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:
San Diego native plant landscaping has now supplanted succulent gardens as the new darling of local garden design, a likely result of the drought and accompanying water restrictions. This new trend holds true up and down the state. I have always enjoyed designing natives into landscapes and have planted many species and hybrids around my home. But there are two diverging paths of thought when landscaping with natives, one for the purists who use only California natives, and the other for those who want a naturalistic look but don’t mind mixing in plants originating from other regions. There are certainly good arguments, both aesthetically and practically, for going either direction.
There are a few myths to dismiss when designing native plants into our San Diego landscapes. The first myth: natives won’t require water. To be sure, mature native as well as some non-native plants can survive without water, yet without water many native species will look like lifeless sticks through much of the summer and fall. An irrigation cycle once every three to four weeks will keep native gardens looking their best during the dry season.
The second myth: drip irrigation is best for drought tolerants. In reality, drip can be death for natives and it is wise to use a spray system with MP rotators when irrigating drought tolerant landscapes. Overhead sprays work more effectively to mimic summer cloudbursts and water the entire soil profile in the garden.
The third myth: native plants must be planted in late fall and winter. This theory plays along with the first myth that natives can’t tolerate supplemental water. Natives can be planted nearly any time of year, with the late summer to early fall as the possible exception. But while late fall and winter are exceptionally good times to install the native plant gardens, spring and early summer are also good times to install most natives.
One other myth needs to be mentioned; native landscapes only look good in the spring. The successful native garden comes together when the client’s expectations and the skills of the designer merge. While the native or mixed native landscape may not be full of vibrant new green leaves or fields of flowers year around, the well-designed native landscape can capture the flavor of each season. A effective mix of plants will offer a new palette of subtle delights as each season passes, keeping your outdoor space charmingly natural and inviting throughout the year.
Just starting to kick the tires on a landscape project? A landscape design, whether penciled on a napkin over dinner or fully plotted and drawn by a professional, will become the first step to creating that outdoor space of your dreams. It also results in your first out-of-pocket cost. The price of a professional landscape design will be a fraction of the total project, and ultimately depends on three factors: the experience and skill of the design professional, the services offered, and the amount of drawing detail necessary to depict the installation work to be done.
First meetings with designers and landscape architects allow the client and designer to get to know each other, discuss the scope of work to be done, look at portfolios, and walk the site. This meeting usually lasts from 30 minutes to an hour or more.
As designer, I can then assess the scope of the project, decide what kind of documents will be necessary to accurately depict the project on paper, decide how it will take to complete the project, and arrive at a price. With this information, I draw up a proposal that states what work will be done, the documents included, and the overall costs. If the client agrees, then we are in business together.
How do designers and architects arrive at the exact price? Most charge by the hour and add on whatever printing charges will occur. Some simply charge by the hour with no fixed total and then bill the client as those hours accumulate. I have found most people are uncomfortable with this arrangement, so I figure my hours in advance so that I can offer a set amount for the design. This way, my clients know how much they will ultimately pay before they sign the proposal.
Ultimately designs cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars if they are uncomplicated, to several thousand for complex plans that will take many hours of work. As mentioned, the price is ultimately determined by the number of hours at the drawing board. The average design takes about 15 hours to complete, counting site meetings. At minimum, a small, uncomplicated design takes 7 to 8 hours, while complex designs on large properties may take a week or more of dedicated work to complete.
Don’t Move – Improve. This mantra from a past San Diego Home and Garden Show rings at least as true today. As a landscape designer of eleven H&G show display gardens, I stood under that ‘Don’t Move – Improve’ streaming banner in 2008. At the time, the real estate market had taken a severe hit and it did not make any sense for homeowners -- even those few thinking of upgrading -- to attempt any move from their suddenly devalued houses. Today the stock market soars, yet the slogan still applies to all of those, myself included, happy with their home but still seeking their own personal outdoor paradise.
Here in the San Diego area, staying home to enjoy our outdoor spaces makes as much or more sense as anywhere in the country. Simply, we enjoy the best weather in the country right outside the backdoor. So why not create that vacation paradise at home? Some folks want to simply add and upgrade landscape features to make it more enjoyable while others are undergoing extensive remodels. Popular hardscape features include outdoor kitchens and fireplaces, spas, sport courts, outdoor accent lighting systems, water features, rain capture devices, and outdoor media (television, sound systems, and security cameras). Softscapes need to be improved and updated too, with designer-crafted specialty landscapes (native, California-eclectic, succulents, grasses), vegetable gardens with raised beds, water-wise plants, and lawn alternatives the most popular additions. New and renovated landscapes look noticeably different from those installed in the past. The modern landscapes are invigorating and inviting, the old landscapes look tired and dated.
The change in San Diego and California to water-conserving landscapes gives more incentive to renovate. California has been blessed with substantial rains this year yet the move toward drought tolerant and native California gardens has not slowed. The past decade was one of the driest on record and governmental bodies have not let us forget that lawns and water-loving flora are no longer welcome. Reservoirs are overflowing and yet it is a good bet that water rates will climb another eight to ten percent this year. Even if you and your neighbors don’t care for any of the new looks, these landscapes translate to more money in the pocket with less to pay out to water districts.
The ‘Don’t Move – Improve’ mantra rings especially true in San Diego and throughout California, a movement that is increasing now that the local economy is thriving. If you are stuck in your home – enjoy the stay.
“Are you sitting down?” When the installation estimate arrives via the friendly landscape contractor, it’s a good idea to be resting comfortably on the sofa. Most folks simply do not have a good idea of what an outdoor project will cost. This is understandable. not only do labor or materials prices fluctuate, but it is difficult to grasp the many hidden facets that take time and resources in creating a landscape.
“I want to convert to drought tolerant plants.” This statement sounds simple but this project is often not as straight forward as it seems. Taking out a lawn and putting in drought tolerant landscaping may seems easy, but usually includes not only the cost of installing the new plants but the added price tag to remove the existing landscape along with possible equipment rentals, trucking and dump fees, grading, irrigation work, drainage installation, rock and gravel additions, soil amendments, mulches, and so on. Add delivery fees and a porta-potty to the estimate and suddenly this small project has grown tremendously in scope. Imagine the hidden complexities and resulting costs of projects with walls, patio and walkway surfaces, overheads, water elements, outdoor kitchens, and fireplaces?
I fully understand why homeowners do not realize the costs of these projects because it is sometimes difficult for me to comprehend all the costs involved, at least until the final plan is in hand and the materials and labor are calculated. As the designer, I try to educate my clients as to what to expect on installation costs, while working with budget goal that has been established. Once the design is complete, if the installation estimates exceed this budget goal then it is time to scale back the features in the landscape or possibly implement the landscape in phases. In other words, we can shoot for the dream landscape and see where we land. The good news: we do often land right around our target number. And for a fortunate few, the final cost is below the budgeted amount.
Working as a landscape designer in San Diego, I often work directly with the contractor installing my designs. This allows me not only to plan the landscape on paper but help direct its installation. Landscape designers often offer design services, then refer clients to one or more landscape contractors for installation, never to be heard from again. Yet continuing to work with the designer during installation offers a number of advantages, including:
Anyone working as an independent landscape designer must understandably charge extra for their hours during the construction phase - clients can view this as one part of the overall cost of the project. Overall I prefer working with the contractor because it makes the end product better. I truly enjoy seeing the project as it unfolds and believe the end results are superior in both look and craftsmanship with this hands-on approach. Besides, it is fun to get dirty once in a while.
The First Step to Creating a Landscape Design
What’s the first step to develop ideas for a landscape design? Before working with a professional or going it on your own, building a landscape portfolio of ideas will help the designer visualize the look and elements that can ultimately be created. This 'idea booklet' should contain a collection of design ideas with written notes, photos, and possibly sketches.
The garden booklet does not have to be fancy but should contain favorite photos and stories from magazines and books, pictures or links to internet media, and pictures you have personally taken of landscapes that show the type of outdoor environment you want to emulate. Try to include photos and pictures from your local area, and local architectural styles along with plantscapes that thrive in your community. Regional newspapers and magazines, local garden tours and shows, and simply driving local neighborhoods are especially good sources for inspiration. Add to this the wealth of photos and information available on the internet: personal websites like mine have dozens of photos of landscape photos locales in which the designer resides (my photos are all from San Diego and its surroundings). Mix in design sites like Houzz and Pinterest and the possibilities are endless.
It may take months of casual research, but this scrapbook of landscape ideas will show others working on the project the kind of landscapes that impress you, the types of styles and features to be included, and the quality of work expected. A professional with creativity and training should welcome this extra work you have undertaken and then take those visual ideas, introduce new concepts, and make a plan that meets or even surpasses expectations. If you as the homeowner decide to become the designer, the portfolio will serve as a reminder of the intent of the concept and act as a handy resource whenever choosing materials from suppliers and when conveying ideas to the contractor. Cutting and clipping should take weeks or months, then go through your collection and select the 10 or 12 photos that convey your ideas the best. Too many photos can be confusing – so only keep the very best examples of the look you want to achieve. Add lists of materials, including plants to be included, if you have favorites already decided, and your landscape designer has clear insight into your perfect outdoor space.
I recently began work on a design to landscape the front yard of a La Jolla home. The current landscape is a throw-back to an earlier era, and most of the area is currently lawn that is bordered by an imposing hedge that tops thirty feet in height. The hedge stays for privacy. We decided on placing the weeping tree Peppermint Willow (Agonis flexuosa) to act as a focal point in the landscape that will effectively contrast with the tall hedge. The emphasis is on form and structure, bloom is taking a backseat in this San Diego landscape renovation.
Working with flower and leaf color in the landscape has been compared to painting a picture, working with plant form to sculpting a statue. Developing the right mix of plant shapes is as important in garden design as blending color. Each species has a basic form or structure, sometimes further enhanced or altered by selective pruning. Plants grow in dozens of shapes: tight and compact, open and airy, drooping, upright and cylindrical, and vase-like. And the list goes on.
Plant shapes need to be purposely melded into the design to complement and contrast size, shape, and structure. Mimicking the form of one species with another creates balance and draws the eye through the garden composition while altering or inserting opposing forms structural shapes sets up points and counterpoints that effectively draw the eye.
The overall shape of a plant is just one component of working with form. Leaf size, leaf density, trunk and branch structure, and bloom shape and size must be considered when mixing shapes. Certainly some plants stand out because of their dramatic shape and, when positioned for effect, create singular impact. Dracaena draco is a prime example with swollen a trunk and branches topped by rosettes of strap-like leaves. It would be a waste to set this plant in amongst a group of plants that do nothing to highlight its structure, or even worse, obscure it behind other plants. These striking plants need to be placed where they can be fully appreciated.
Plants of imposing structure can be equally as dramatic as those with beautiful blooms, with the added benefit that the plant with the striking form adds character throughout the year and not simply until the last bloom fades.
With San Diego’s water rates soaring to new heights, the phrase ‘excess water’ no longer can be used in referring to the landscape. Why let this precious resource escape into the storm drain? Instead, we want to capture this valuable liquid to be reused when and where needed.
There are two types of water reclamation in residential landscapes. The first is passive reclamation, which is a low cost option achieved by simply grading a site to allow water to flow into strategically placed low areas. Developing the property to mimic natural processes means setting grades for both impermeable and permeable surfaces to drain into areas where water can pool and absorb into the soil. Design features like dry stream beds and rocky swales can be designed to passively collect and direct water to low points like seasonal ponds or bogs. Plants that tolerate periodic flooding can then be chosen to populate areas in and around these created low places. These naturalistic features serve a purpose while enhancing the look of a naturalistic landscape.
Active reclamation utilizes rainwater capture systems by directing rainwater and irrigation runoff into holding tanks where it is stored and saved for future use. Rain barrels are the most common and inexpensive capture devices marketed for homeowners. Most rain barrels have the capacity to hold one hundred gallons or more of water, and can be connected to gutter downspouts or placed underneath ‘rain chains’. Complex rain harvest systems operate with pumps, large storage basins, and control boards that can ultimately deliver runoff to the irrigation system to be reused. These capture systems are more feasible for large properties; possibly to be used in conjunction with gray-water systems.
Where possible, both passive and active water reclamation can be combined with permeable paving to aid in helping trim high water bills. In arid areas like San Diego, rainwater capture systems have become a necessity.
Our drought concerns in San Diego have eased somewhat, at least for this year ? Water rationing has been relaxed in the landscape with new, easier-to-achieve conservation targets? This is good but temporary news at best. As we know, cycles of drought always return, most likely sooner than later. This year spells relief but next…who knows? And even as restrictions are eased, water prices only go higher. As one water district spokesman puts it, “we have fixed costs so don’t expect prices to drop.” And the price increases for this year are already set; we won’t get a break.
It will be interesting to see how the public reacts as restrictions are eased. I am guessing that Californians will continue to save as much water as they can. Water from the tap is expensive and it just makes economic sense to save water and hence money. It will be an interesting year for landscape professionals; my design clients continue to ask for gardens renovated with water wise plants and water- efficient irrigation systems. It is the way of the future, even though we are getting a temporary reprieve from the water police.
Sustainable or so-called 'green' building practices transfer easily into the landscape and are not only good for the environment but save money as well. In little more than a decade, 'green' building construction and planning dictates have gone from futuristic to the mainstream of architectural practice. The future has arrived, the era of waste not and want not is here, and nowhere is that more obvious than in landscape design. SMART controllers, evapo-transpiration rates, micro-irrigation, rain capture systems, permeable paving, and many other terms were once only stored in the vocabulary of those holding landscape architecture degrees. Homeowners are doing their homework and discovering both new and traditional eco-friendly landscape practices that make sense in their own yards.
Removing or reducing lawn is certainly the hottest landscape trend in San Diego. Once the lawn is gone, we scratch our heads and ask “What now?” How do we replace the lawn with a good alternative? Turf plays important aesthetic and functional purposes, making it critical to thoroughly analyze exactly what will replace it. The best ‘lawn be gone’ designs take the monochromatic turf space and turn it into a visual treat of naturalistic planting schemes, rockscapes mixed with plants, or even patio spaces and outdoor rooms. The worst designs turn the space into a singular type of gravel or an unkempt thicket of unappealing shrubs.
It is crucial to take time to investigate those lawn substitute designs that work, and decide what the individual space will be used for before embarking on this important design change. Among the possibilities:
It was definitely a nice surprise to see my book The New California Landscapes featured in the June issue of San Diego Home and Garden magazine. As a labor of love, my book took nine years to produce, tackling the daunting subject of designing drought tolerant gardens specifically within the borders of California. During the time I was writing the book, our state went through the worst drought-induced water crisis in its history, making landscaping in San Diego and throughout California a fluid and expanding subject to tackle.
The SD Home and Garden article following the cover shot of the book is entitled “In the Know” and reads, “Alpine-based landscape designer Steven Harbour worked for a decade on what he calls a crash course in the design of drought-tolerant outdoor spaces. The New California Landscapes (Steven Harbour, 2015) offers techniques for planning and maintaining dynamic landscapes. The book profiles best uses of 300 water-wise plants…”
To preview and purchase The New California Landscapes, go to http://www.steveharbourlandscapes.com/books-and-press.html and click on the link at the bottom of the page.