The first in a series of articles on how-to creatively design personal touches - patio furniture, fountains, area rugs, statutes, bird feeders, bird baths, and other related items into the landscape.
It's the moment you have been waiting for. The hard work of designing and installing the landscape is now complete. The patios and walkways have been laid, the plants have been planted. Now it’s time to add the finishing touches. It’s time to accessorize.
What does this mean? Inside the home, adding furniture, throw rugs, pictures, and other touches is known as interior decorating. Accessorizing the outside of the home is nothing more than exterior decorating. In fact, many of these same types of features used to decorate the inside the home - tables and chairs, decorative lights, vases, plant containers, rugs – are used outside as well, albeit these design elements will be chosen to handle the weather. As a landscape designer in the San Diego area, I get my clients personally involved in choosing these personal finishing touches. I often leave space in the landscape plan for the selection of patio furniture, fountains, area rugs, statutes, bird feeders and bird baths, and other related items, then leave it to the client to select these items. Or we select them together. In this way, clients feel a part of creating the landscape. They are personalizing their outdoor space.
When choosing accessories, a few rules apply:
This is the first of a series. Next, we will go more into depth as we break down the various types of garden accessories in upcoming articles.
When clients ask me whether they need to improve their soil, I let them know the San Diego area has two types of dirt: poor and worse. It’s an attempt at humor of course, but native soils here are high in mineral content and lack organic matter, due to the lack of lush plant communities that can annually drop inches of twigs and leaves that decompose into fertile soil. And if the lack of organic matter is not enough, developers then grade properties to remove the scanty top layer of earth and expose bedrock and clay as the new soil surface. New home sites typically do not have any topsoil at all! The top layer of soil where most plant growth occurs must be recreated before planting begins.
Healthy soil breaks down into of three components:
An ideal garden soil profile has half its actual volume dedicated to air and water, with the other half is comprised of the three bullet points – the soil components listed. Healthy soil also must register a certain ph factor that is neither too alkaline nor acidic to allow plants to properly grow.
Healthy soil has been described as a living and breathing entity that has billions of microscopic organisms and a thriving population of earthworms churning organic matter into nutrient-rich matter. A depleted, compacted site may take years of continual work before the soil can be considered sustainable, which means organisms are reproducing abundantly and organic matter has reached optimal levels. It is a mistake to think that newly planted landscape plantings can grow and prosper into perpetuity once the initial soil amending is complete. Even the best forest compost mixes have been used long before the garden enters its second decade.
An ongoing program of replenishing the soil with composted mulches and organic fertilizers is needed for continued optimal plant growth and health. It will an ongoing effort of periodic mulching and possibly nutrient replenishment to create a sustainable environment below the soil line, but plants can then grow and prosper into old age. The evidence will be easily seen in healthy and happy maturing plants!
Bring your project questions, plans, and photos, and please join us for a free landscape design workshop at one of the best nurseries in San Diego County -- Kniffings Nursery. I will be speaking on a wide range of topics related to landscape planning and design. Anyone attending will get a 10% discount coupon to purchase nursery products. The event is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 9.
I will have copies of my book The New California Landscapes available at the end of the workshop as well. See the flyer below for more details.
Join Kniffings Nursery for a free workshop, Saturday, June 9 at 10 a.m.:
This is the second article of a series on Sustainable Landscape Design in San Diego.
Sustainable landscape design is a multi-headed concept. In the San Diego area and throughout California, the definition of sustainable landscaping – filling garden beds with plants that can be harvested and eaten -- broadens into creating a backyard (or front yard) habitat that is also environmentally sensitive. What does this broader definition really mean? Sustainable landscaping in California, considered the driest of all Mediterranean climates in the world, translates to producing edibles, while at the same time conserving water. These two goals can conflict with each other. It’s a tricky set of tasks, especially in drought years, to produce bounties for the table with plants that require regular irrigation cycles, while adhering to water restrictions. So how do we actually grow food for our table and, at the same time, proscribe to the water-wise ethic? Here are some basics.
Soil: Condition soils to absorb and retain water until roots can utilize it. California’s urban areas typically lack organic materials that must be initially brought into the site. Fully amend the soil with organic material (soil amendments) and organic fertilizers. Then set up on-site composting bins to continue the process.
Mulch: Organic mulch materials – top dresses -- must be laid as a top layer to prevent water from evaporating. As a bonus, a layer of organic mulch will reduce weeds that will be robbing water that is intended to go to desired plants.
Irrigation: Most of the irrigation in San Diego is automatic, set a clock and forget about it. In the era of so called “smart” controllers, computers do the work for us. But the hands-on approach to watering can help save water as well. Try hand-watering the old fashion way in cultivated rows and basins. Water deeply when you irrigate, check the soil moisture regularly.
Water Requirements: Install planter beds with plants that have the same basic water requirements. This should go without saying but sometimes gets overlooked, not only in the edible garden but in all types of landscape. Know your plants – plan garden beds with plants that thrive on the same water cycle.
Plants: There are those that need abundant moisture and there are those plants that survive, even thrive on less. Without sacrificing at the table, minimize those plots that need lots of irrigation, then look into those harvestable plants that grow well with less. For instance, a Bay Tree (Laurus nobilis) grows directly out my window as I write this, which I use for seasonings. It grows well without much, if any supplemental irrigation, yet would gladly drink from garden beds receiving regular irrigation if improperly placed. Select plants that grow in the same microclimate areas, factoring in soil, sun-shade, and water.
These are just a few basics to getting started. There is a lot to think about when designing the sustainable garden. I will be discussing more on the subject in future posts – Steve Harbour.
Exciting news. Edible Landscape Design, a website devoted to encouraging people around the world to garden sustainably, has written a full page on my business. The harvest garden is a theme near and dear to my heart. Simply stated, sustainability outdoors involves working vegetables, fruiting trees and shrubs, and herbs into the landscape. Some folks that want to devote their entire outdoor space or to edibles, others that wish to allocate a significant portion of their property to the concept, and still others want a low-key approach with fruiting plants sprinkled throughout the landscape. Any of these design approaches is doable; in the San Diego area, most homeowners prefer either or both of the last two options.
I have always had a soft spot for using edibles in the landscape, and have done so in my own home landscape for many years. Years before I began full-time consulting and design, I helped start a specialty nursery and landscape business solely devoted to using herbs, vegetables, and fruiting plants in the landscape. My eyes were opened. Our plant list was extensive, especially when adding traditional herbal garden plants into the mix. We had violas, scented geraniums, society garlic, artemisia, lavender, and even roses in our sales beds. I worked with the late Sherrel Hall in those days, a local legend of sorts who became one of my best friends. Sherrel was instrumental, not only in bringing this type of landscaping to the attention of San Diegans, but also in getting the word out on vermiculture, another of his passions. He was a force of nature, a bit eccentric but a kind and caring person. I do not share his off-the-charts zeal for this type of landscape, but the sustainability theme is one of my personal favorites. When clients mention they wish to use edibles in their landscape, I am more than ready to work their desires into the plan.
In my next few blog post, I will go into more detail about designing edibles into the landscape: what it takes, working it into the overall theme, the plants that can be used, and how much you should take on (as imagined, this is not a type of landscape that will prosper without homeowner sweat equity). Stay tuned.
My website, business card, and stationary include my listing as a San Diego APLD Certified Landscape Designer, and you may be wondering exactly what this designation means. Briefly, anyone with this listing after their name has met all the requirements for design work and experience, as well as submitted their work and had it accepted by an international panel of judges.
The certification process is a part of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), an international organization of like-minded professionals. This classification is the highest ranking for members of the APLD, and currently there are only a handful of Certified Landscape Designers working in the San Diego area. Certified designers are the only professionals allowed to use the APLD logo after their names for their businesses.
The criteria for gaining certification is as follows
In a nutshell, this describes the Certified level of the APLD - the highest of six categories of members. I believe landscape designers are the top pros when it comes to artistically laying-out gardens, and often have the most plant expertise as well. APLD membership and certification signifies the designer has met and is dedicated to upholding the highest standards in the landscape industry.
The how-to’s of outdoor landscape lighting design and installation seem intimidating. Low-voltage and LED intricacies are subjects worthy of college textbooks. Here are some tidbits of info, design tips, and tricks I find helpful in creating and installing outdoor low-voltage lighting.
15. Silhouettes of plants and garden ornaments are dramatic and can be created by lighting walls behind the element to be silhouetted.
16. Shadowing is the opposite effect of silhouetting, created by casting light directly on plants or ornamental objects to cast shadows on blank walls.
17. Safety lighting is one of the most important functions of outdoor lighting. It goes without saying that it is important to place lights by stairs, steps, and any other area that could otherwise cause injury.
18. Hoods on step, stair, and pathway lights are important for safety lights, so as not to partially blind those using steps and stairs at night.
19. It is easy to include underwater lights in a low-voltage system; lighting ponds, streams, and fountains from beneath the water’s surface.
20. If a body of water, i.e. pool or pond is near, mirror lighting is still another beautiful effect that can be created. By lighting trees on the other side of the body of water from a viewing area, the mirroring effect is cast.
These 20 rules are the primary considerations I use when designing low-voltage lighting, including LED systems, into my landscape designs in the San Diego area, but these tips should be useful anywhere outdoor lighting systems are installed.
This is the last in a three-part series on patio and walkway design in San Diego. We have discussed creating more permeable landscapes through designing with the Watershed Approach. Now here are a few thoughts, somewhat random, in pulling it all together.
The front entry area serves as your calling card: your statement to the world passing by. This makes this access point an excellent place to start a design. The front walkway and area around it may include steps, pillars, a fence and gate, a patio or seating area, walls, and one or more auxiliary pathways that join it on its march to the front door.
Front walkways that form a straight, 90-degree line from the street to the door are unimaginative; if space affords, one or more jogs in the paving needs to be added to create a more varied and interesting pattern on the visitor’s approach. The placement of side pathways has become crucial as lawns are replaced. While the lawn tolerated any abuse a family and pets could thrust upon it, few plants tolerate foot traffic. Side pathways of stone, gravel, and concrete and stone paving, or possibly mulch, are used to weave through planted areas, and can also serve as spaces to gather, rest, and view the garden.
It is critically important to size landscape surfaces to proper dimensions, in the front yard and throughout the property. Patio spaces that feel cramped and overcrowded are guaranteed not to be used as intended. Neither do we want to tip toe down skinny walkways This is not an area to scrimp in the budget.
A list of questions must be answered before beginning to draw these horizontal surfaces. How many people will potentially use the patio at the same time? What will each patio be used for? What types of outdoor furnishings will be necessary? How can permeable materials be incorporated to absorb surface water and prevent runoff? With the elimination or downsizing of the traditional lawn, alternatives to creating useable space include -- at least in part -- increasing the size of patios, adding several distinct patios, or both. These spaces are an increasingly important consideration in designing the new landscapes.
Permeable materials of low environmental impact have become an important ethical consideration in the new landscapes. The basic materials that have traditionally been used to form outdoor surfaces – concrete, rock, and wood – have not changed. It’s the way these materials are used and the finished product that has changed. More and more patios, walkways, and even driveways are being designed with permeable concrete, segmented concrete pavers, or gravel, all without a solid mortar underbelly so water can penetrate through to the soil below. By combining the harder patio surfaces of concrete and stone with permeable gravels, the horizontal surface is visually expanded, an important spatial consideration.
Like the rooms in a house, patio areas serve as centers for specific outdoor activities and functions, some somewhat unique. One client coined her special hillside steps and small patio as her ‘Stairway to Chardonnay’, a place to unwind in the evening with a glass of a favorite wine.
The second part of a two-part series. We discussed the watershed approach in the last article: How to Design Sustainable Patios and Walkways. But what exactly is the watershed approach? To understand this concept, let’s reverse the terms. We approach our outdoor landscapes as a natural watershed, which it is. The old concept of draining excess water directly to the gutter is archaic in California, replaced with the idea that we need to save this valuable resource and use it when we can, allowing it to sink into the soil and nourish plants rather than sending it to storm drains. It’s not only ethical, it’s practical and will save money on the water bill.
How does the hardscape play a role with the watershed approach? As explained in Part One, hard or impermeable surfaces need to be minimized but that does not necessarily translate to less patio and walkway surface overall. We just need to use our design skills to allow areas for water to runoff and pool, then pick the right materials that are conducive to our goals. Here are a few tips.
The move to designing sustainable landscapes in San Diego and elsewhere -- specifically patios, decks, and walkways -- does not mean we need to shrink these living spaces. Hardscape surfaces are as important as ever. Yet implementing the watershed approach - collecting water rather than sending it to storm drains - is a recent concept, creating the need for a variety of approaches when designing these areas. In other words, hardscapes are now less hard.
In an eco-friendly garden, patios and walkways are designed to allow at least some water penetration beneath the surface, not simply to shed rain and irrigation to the closest storm drain. Here in San Diego and in landscape designs throughout the country, the trend toward more porous, less ‘hard’ hardscape materials often leads to a creative mix of materials blended together in the landscape. The monotone rock or concrete patio surface of yesteryear has given way to a more artful, elaborate mix of stone, tile, concrete, brick, gravel, sustainably-harvested wood or wood composite, and even steel. It's an artful blending that takes skill. The danger of designing with too few materials can make the landscape appear pedestrian, while the danger of using too many materials, without a careful eye to mix these materials, creates a scattered, unprofessional look.
Selecting hardscape materials successfully – just as when mixing plants – has both its rewards and hazards. A huge area of one material, be it concrete, stone, or any other surface, loses impact. And too little of the same material may not have the desired look. Who is impressed at the sight of a rectangular sea of expensive flagstone, or for that matter a single band of tile across a driveway? The sea of flagstone is as boring as a commercial rock yard (at a huge expense) while the tile band in concrete appears engulfed by other features, a questionable choice that makes us wonder why anyone bothered at all. The flagstone patio would be more impressive by alternating materials, possibly colored concrete or brick, or by creating more angles or curves in the design. Some design themes — craftsman or Tuscan for example — have a rich history of combining various materials for design effect. By choosing a harmonious mix of materials in proper proportion, and by blending those materials together in pleasing shapes and patterns, the framework of the hardscape sets a superior tone for the gardens.
See more on Sustainable Landscape Surfaces in Part 2
Sunny days and warm nights continue to ring in the New Year in San Diego, and outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, and fire pits remain on the front burners (pun intended) of most of my design clients’ wishes. As the economy continues to improve, people want to create outdoor rooms that can be enjoyed after the sun sets. Nearly all the landscape designs I have completed this year included at least one of these features.
A few tips to consider when designing an outdoor kitchen, fireplace, or fire pit:
Those are just a few of the more practical considerations to contemplate when designing and installing these outdoor features. With winter rapidly approaching, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, and fire pits will be in increasing demand in San Diego landscapes.
The rainy season is here! Or is it? It is now late December and barely a drop of rain has fallen during the current, supposed wet period. Without any rain, we still have our irrigation clocks set in the “on” position, waiting for Mother Nature to send some clouds our way. But before we get too gloomy, this is San Diego, where sunshine and warm temps rule most days. Maybe it’s time to get out and begin that landscape project you have been dreaming about.
Some folks assume they need to postpone planting now with the onset of winter. But as long as those landscapes are not located in the eastern foothills or low lying inland valleys, winter in San Diego is often one of the best times to plant. The cool temperatures and reoccurring rains combine to gently acclimatize transplants. This is especially true with native plants and other northern hemisphere drought tolerants. Genetically, these plants are programmed to not expect much water in the dry season, but naturally thrive in winter rains.
Our moderate weather now helps plants acclimatize and root without nearly as much supplemental water as needed spring through fall, saving on water bills even if the rains don’t completely do the job. The new transplants will root fully and be ready to take advantage of the entire growing season by spring.
One unlikely but possible caveat can thwart plans: the unlikely but still possible cold snap that seems to hit every few years. These unusually severe frosts (by San Diego standards) can affect plants all the way to the coast. But by planting the right plants to survive these frosts, and throwing a blanket over susceptible plants like citrus or bougainvillea, the homeowner can ensure the landscapes stay in good shape through these unlikely yet still possible severe cold periods. In my experience, these extreme cold snaps usually take place in late December or early January and only last a couple days. This slim possibility should not postpone a project.
Why wait for warmer weather? Our mild climate makes landscaping a year-around possibility and winter a good time to get plants into the ground and ready for spring. Designers and installers do not have lengthy backlogs of work at this time of year. Why wait to renew the landscape?
What are WUCOLS? Perhaps you have puzzled over this term when beginning a new landscape. The term stands for Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. Landscape designers in California use this term with clients when discussing plant water needs and irrigation design. Or a WUCOLS list could show up on your landscape plan, typically as a column in the plant legend. Or, if you live in a highly regulated city, you may just have to produce a WUCOLS list for the city planning department in order to proceed with your landscape. Before turning and running for the nearest exit, reassure yourself that the work of determining WUCOLS in a landscape has already been done for you and can easily be found online.
Here are 10 basics to know about WUCOLS:
What’s trending in landscape design? Here in San Diego and elsewhere, it’s outdoor rooms. The latest 2017 survey provided by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) lists outdoor rooms as the most popular type of room addition (37%) for homeowners thinking of adding rooms to their property, beating out mudrooms and man caves among others. No surprise here in the land of sunshine, outdoor living rooms have only become more popular in San Diego; the percentage of folks dreaming of a roofed overhead -- outdoor fireplace, outdoor kitchen, and a multitude of outdoor luxuries --increases daily.
The AIA survey shows more than two-thirds of architect firms seeing a rise in the demand for outdoor living spaces. Interestingly, 61% noticed more clients wanting their outdoor spaces to sync with the indoors. Mirroring elements in the outdoor landscape to the home and interior has always been a postulate of good home and garden design, so this high percentage is a sign that clients are becoming more educated and demanding spaces that mix harmoniously. Additionally, about one-third of the firms saw an uptick in the desire for outbuildings and also for exterior/security lighting.
Another interesting statistic to be gleaned, especially here in San Diego with our hills, mesas, and canyons, 56% of the respondents noted an increase in properties with complex grading and removal challenges. This is likely the result of homeowners (and developers) desiring as much usable outdoor space as possible. And the final trend at the heart of San Diego’s new landscapes: drought tolerant plantings, termed “low irrigation landscaping” presumably to also include drip and microspray irrigation, was noted by 55% of those included in the poll.
The trend continues in San Diego -- homeowners installing new landscapes want designers to plan highly functional outdoor living spaces with beautiful, drought tolerant gardens.
How do you decide which landscape theme is best? As a landscape designer in the San Diego area, I want to look inside and outside your home before beginning a plan. Not to be nosy, but the best outdoor spaces synthesize home and garden. The home style determines the garden theme. Well-planned architectural elements in the landscape pull from the structural design and style of the home. The size, angles, and design of the house should influence the layout and materials used in developing outdoor surfaces and structures. When walking a property, the well-crafted landscape design makes the transition between the home’s interior and exterior spaces appear seamless. Ideally, the residence and landscape will look as though they were both designed at the same time in one coordinated effort by all those involved in the project.
The layout of the home's interior determines where hardscape surfaces and features are best positioned in the landscape. Here are a few considerations: