The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

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.

On the Boards: Mediterranean Labyrinth Garden

On the Boards: Mediterranean Labyrinth Garden

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.

On the Boards: Atascadero Rustic Modern

On the Boards: Atascadero Rustic Modern

With five acres of beautiful blank canvas, this private residential landscape presents an expansive front yard and a nestled tier design, providing a balance to the home’s modern architecture and the surrounding Atascadero hills.

Focusing on the acre immediately surrounding the home, Madrone created a grand main entrance and separate outdoor “rooms” with a cohesive rustic modern style. A main path leads to a wide staircase and covered patio, providing a majestic entry experience with magnificent views. Separate hot tub and fire pit areas rest below the main level, providing spaces for relaxing during the warm North County evenings. Around the back of the house, a private courtyard provides a more sheltered gathering space with outdoor kitchen, deck, and water feature, perfect for entertaining or simply enjoying a cup of coffee on a chilly Atascadero morning.

The plant palette, featuring Palo Verde trees and Agave, relies on textures and form to reveal the variety among the greens, yellows, blue-greens and whites. Modern elements such as straight lines, evenly spaced plants, concrete, and corten steel blend with natural materials such as gravel paths, boulders, and masses of flowing grasses to make each space separate and unique while still bringing everything together as a whole.

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!

Work From Home: Designers in Their Home Habitat

Work From Home: Designers in Their Home Habitat

Madrone’s Landscape Designers: a unique breed. Creative, social creatures; it’s not often you’ll find us alone. We tend to work in packs.

But these days are not the norm. We’re currently working from our home habitat – roaming our yards and living rooms, and keeping a safe social distance. While on one hand, it’s nice to have time to work on our own gardens and yards, it’s also been a challenge to work away from the office, field, and teammates.

#WFHLife: The Pros

For Megan Savage, working at home has some real benefits. “It’s a flexible workspace,” she says. “I usually set up at either the couch in my living room or at my dining table. But, on nice days, I can sit at my patio table in the sunshine while I work; it looks over a small greenbelt, and my neighbor’s jasmine is blooming right now so it’s very peaceful. And my dog Lily is happy I’m home!” Ian Parker, too, finds some solace in his own personal landscape, saying that one of the things he likes best as he stays at home is the opportunity to “work in my beautiful backyard and spend time with my best doggie friend Daisy.”

Megan's Workspace feat. Lily the Dog

Both Jill Bleher and Christy Dufault are enjoying the company of feline friends. Christy says that she’s “actually enjoying the solitude of working at home. Of course, having animals in the house helps. My cats are keeping me company.” For Jill, her cat Destiny has been one of the best parts of working from home, along with seeing her husband Alec throughout the workday. When sharing social isolation with anyone, from friends to family, it’s a relief to have good company.

Jill's Workspace

#WFHLife: The Cons

Even with the designers who have people or pets at home, the isolation can be a new kind of challenge, missing the company of both coworkers and social ambiance. For Megan, it’s the chatter she yearns for. She misses “being able to talk to my coworkers without having to pick up a phone.” Likewise, Christy says, “It will be nice to see everyone and be able to communicate in person!” Ian misses collaborating with his “lovely teammates”. Being unable to share ideas with one another so effortlessly is truly one of those things that we don’t realize we’ll miss until it’s gone.

Christy's Workspace feat. Viktor the Cat
Thank goodness for technology! Jill admits that “our communication remotely is relatively good with Zoom and phone calls and technology in general”—work would be strenuous without it—but it still can’t compete with physical proximity. The “long-distance communication just doesn’t match in-person connection!” she remarks. Ian finds that his home technology falls a little short – he longs to use his big computer screen.
Ian's Workspace
All in all, our Madrone Design team is still working away from their respective homes; starting new projects and continuing their efforts for current clients. We look forward to resuming work in our usual manner, but the circumstances have allowed us to grow and appreciate our working environments in fresh ways—both the old and the new.

While we all work together to make sure this pandemic passes as quickly as possible, we take solace in our surroundings and look forward to the friendships, teammates, and work spaces we’ll come back to when this is over. In the meantime, stay safe and upbeat – we look forward to seeing you in the office or field soon!

Daniel's Workspace