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.
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.