of vertical garden at $100 each and use the rocky slope itself as a material to chip out planting holes in the rock. With that in mind, I gave a fixed price that included:
-Grading and removing 40 yards of rock and ivy to soften the driveway slope: $10k. We capped it at 40 yards because anything more would have triggered a grading per mit with Mill Valley which, in turn, would have triggered engineering reports that would have tripled the cost and the has sle. As long as we are improving the safety and stability of what has been there for more than 50 years, I prefer to avoid en gineers who are required to recommend costly upgrades to get insurance. I used the machine I had bought for my Scottish client to do the grading.
-Buying and planting 700 4” plants for the cliff face and irrigating them: $12k. This reflected the fact that planting would occur on a cliff and that each planting hole would be chipped out of fractious rock.
If all went well, we would have a dramatically enhanced slope with a softer vertical garden for about half the cost of the original concrete wall. The client would get a bigger vertical garden and cars would not be driving close to a hard wall. But, while I had given a flat cost to do this project, it was not at all clear that things would go as planned. About 5% of what I do are things I have never seen done before so I need to make educated guesses and make contingency plans.
When the grading was done, I tested the slope to see how our plan of digging holes in the rock face would work. Tying a climbing rope to the deck posts, we descended with crowbars and hammer drills to the slope face and did a few test holes. The vibrations from making the holes created little slides as surrounding rock broke free; it was clear that this approach would not work.
I had four contingency plans in place, knowing that nothing about this project would be predictable. I ended up needing all four of them. My fourth contingency plan was to use galvanized fencing as an armature that was anchored at the top of the slope using 3-5’ metal stakes and nylon cables. To this I stapled pressure-treated 2’x4’s to create a backdrop to which I could staple polyester fabric, which I then painted so we would not have to look at the ugly gray color until plants filled in. Polyester was important because it is UV resistant and tough. Fortunately, I could get 300’ rolls of it at a reasonable price.
If I had used the prefabricated vertical garden sections the client had researched just the infrastructure would have cost $20k. I was not happy about the fact that in the prefab design, the soil pockets were only about 4” in diameter.
This seemed like a poor long-term fit for plants. Anyone who has tried to sustain house plants in 4” pots for very long knows that the plants get root bound and stressed because there is not much stored fertilizer in such a small pocket of soil. The custom planter pockets I built gave at least 1’ of soil per plant.
The client and I agreed to do three vertical sections of hanging gardens in rectangles and then plant creeping figs in between. This was partly a compromise between the couple. One member liked the creeping figs more and one liked the vertical garden more. It worked. The planters that you see here are less expensive than the prefabricated models on the market while giving plants much more soil to grow in. Attached to a galvanized armature of fencing, they also add a stabilizing weight that discourages slides and stops stray rocks from falling down in those areas. The whole thing was possible without permits and for less money than a less attractive wall. As the creeping figs fill in the whole surface will become a living green wall. The photo below was done right after install.
Driveways are a key aspect of the landscape. Unlike patios, picnic areas and benches, driveways are used every day in all weather.
A good driveway design has several elements:
1. It is big enough, in conjunction with the street, to park and turn around all of the needed vehicles for home use and entertaining.
2. It is pleasing to look at. Many people don't stop to consider the fact that a driveway is often the single biggest element of their curb appeal and home-presentation. If the driveway is ugly and dominates the view, it will not be rescued by planting around the edges.
3. It is safe and easy to turn around in. Nothing is worse than having an expensive car and a tight driveway, bordered by stone walls. Every turn is a source of anxiety and added stress when you are in a hurry. The best way to design a driveway is to install the gravel base and paint out the edges, prior to any permanent surface being installed. You can then drive up, turn around, and observe if there are any tight or dangerous aspects in the process. The driveway shape can then be adjusted accordingly. Sometimes an extra 18" is all it takes to make the difference between daily ordeal, and stress-free parking.
Lines are an important element in any design. The best results come when your landscape design is done parallel with the driveway design, such that the lines from the one complement the lines of the other.
The surface texture and colors should also complement and enhance the landscape and home design. Remember, that a well-designed driveway can have almost as much impact on curb-appeal as a well-designed home profile. However, a driveway renovation will cost 1/10th of a a home-remodel designed to improve the profile of a home. Since curb appeal has a big impact on resale value, as well as your own experience of arriving home each day, this is important.
Most driveways are old and cracked concrete, but still functional. If the lines are good these can be good candidates for resurfacing in a variety of artistic ways. For $15. per square foot or less you can grind down uneven areas, fill cracks, color and put an entirely new texture and pattern on top. In some cases, where 1-3" can be added to the height of the driveway without consequence, you can also add a hard stone, such as Connecticut blue stone for a bit more.
Many people are using pavers as their driveway material. The chief visual benefit of pavers is the way that they complement certain styles, such as "English Cottage Garden," or "Grand estate." On a functional level they are ideal when large desirable trees will continue to grow under the driveway and break up any poured concrete. In the case of pavers, bulges caused by roots can be eliminated by periodically taking sections of the pavers up, chopping at the roots, and laying them back down again - something that a resourceful home-owner can do themselves. The downside of pavers is that their colors typically fade over a decade and weeds and moss often start growing in the cracks, requiring maintenance.
Stamped concrete eliminates the problems of weeds, moss and fading. However, it will crack in time if large trees are within 15' feet of it. Stamped concrete has more flexibility in color than pavers, allowing you to pick your own colors and the intensity of the color.
It’s always fun to work with other designers. I did this project for an architect and his wife, who both took an active interest. Here were the goals:
-Budget of $70k with some discussion of doing it in stages.
-Improve the appearance of the steep ivy and weed covered slopes that abutted the street.
-Connect a pathway to an existing set of steps that currently went nowhere.
-Generally increase its beauty.
-Create privacy in the back garden along with an area devoid of deer.
-Improve the way cars passed on the narr row street in front of the house.
-Remove an old deck that blocked the view and replace it with something more per manent and attractive to look at through the house windows.
While there was some initial interest on the part of the client to use wood retaining walls, I pointed out that, inevitably, wood ends up looking like the walls we were here to replace. Even at their best, wood retaining walls rarely look as attractive as stone a few years after installation. But stone can be a lot more expensive if it is mortared in place. Additionally, mortared walls require extensive drainage behind the wall to reduce the pressure of water build-up.
My suggestion was to use local dry-stack fieldstone. It’s about the same cost as wood, lasts forever, is more sustainable (in that it does not require dead trees) and does not require drainage (water drips out of the cracks between the rocks rather than building up in any one location).
Given that the slope behind the walls was so steep and I wanted to do the base of the wall at the edge of the drainage ditch to the side of the road, I was concerned that the wall might collapse in a storm if run-off eroded the soil under the wall’s base. Of even more concern was my awareness that the county would periodically clean out the drainage ditch using heavy equipment. Sloppy operation would no doubt result the backhoe bucket hitting the wall and causing a failure. Finally, the existing ditch was a traffic hazard. It was so sudden that cars trying to pass could get stuck if they drove even slightly off the road. This made it difficult for cars to pass. I was also bothered by the idea that the foreground to the new walls would be tall weeds growing in a messy ditch. I wanted to do something inexpensive that would solve all these problems at once.
When I began the design process for this client the wife wanted to either have more than a hillside of weeds or move. The husband, whose focus was on investing, was more interested in increasing rent on a vacation rental that was part of the property and improving resale value. Since the poor quality of the landscape was the biggest depressing factor in both rental income and resale value I was able to help both of them get what they wanted.
We spent three months and $150k transforming the property with several objectives:
-Create a level lawn.
-Create pathways and steps that made the steep slopes accessible.
-Stay within $150k.
-Create a garden shed for tool.
-Create a dog run with dogs that liked to sit on and destroy plants.
-Increase real estate value.
-Create an attractive private garden for the rental unit that would allow them to charge an extra $300. per month in rent. This in turn would pay the 2nd mortgage payment and generate positive cash flow for the whole project.
There was an old orchard on the site that we all liked. The problem was that it had been planted on a steep slope and as we created a level area for the lawn, it would mean that some trees were too high and others were too low. So I came up with the idea of raised beds around some trees and sunken beds around others. The sunken beds required drainage at the bottom so that the fruit tree roots would not rot or hold water. While I’ve never seen this done before, it’s worked out great over the past 10 years and the trees have thrived.
There was some talk about fencing the property in for deer, but I suggested sticking to deer resistant plants for the front garden to save $2040k in fencing and automatic gate costs. I also wanted to avoid the hassle and eyesore of a gate to let cars in and out.
It’s always a bit tricky learning what the deer will eat in a given neighborhood, but we did all right. In the back, we raised the existing fence in one section and put in a gate so that it is deerproof. We created the dog area by partitioning an area. This gave the dog free rain from the back door through about 1/3rd of the garden and the fence was not ugly to look at.
We did a lot of grading on the property to make it functional to use. This is where my experience with heavy equipment came in handy. I would grade a given area for steps, walkways, walls, and a patio and then get out of the machine and walk about in the space to see how it would feel as a user in the garden. How would it feel to sit in this patio? Would the walls feel comfortable to look at and sit beside?
This is my favorite way to design. This particular client left me largely to my own devices, providing I stayed on budget. A lot of design refinements don’t affect cost but do affect the way an area feels. I like being both a designer and installer because it is my weeks on the job installing that help me understand all the different aspects of a site and allow me to refine my ideas as I execute them.
This house had a shallow, low-producing well so we connected it to the irrigation system in twenty minute cycles to save a considerable amount on the water bill. More of my clients are weighing the costs of drilling a well as water-shortages increase.
I was called out to this property to help with a very narrow scope of work: satisfy the Mill Valley fire department. Brush needed to be cleared. 3’ weeds needed to be pulled and cut. The dry meadow needed to be mowed. I don’t normally do maintenance, but when I arrived, I saw the bones of one of the nicer properties I’ve come across. I wanted to see the property restored. So I took the job.
It was a real pleasure to see a home and garden that truly impressed me. I learned that an architect had built the home for his parents and the love and attention to detail really showed. That being said, it was very neglected. Moles had destroyed the lawn. It had not been pruned in years and there were so many weeds that it was impossible to see all the amazing specimens.
My client was a young man with a lot on his mind, so the normal design approach wouldn’t work. Rather, I found that he liked to make one decision at a time and spend around $15k per 6 months doing something that was easy to think about. Over several years following this approach, I was able to restore the garden to its original glory and add a few embellishments, such as the lighted agate stepping stones below.
When the client decided to sell the property, I borrowed experience from my days as a General Contractor on Whidbey Island and saw that the inside was restored as well, refinishing all the floors, putting new carpet down, painting, cleaning the windows, and many smaller jobs. I knew that if I didn’t take the initiative, these things would not get done with such an absentminded client and the realtor was grateful for my help. We both knew that the house could not get top dollar in its present condition.
When making adjustments to a well-designed property, one of the most important things is not to dilute the design by introducing too many new elements. When I added a gate to keep the client’s dogs in part of the garden, I was careful to match the existing style and paint of the perimeter fence. It turned out that the metal fence was painted using a Porsche car paint, which led me to learn how Porsches are painted and to do the most extensive paint preparation for a fence in my career. One of the finest aspects of this house was the way that the inside extended naturally to the outside. For all of its five acres of land and majesty, it was only a 3 bedroom house.
It had a separate pool building that was covered in vines when I arrived and proved quite a challenge to restore while working over a swimming pool. One thing I love about fine design is that it is worth restoring and preserving. It would have taken just as much work to restore a poor design, but this house and landscape was fun to bring back because it was so carefully and tastefully thought-out to begin with.
The crystal fountain was my personal favorite part of this project. Crystals are 40-200 million years old and each one is a total original. Then there is the fact that they look even more beautiful at night when lit up and bring year -round-interest to a garden. Add to that the fact that they are drought-tolerant, deer resistant and don’t need weeding and it’s amazing there are not more people integrating them into their gardens.
I found an amazing Brazilian quartz point weighing one hundred and twelve pounds and I thought it was stunning. I designed a sketch for my client with a three rivers flagstone base and showed him what it would look like in the vanishing pool that was already there. Threading low voltage wire through existing conduit so that it could all be lit up at night made such a difference.
Then there was the question of what to do with the large planters on the tiled patio. The client would never water them and they had no irrigation. I decided that the best thing would be to create art with crystals and crystal tumbles to tie into the water feature. These would not require any water or maintenance. Xeriscaping is a form of design that eliminates all need for water. Arranging rocks in beautiful paintings of color and texture is a great xeriscaping technique.
The goals were:
-Reduce water by eliminating the lawn.
-Create something subtle, yet dramatic, to frame the main view.
-Create a context for her to rake the gravel in the tradition of the Buddhist monks in Japan.
We kept the plant design extremely simple, in keeping with Zen style:
-Rubus Pentalobus is the main plant, serving as ground-cover.
-Dark green Irish moss forms the green ground-cover around the stone in the Islands.
-Native Coffee Berry is an accent shrub.
-A single weeping blue spruce graces a stone, we repositioned.
-Red festival grass provides a little color.
Design accents include a rusted steel edging, a Mexican Pebble Border, and LED lights to see the garden at night.
See construction notes on this project at http://www.mysticallandscapes.com/construction-notes
Our client was higher on the artistic continuum than most, which we incorporated using colorful tiles in the driveway and pathways and by the large wave patterns in both bark and concrete dye throughout the property.
Scale is one of the most important elements in this garden's design: 80% of the time the garden is viewed as a whole by people walking or driving by at a distance of around 80 feet. For something to be pleasing at this distance it needs to be simple and the gestures and masses must be larger and bolder than a more intimate garden. For this reason we set the scale at 12' wide and 50' long, which are enjoyed from both the upstairs windows of the house and in the experience of driving up to the house.
One year on: On my last visit to the garden a year on (It's common for about two out of every hundred new plants to die, which I provide a full warranty on for a year so I like to see how things are doing when I replace these plants at no charge) I noticed that the garden had filled in beautifully. The client's mentioned that a number of dog walkers had complimented them on the change.
One of the important choices a client makes around lighting is to go with fixtures that cost roughly $120. each and are cast bronze or copper or to go with powder-coated aluminum for $40. each. The light is the same in either case but the patina on powder-coated aluminum is not as durable. On this job where we used powder-coated aluminum I noted that the brown color had faded quite a bit due to the full-sun location in Novato. The client did not mind but one suggestion I made was that since she loves painting and has grand-children, she might enjoy painting each cap to match the hand-painted inlaid tiles and spraying it with a U.V. inhibiting clear-coat.
A Child Friendly Space
This client had several metal salvaged swings that we incorporated in an integrated designs. The slides provided shade for plants, structure for vines and beans to grow on and fun for the children, without reducing the play area in the lawn.
Edibles were a big part of this garden: We decided to put vegetables in the first three feet above the wood retaining wall for easy picking and to have more room outside the raised beds.
Low Water Planting:
This site presented several questions:
1) What to do with the big stump?
2) How to maintain the view?
3) Keeping maintenance low and water-use low.
4) Preserving the grade and strengthening the levy to the bay.
We laid out the path and patio design and chose DG for it's durability, safety and cost, using a steel edging that looks nicer than the plastic alternatives. It's a fair amount of square footage and the client asked me to do all of it for $43,000 including tax and design. We accomplished this by keeping the design simple, yet functional, donated time by the client before, during and after the project, and by using one gallon plants. It's always easier to design when a client has a very clear budget to design to and our job is simply to give as much as possible within that budget.