Written by Daniel Mazawa, General Manager
Originally published in Living Lavishly
Transforming a landscape can be overwhelming—there are so many places to find inspiration, and there are drastically different styles to consider. It can be helpful to work with a professional—landscape designers are trained to see the big picture and identify opportunities that elude most homeowners. Here are a few steps homeowners can take to understand the design process and get a grasp of what they want from their landscape:
Analyze the Site
On the Central Coast, there are several different natural backdrops that most homes enjoy. Whether it is a distant view of rolling oak woodlands or a beachfront bluff experience, it is important to understand the setting of a place as influenced by the natural world. Take stock of existing trees or plants on site as well as sun and shade.
The architecture of the home and the neighborhood aesthetic may set the tone for the landscape design style. Consider the experience of driving up to the house and walking around the yard. A guest arriving at the home should know right where the front door is and where to park. The movement around the landscape should be functional and beautiful. Where are the areas of interest? What is the flow and the circulation? Identify the opportunities and constraints in a setting before figuring out what to do.
Establish the Functions
It is easy for someone who owns a home to identify what they want, but it can be a little more difficult to define what they need. Everything takes up space, so prioritizing functions is extremely important. Figure out how much usable space is needed for parking, outdoor entertaining, open utility areas, connecting pathways, and any other high-frequency functions. Pools, hot tubs, sport courts, outdoor kitchens, vegetable gardens, and other secondary functions can be fun additions to fold in.
Consider the best locations for all functions as far as convenience, sun exposure, views, and feel. For example, both an outdoor kitchen and a vegetable garden are convenient near an indoor kitchen, but the garden wants open sunshine and the outdoor kitchen benefits from shade or shelter. Also consider the indoor/outdoor connection as perceived through windows and doors from inside. A pergola can feel like an extension of an indoor room, or a distant view can be framed to be enjoyed from inside.
Define Design Style
A good first step is to decide whether a landscape is going to be geometric and calculated or free flowing and natural. A modern home may work better with a straight-lined landscape, but these forms can deconstruct as they move away from the structure. A natural setting such as a woodland can work well with curves and natural pathways especially if preserving existing trees.
People who like control, simple bold design, or tidy surroundings gravitate towards straight lines with geometric configurations. People who like tranquility, natural settings, or designing with nature gravitate towards flowing curves. Bold Modern style utilizes straight-line end of the spectrum and Natural Style falls on the curved line end. Mediterranean, Southwestern, Cottage, and Japanese gardens fall somewhere between. Having a clearly defined style that repeats and transitions smoothly will make a landscape feel complete.
Design Spaces Before Features
While design features are important, the spaces they create are more important to the user experience. For example, a tree may be a beautiful feature, but the shade and shelter a tree grove provides can create a comfortable room complete with walls and a ceiling. Comfortable spaces are often perceived as a bit wider than they are tall, or 1 to 1.618 height to width per the golden ratio. A pergola 16 feet wide by 10 feet tall is a good example. The same comfortable feeling can be achieved with shrubs and trees.
Conversely, putting too many plants next to a front door entry can make it feel tight and uninviting. Open it up and make the path wide, prominent and inviting. Wide open views will feel more comfortable when framed with trees or from a comfortable viewing patio. The psychology of spaces can be overwhelming, but it is obvious when a space feels right.
Work Out Transitions
Landscape is the glue that holds together spaces and structures. Transitions can be the most dynamic aspects of a landscape, or they can be eyesores. Complex hardscape features such as patios, retaining walls, fences, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, water features, and fire features will often intersect and connect with one another.
Figure out how connections will work to make a seamless transition point. Formal landscapes will often transition to a natural area. Utilize decorative bunch grasses on the edge of the landscape to blur the line between mulched landscapes and natural areas. When utilizing multiple design styles, create transitional landscapes to blend gradually. For example, a contemporary landscape may transition to a natural area going from straight lines to calculated arcs and then to a curved path.
Iron Out the Details
Details in the landscape should emphasize the overall design style and theme. In most cases, color themes should be complementary, so they don’t clash. Choose colors for concrete, stone, wood, paint, mulch, and plant material that paint a picture that goes together.
Textures should also be considered. Fine texture details such as exposed aggregate concrete, small ledge stone, or small plants can feel lost in a large space. Bold coarse texture details like large boulders or big leaved plants can feel overbearing in small spaces. Perennial plants provide color, texture, and movement.
Plants should fit the design style with color as well as layout. Bold masses of plants work well with contemporary landscapes, while multi-species combinations can work well with natural areas. Finishing details can make the difference between a hodge-podge yard and a cohesive landscape.
There is a lot to think about when trying to maximize a landscape. A professional can help. Landscape designers can take ideas and dreams and turn them into a buildable design. Knowing the process before starting design or construction can be invaluable to being able to communicate goals and expectations to create a successful landscape to enjoy for years to come.
This lush residential garden, located in Grover Beach, incorporates many curves and circles by using massive earthwork and retaining walls. Built on a complex and challenging sand slope, the landscape maximizes every square foot with artistic and intriguing aesthetics. Edible food forests, colorful Mediterranean displays, dry creek beds, and even a golf green bring this design into vibrancy, with new irrigation and a high-volume drainage system to keep the entire property functioning well. Three labyrinth designs are incorporated into the pathways; meandering paths to different areas provide a feeling of exploration and discovery. After extensive work and focused creativity, this inspiring space qualifies as a proper oasis.
Madrone extends a warm welcome to Tyler Ellison, who recently joined our landscape design team. With his functional and pragmatic approach, he fits right in! He is detailed yet practical in his designs, ensuring his fresh ideas are both buildable and unique. He loves meeting new friends, listening to their needs and experiences, and working alongside them to create a space they can enjoy and call their own. We look forward to tasting his homemade mac & cheese!
How did you end up at Madrone?
After finishing both the Landscape Architecture and MBA programs at Cal Poly SLO, I was looking to join a Central Coast landscape design company. I worked for around two years for a landscape architecture firm in San Luis Obispo. I have always been a designer and “maker” – so I jumped at the opportunity to work for a design/build company.
What is your favorite thing about working at Madrone?
My favorite thing about working for Madrone is people—both in and out of the office—and the diversity of opportunities it brings me as a young designer.
Sometimes I use Sketchup to help visualize design features and the feel of a space.
What do you enjoy most about your team/department?
I enjoy the unique strengths of each individual, and the various perspectives they lend to design and installation. Their feedback and crititique is a welcome challenge and completely necessary for any young creative.
What do you enjoy most about being a landscape designer?
I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their dreams for a space, and collaborating with them to design a space that is functional, unique, and beautiful.
I enjoy the sketching process starting out any new design.
I love the bold statement of a gold Bougainvillea, but also the softness of a variegated thyme along a path. I would consider Platinum Beauty Lomandra to be my favorite and most versatile landscape planting element. I unambiguously dislike Bradford Pear trees—massively overplanted, messy, susceptible to disease, and structurally weak, to name a few characteristics.
Photo of Platinum Beauty Lomandra from a favorite breakfast spot in Yountville, California.
What are some of your favorite hobbies outside of work?
Since my first art show in early 2020, I have continued to paint and sell art through an online portfolio, ellisondesigns.com. I love people, plants of all types, exploring new places, live jazz, brewing craft ginger beer, and developing a line of custom reclaimed wood furniture.
Give us a fun fact about you!
If landscape design doesn’t work out, you will find me opening a food truck that serves made-to-order macaroni and cheese and a variety of crunchy and savory toppings.
Achieve the Landscape of Your Dreams Post-Pandemic
2020 saw an upsurge in outdoor redesigns—from businesses to backyards. Outdoor living investments topped the list of spending as everyone reconsidered the value of open-air seating or, for homeowners, a sanctuary.
Due to shutdowns, however, disruptions in supply chains were common and became major 2020 obstacles. Consumer demand then outpaced supply and drove up costs as products took longer and longer to arrive.
The lumber and resin supply chains took a particularly harsh hit. Lumber shortages resulted from dealers cutting back in light of falling demands at the start of the pandemic. Resin shortages were driven by “many resin manufacturers and distributors declaring force majeure on [many resin products]” in light of major storm fronts hitting Texas and the Gulf Coast. With resin being used for plastics, even PVC and sprinkler parts rose in price. A decrease in workers across the board also stunted supply chain flow, as there are fewer truck drivers able to deliver.
As the country opens back up, supply chains are patching, but the builder industry still cannot expect the speed and supply of pre-2020 years. Roger Ramsey from Ewing Irrigation emphasized that “we will not have the luxury of a full supply chain to lean on”—we are still in recovery, and it will take time to return to snap back.
According to Evan Moffitt, CLT, CLIA, PCA, from SiteOne Landscape Supply, however, “this pricing is likely to stick. Pricing structures will change. It appears that there is no end in sight in terms of the shortage” (emphasis added). Because of this, it is essential to expect your landscape to not only potentially take longer but to cost more.
That being said, there are ways to be strategic while still achieving the landscape you want. Here are four tips for property owners to stay on top of limited resources:
Do not marry yourself to a single ideal, and make sure to have a backup plan. Availability is still limited, and you should plan for the event that your specific materials might not be the best option. Says Ramsey, “Make sure you have an alternate in mind for each part of your project.” Be open to discussion with your designers on whichever aspects might see trouble.
Early and proactive communication of your needs will make for a much smoother schedule. Try to be clear about what you need to be done and when, and the business tackling your project will adjust as they are able. Ask for realistic timelines so that you know what you can expect. Be communicative with your vision, needs, and options so you can be accommodated quickly and without fuss.
Be Ready to Switch Gears
Supply chain disruptions are usually sudden and unplanned, which means that your project might not be finished in the expected timeline. If supply shortages make one section of your landscape lag, once again be flexible—encourage the pursuit of other areas of the project site and be proactive with any adjustments you’re ready to accommodate.
Prepare for Price Adjustments
If you’re on a tight budget, begin with a forgiving vision so that you can adjust as needed to any price jumps or extra costs. “Expect delays,” says Moffitt. “Things will take longer to get. Materials will cost more.” Once again, communicate thoroughly with your landscapers so they know what you can and cannot afford. They will adjust within your margins to make sure that any potential hurdles won’t hurt you financially.
Post-pandemic, property owners continue to invest in outdoor spaces, which means not only are materials in high demand, but so is labor. If you are in the midst of a landscape project or planning to start one, these four strategies will guide you cleanly through the process. Please contact us if you have any questions about your project.
“Stay Ahead of Outdoor Living Supply Chain Disruptions,” SLOXpress, CLCA SLO Chapter, April 2021, page 4.