Working the San Diego area as a landscape consultant and designer, I find many prospective clients confused when considering the different types of design professionals available. In my last post, I discussed the low end of the professional design spectrum, the so-called “free” design services that attract the eye but often have a catch. Once homeowners discover the drawbacks and limitations of these so-called “free services”, they may be forced to begin their search for a designer again, this time attempting to sort through the lists of independent professionals who charge for their design and consultation services. The goal: finding a designer without any motive other than producing a plan for a beautiful and practical outdoor living space.
So who is a legitimate landscape designer? Like any other profession, independent design pros often have a wide range of education, experience, and accolades. In California, landscape designers specialize in residential landscapes. Landscape architects draft plans for both commercial and residential projects, from landscapes for skyscrapers and business parks, to commercial projects, to single-family homes. California state law limits landscape designers, as well as some related professionals, in the amount of detail they can provide on their plans to detailed planting and irrigation plans, as well as hardscape plans where features are adequately shown and described, but not fully detailed. Landscape designers are required to work with appropriately licensed pros to add comprehensive grading, drainage, and fully detailed hardscape plans to their services.
The Association of Professional Landscape Designers, an international organization with a thriving chapter in San Diego, has attempted to categorize the levels of design expertise homeowners can expect from a landscape designer. The APLD divides its membership into three basic categories (not including student): Emerging Professional (less than 3 years experience), Professional (more than three years experience without documentation), and Qualified Professional (more than 3 years of verified experience). Additionally, a separate, higher status exists for Qualified Professionals who can pass a rigorous certification program and be listed as Certified Design Professionals.
In essence, the APLD feels it necessary for a designer to have at least three years of full-time experience to successfully develop landscape plans as a professional. Throw in all the complexities and caveats of each particular area within San Diego County, and homeowners are wise to pick amongst the most experienced of designers.
Most importantly, pick someone you feel comfortable with in carrying out your vision.
Who is a landscape designer? Better yet, who is not? It seems every nursery, landscape contractor, and even a few public agencies spout their services for landscape design, making it difficult to sort through the imposters to find a landscape designer who is legit; that is, experienced and knowledgeable, with the ability to create a true landscape plan that is beautiful and meets the homeowners’ specific needs. So first let’s weed out the pretenders.
There is no such thing as free design. Bold headlines in the newspaper and elsewhere proclaim “free design”, most often supplied by certain plant nurseries but also by a few landscape contractors as well. These “designers” are typically either salesmen or new and inexperienced in the trade, with the ultimate goal of selling you products rather than producing the best design possible for you and your property. I witnessed the installation of one of these “free” designs recently: amounting to a large tree surrounded by large bed of garish color of lantana. That was it, an entire front yard with two species of plants. A well-thought out landscape design for a property, even a small-space, takes days if not weeks of work and effort on the part of skilled landscape designers. So the idea of getting a comprehensive, thorough landscape plan for free, one that installers can read and successfully implement, is not reality.
Landscape Contractor as Designer. Again, a free design from a landscape contractor should set off some of the same red flags. In other words, the client receives a plan without originality that is not well thought out. This type of plan can often leave out pertinent information, including detailed plant choices and description, and types of materials used. As mentioned, if the contractor is actually offering these plans for free, they are not spending the time necessary to create a well thought out plan. On the positive side, some landscape contractors hire landscape designers or even landscape architects to work in-house or independently, and charge their clients a reasonable fee for the design work. This can be a good way to get a decent design if you like and feel comfortable with the contractor and designer. I have worked with contractors this way in the past, and it works well as long as the contractor allows the designer the freedom to create his or her own plan independently.
Government Agencies, Books, Classes. There are some possibilities here for do-it-yourselfers. Still all these options have certain limitations. The water districts are currently offering landscape design services to a limited number of customers. This could be a viable option for those who don’t mind installing what the Water Company considers a desirable landscape. Landscape design books are a good source of information, including my own book on design, in helping direct the do-it-yourself designer that has a good design sense. Likewise local community college classes are a good choice for those homeowners willing to invest the time. Any of these options may have merit, still an on-site consultation from an independent landscape designer would be extremely beneficial for anyone attempting to go it on their own with any of these last options.
Now that the less desirable options for landscape design have been discussed, check back next week for the pros and cons of working with different types of design pros.
Gardening for Wildlife- Part Three in a Series on adding Personal Touches to your Landscape Design.
For some homeowners, the landscape design is for the birds. Literally. San Diego County hosts the most bird species of any other county in the United States, with both land and shore birds adding to our county’s overall number of species. In some gardens, including my own, homeowners add lots of perks to attract birds, sometimes unwittingly (we’ll get to that later). Enjoying the sights and sounds of the winged ones is only one benefit of encouraging wildlife into the garden, these added decorative elements -- especially bird baths and bird feeders -- enhance the look of the landscape, and can add just the right touch to long plant beds. For this reason, we can add gardening for wildlife as a way to add personality to our outdoor spaces.
Here are some basic categories of decorative items that will attract birds and add whimsy to the landscape:
I have designed my own landscape to attract birds, and it is now a certified backyard wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. I am continually amazed and delighted at the variety of birds, both year-round and seasonal residents, my gardens attract. Providing fresh sources of water is essential, and it is also important the birds with food and shelter. While few of us have natural water sources on or near our properties, we can plant trees, shrubs, and perennials that will help in feeding and sheltering the birds. Once everything is in place, the backyard habitat garden is a great way to both decorate the landscape and enjoy the birds.
Fountains & Birdbaths - Part Two in a Series on adding Personal Touches to your Landscape Design.
It’s summertime in San Diego. As temperatures continue to soar, the cooling sights and sounds of water seem as satisfying as an ice cold drink. Fountains become particularly appealing this time of year, dripping, gurgling, splashing, or in some cases, spilling to put us under the mesmerizing spell of water. It’s the perfect time to dream about adding water features to our gardens: fountains and birdbaths.
Precast concrete fountains offer the most affordable options to set into our landscapes. This type of fountain is cast from concrete molds, then stained or painted to then be sold at retail outlets. For an upgrade to a more elegant look, check out Haddonstone’s products, made similarly but formed out of limestone to mimic the classic sculptural pieces of Europe.
Homeowners that want a natural, higher-end look will be interested in fountains with one or more boulders as centerpieces – granite or basalt – that can be cored with a high-speed drill and set up to weep and spill water into a basin that is set unseen below grade. These fountain pieces are extremely heavy, and set up can be tricky, requiring a crew of professionals for installation. But since each rock centerpiece is unique, no two rock fountains are ever the same.
Elaborate fountains are designed and built from scratch, undoubtedly at a far greater expense. These custom fountains are typically created from block and mortar, and then faced in stone. For a more modern look, structural concrete fountains are formed and poured onsite to a designer’s specs. Custom fountains, because they are much more labor intensive, requiring days of work to piece together as well as the need for more elaborate pumps and equipment, are likely to jump the cost, typically costing $5000 and up.
Birdbaths are easily within every budget, costing much less than fountains. These landscape additions are most often purchased from retailers as cast and stained concrete bird baths, although they are sometimes available when made from fired ceramic or rust-resistant metal materials. Granted, fountains do not create the sounds of cascading water. But they most certainly attract birds to your yard. San Diego has more bird species within its borders than any other county in the United States. It’s the birds, not the water, that add lyrical sounds in the garden.
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.