The Secret to Creating a Beautiful Outdoor Space

The Secret to Creating a Beautiful Outdoor Space

By Jill Bleher, Landscape Designer. Originally published in Living Lavishly VOLUME 14 Spring/Summer 2022.

As humans we seek habitats in which to dwell. This can be seen inside our homes as well as in our gardens. There are probably special things in your house that you cherish and enjoy. Maybe it is the family heirloom china displayed in a cabinet or the flat-screen TV that you use daily. These features help create an inviting space with their beauty, placement, and functionality. The approach is similar for designing an outdoor dwelling space. Have you ever visited a beautiful garden and wondered why it is so inviting? The answer is good design involving landscape features.

Landscape features are generally items that draw the eye, such as colorful pottery, a striking sculpture, or a beautiful tree. Features can also engage other senses, such as the sound of a fountain or the warmth of a firepit. Whether you have a small or a large yard, there are plenty of options for features to enhance your landscape experience. Here is an exploration of how to integrate features into your landscape retreat for the greatest effect.

Art as a Focal Point

One way to personalize and add dimension to a garden is to add artistic features. Artful focal points can be as simple as a beautiful ceramic pot or as complex as a large-scale wind sculpture. Good placement for an art feature is at the divergence of pathways, in a nook to the side of a patio, or in a space viewed from above. Uplight your art feature so you can appreciate it after dark.

When selecting art features, consider the theme of the setting. Pick a modern art piece for a contemporary landscape, place vibrant Talavera pottery in a cactus garden, or choose a stone lantern for your traditional Japanese garden. Additionally, art focal points may have sentimental value, such as a souvenir plaque from a trip or a garden statue that belonged to a family member. Ultimately, the purpose of garden art is to add meaning and beauty to the landscape.

Water and Fire Elements

Ambiance is a fundamental part of the garden setting. A well-designed landscape invites the visitor to linger and appreciate the space. Two elements that are especially good at adding ambiance to any garden are water and fire features. Consider the welcoming glow of a fire or the peaceful sound of water. It’s no wonder that both are common aspects of an inviting landscape sanctuary.

Deciding where to place a fire or water feature in the landscape is significant. Locate a fireplace or fire pit in a space where people can gather. If designing a new space, consider building a fireplace wall to partially enclose and warm a seating area. Moveable fire tables can be added to existing patios for an inviting element. Whether for roasting marshmallows or just adding light and warmth, fire features are ideal for inviting people to gather.

Since water features are sought out mainly for their sound, they can be tucked against walls or into nooks. Alternatively, they can be placed out in the center of a large space as a focal point. With so many options to choose from, it is best to match the style of your landscape. Select a steel water wall for a modern look, choose a core-drilled boulder fountain for a natural setting, or pick a tiered fountain for an Italian garden. Whatever the style, a well-placed water or fire feature will add dimension to the garden space.

Plant Selections that Pop

Perhaps the most obvious garden feature is plants. However, by their very nature plants are dynamic and not as easy to highlight as a static fountain or statue – they grow and change throughout the seasons. For this reason, picking the right plants to showcase can take some thought.

Trees and large shrubs make excellent features due to their size and often interesting forms. Some of the best trees to draw attention to are olives and oaks as they have beautiful branch structures and grow more majestic with age. A favorite large shrub to feature is the Western Redbud which bursts into bright pink blooms in early spring. Large Manzanitas or Arbutus trees are also excellent selections to choose with their red bark and gnarled forms. Accent trees at night with either uplights or hanging moonlights.

If you don’t have space for large trees, consider plants with striking architectural form such as Agaves or grasses to feature against a wall or along a pathway. Perennial blooming plants will delight seasonally. Try interplanting bulbs between other plants to add extra pops of color in spring!

Borrowed Views

One powerful tool for creating a beautiful landscape is to incorporate views. A “borrowed view” is when a distant landscape is included in the garden design. For instance, build an arbor to frame a view of neighboring vineyards or leave space between trees to view the mountains beyond. It might be years before your newly planted oak trees can be considered features, but you can highlight the view of a magnificent oak tree in the field beyond your property.

Ultimately, borrowed views are a great way to make your immediate yard feel larger and grander. It’s similar to adding a mirror on the wall in an interior room. Even a small yard will feel less enclosed if there is a view of the world beyond. Don’t lose sight of the greater landscape!

This exploration of landscape features and their applications applies to every person and every garden setting. Include one or many elements in your yard, but do it purposefully and make it personal! Seek out art features that catch your eye, add a fire or water feature to create ambiance, select plants to delight the senses, and borrow views when possible. In the end, don’t hurry the journey but enjoy the process. In so doing, turn your landscape into a dwelling space that is an expression of yourself.  After all, genuinely superb gardens are dwellings that evolve with the time and ponderous consideration of a magnificent tree.

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Jill Bleher is a landscape designer and Cal Poly Landscape Architecture alumnus. She is passionate about designing unique landscape sanctuaries for others. When not designing yards for other people, she can most often be found in her own garden or inside creating crafts. For more information, visit Madrone Landscapes or call (805) 466-6263.

Designing a Gathering Space for the Central Coast Landscape

Designing a Gathering Space for the Central Coast Landscape

We enjoy the outdoors year-round on the Central Coast. Sunny winters and mild summer evenings are almost the expectation, so our landscapes aren’t just a beautiful space to look at; they’re a beautiful space in which to live. Whether you’re hosting dinner with friends or looking to enjoy an evening outdoors with the family, you want to get the most out of your outdoor living space. 

Here are a few good points to think about as you begin to envision a new outdoor gathering space.

 

Take note of special existing features. Good designs take cues from context; on the Central Coast, oaks often define landscape features. Or, maybe there’s a slope that can be used to create a sweeping seat wall or a rock outcrop that can play into the form of the hardscape edge. How will the gathering space relate to gates and fences, doors, and perhaps most importantly, the kitchen? Do you already have a special spot in your yard, and will converting it to a gathering space enhance its distinctive character? Outdoor gathering spaces are often situated in a specific context, providing strong clues to answering design questions.

Consider various options. You may already have a vision for how the space will look, and it may be the best solution. Think through all the options before you begin. What if the space were tucked into a different corner, on a raised redwood deck, as a sunken rock-studded fire zone, with a custom pergola integrated, or with a soft, sweeping vegetated edge. 

Consider the potential for built-in features such as fire pits, barbecues, fountains, refrigerators, coolers, sinks, seating variations, screening, and more. Planting, which often provides the smooth transition or soft edge from hardscape (such as concrete or pavers) into the larger landscape, plays a vital role in defining and elevating a space.

Design for your best use of the space. Consider how exactly how you envision the space being used over time. Be realistic, and think long-term. Here are six questions to get you started.

  • Do you need space for a cafe table for two or three, or a dining table for all the kids and grandkids? 
  • How likely are you to need shade over the space? 
  • Will you be using it primarily in the morning or the evening? 
  • How accessible does your gathering space need to be from the kitchen, indoor living spaces, or the primary bedroom? 
  • Who will use it most frequently, and will they be reading a book in the evening shade or soaking in the midafternoon sun? 
  • Does a pool deck or bocce court also fit nearby, and how does the gathering space fit into other long-term landscape goals?

Of course, if all these questions seem a bit overwhelming to tackle, you might consider hiring a landscape designer. Gathering inspiration online definitely helps to lay out a vision. Still, a professional landscape designer will help turn solid ideas into plans on paper, the first step toward an installed landscape. The more complex a project, the more potential for a designer to help streamline the process.

Interested in talking to us about your gathering space? Contact our landscape designers at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.

Finding Inspiration in the 2020s

Finding Inspiration in the 2020s

From a California Landscape Designer in the Pandemic

By Daniel Mazawa, General Manager

All of us are looking for something, and sometimes inspiration is all we need. At our design-build landscape construction company in the beautiful San Luis Obispo County of California, we are an inspired group that deal tranquility and beauty as our fare. One of the downsides to caring so much about landscapes is that we are a little snobby about our profession, cringing at the demeaning term of “landscaping” as a shrub-it-up afterthought. Now in the midst of 2020, we find ourselves a little lost, like everyone in the pandemic, on how to keep the stoke up and do what we do best.

We work from home now, remoting into our CAD production softwares with the amazing technologies that allow us to keep working safely among the ever more cautious world. We have everything we need on paper, work to do, people to do it, and eloquent technology. But something is missing.

Designing landscapes in a self-imposed echo chamber can be a lonely and frustrating process. We are finding the need to reinvent our methods to get a dose of inspiration from the world without the in-person team comradery of the now defunct design studio. Limitations have forced us to look within ourselves to find new sparks of inspiration.

Acceptance

At some point we have all settled on some level of acceptance; we can’t just go back and pretend nothing happened. We can reminisce about the way it used to be: the morning greeting to a group of co-workers turned friends, high-fiving when we get a contract signed, and sitting shoulder to shoulder working out a plan problem. But clinging to the way it was is no way to find inspiration, and at some point we need to evolve into our new reality.

Embrace the Tools

Technology is always colder than true human interaction, from emails to video conferencing. We all put on the smile to try to keep everyone else’s spirits up, but like looking at a photo of a good memory, we just wish we were there.

That being said, a 90% feeling of human interaction is still something. We can keep it light, talk about how we are doing, bring up silly jokes like we would if we walked by someone’s desk, or talk about something cool we found. We tend to focus on the business at hand in a video conference meeting, but being ourselves and making idle chit chat is what opens us up to finding inspiration. In fact, I was inspired to write this piece by just asking my fellow designers, what do you do when you get stuck on a design? I was inspired by the answers.

Zoom Out

The literal nature of our video conferencing software is to “Zoom” in to the little boxes with talking heads and focus on the task at hand. Sitting at a computer all day can be a strain on the eyes as well as the search for inspiration. Get up! Walk around, look outside, go outside, see what’s going on out there! I find a lot of inspiration in my garden. A 10 minute break to go prune some tomato plants can break the inspiration block, allowing me to unintentionally brainstorm my work with free mind while performing an idle task with my hands. Not to mention the feeling of the sun, the sounds of the birds, and the smell of the tomato vine. You can take this further by walking your neighborhood, taking a hike or driving around the town. Being a landscape designer, it is impossible to turn off the manufacturing of stoke from visual stimuli, sometimes we just need to get out of our own way.

You can also embrace the internet to find inspiration from the comfort of your own chair. One of our all-star designers, Megan Savage, keyed us into looking at real-estate websites. It is a great way to look at homes or properties from the perspective of the consumer. So often we are looking at construction details or diagrams, and it is eye-opening to just see landscapes from the eye of someone looking to buy a property. The access allows us to look at very nice properties with professional photography, and the perspective allows us to zoom out and react, “wow that is a peaceful setting!” Undoubtably, we will see something that emulates the vibe we want to create in our design, and we will change our design from the new inspiration. For planting design, looking at local California Central Coast landscapes gives us great ideas on plant material that will grow here.

Reach Out

In a design studio setting, we are right there next to inspired experts ready to help solve problems and give inspiration. At home, calling someone for what feels like a dumb question seems like an undue burden on the other, and that becomes the excuse to stay stuck in the mud. We have quickly found that everyone is in the same boat and getting a call is far from unwelcome. Reach out to those you work with early, often, and willingly. You also may have people you live with, or friends and family sitting home bored who would love a mundane question about a design, so they can feel valued and useful. You don’t need to be an expert to give a great perspective on a design solution!

Appreciation

This is it, folks! Here we are in it, so deal with it! Maybe the most important tool for inspiration is an internal perspective shift to appreciate what we have.

The wise Taylor Boyle once told me he loves being out working on the hottest day of the year, or being outside in the middle of a giant storm. Why? Because you can’t escape being present in the moment and that is truly living. With the current pandemic, I don’t mean to be stuck in the news or the happenings of the world, I mean be present in your home with your work at hand, in one of the greatest places to live (we are very lucky to live in San Luis Obispo County). We are lucky to be here in a place that surrounds us with natural beauty. We are lucky to have the space to be outside safely while many do not.

We can find inspiration all around us, and if we look a little closer with a freed-up mind, we can create inspiration from ourselves. Inspiration can be contagious… in a good way!

Ask A Designer – FAQ

Ask A Designer – FAQ

Making the decision to commit to a new landscape overhaul project for your home can be daunting. Especially if you haven’t done a remodel project before, there can be a lot of “unknowns” when taking on such a huge hunk of home improvement. Our landscape designers do their best to guide clients through every step – making it as seamless, painless, and stress-free as possible. Every project is different and has its own unique variables, but the basic questions we are asked most at the beginning of the landscape process are often the same. We asked our designers to elaborate on some of their most-asked questions, and shed light on some important topics to discuss with your potential landscape team! 

How much information/direction does a designer need from the client?

The more information you can share up front with your designer, the more likely they will be able to design an incredible landscape that reflects your personal flair while including desired/ required elements. We love hearing about what styles and elements you do and don’t like so we know what direction to start with on your design. Things like Pinterest and Houzz boards can be super helpful for this. On the flipside, there’s also no shame in not knowing what you want – that’s what we’re here for! Whether you know exactly what you’re looking for, or not, the most helpful thing you can do throughout the design process is provide your feedback. We try very hard to customize each design project to the personality and needs of each client, so when we go through our concept and revision meetings, we want to hear what you really think. Honest feedback during our meetings is the best way to help us give you the design you’ve been dreaming of!

How far ahead should we plan our project?

When planning a landscape project, it’s important to think ahead. Timing will be different based on whether you are building a new home or updating an existing landscape.

For new construction projects, you can count on landscaping to be the final step- just like the frosting on a cake. Sometimes designers work concurrently with architects and civil engineers on landscape plans, but it’s best for your designer to have a finalized plan with building footprint and finished grading to work from. Be sure that your general contractor helps plan for landscaping by adding sleeving underneath any concrete or asphalt for future irrigation pipe. Planned correctly, landscape installation can begin during the final construction stages.

When updating an existing landscape, planning is more flexible. The best time to plant in our region is fall, so that root systems can develop over the winter months. Construction crews can book out anywhere from 2-6 months in advance, so make sure to get on your builder’s radar early. This is one major benefit of working with design/build companies like Madrone.

Check with your local municipality to find out if you need any permits for your landscape. Shade structures that are attached to your home or are built within a certain proximity to your home may need to be permitted. There may be water usage allowances for irrigation, and permits are often required for graywater irrigation systems. Permit filings can take 6+ weeks to be processed once received.

What is the design process and how long does it typically take?

The design process is the time that you, the client, spend with a landscape designer on the conceptual vision of your outdoor space. Every designer or firm has a unique process, but generally will start with visiting your site and asking questions about your needs.

Once the designer has developed an understanding of your project, they will create an overall layout on paper, then gradually start to specify treatments, finishes and building techniques as ideas are approved.

At the end of the process, the owner will receive a complete set of construction documents which will serve as a tool for estimating construction cost and to ultimately guide the installation.

The length of time spent on design will vary based on size of project, number of built elements, complexity of site constraints, and the number of changes made during the process. If a design isn’t agreed on at the first or second draft, more revisions may be necessary. Most landscape designs can be completed from start to finish within 3-6 months, while others can take up to a full calendar year.

At what point will we know how much our desired landscape costs?

Our design process includes using cost information as a tool to help guide design decisions. Once we’ve established our initial concept plan, our next step is to revise and refine the landscape plan and provide the client with budgetary installation prices. This estimate includes individual line item descriptions, quantities, and costs for every element of the project. This means you can see clearly where every dollar is being spent, and where there are opportunities to substite materials or methods with less expensive alternatives, without sacrificing functionality.

How much does a landscape cost? What are the variables?

The cost of a new installed landscape can vary widely. Just like designing a house, with all things being equal, it will cost more to design a large area than a small one. The price then increases depending on how many built elements you want to include and the types of materials you choose.

Click here for a basic outline of some of defining elements that will ultimately determine the cost of your landscape design and installation.

While these are some of our most frequently asked questions, we understand that there are always specifics to address throughout the design process. But, when it all comes together, a blank dirt lot can become a whole new outdoor experience full of life, laughter, and quality time with each other (and nature)! 

Our Design Services page here has a lot of useful information as well, but if you have further inquiries, you can always call our office and a friendly staff member will assist you!