Renovation Phase II


Plenty of work was involved in getting to this stage, but the main planes of both terrace and lawn have finally been established. Stripping off the existing struggling grass would be the last step, as soil was needed to flatten that space.  The length of time between adding dirt, and putting down sod needed to be minimal, given 2 dogs who love their yard. Edger strip was installed 8″ from the stucco wall the entire perimeter of the yard. It was my intent to feature that wall with a landscape planting that would not obscure it in any way.  It also makes mowing easy, and eliminates the need for a string trimmer.

renovation81We needed a riser for the one step down into the yard.  A 14″ wide by 9′ long piece of 1/4″ steel, buried, and snugged up against the new wall would do a clean and simple job of it.  Once that steel was installed, the decomposed granite would be leveled right to the edge of the terrace. We adjusted the grade as the base of that step to make the transition to the lower level an easy one.


I planted a small grove of Venus dogwoods in the lawn.  The tree trunks have small and discreet circles of soil around them, to he[p avoid damage to the trunks from mowing the grass.  It interests me that trees with large circles of soil or bark or flowers around them look “landscaped”.  Trees planted in lawn look like a park.  A “park” has a very different feeling than a “landscape”; small details like this can have big visual impact. As  I hate being at the design mercy of a lawn mower or trimmer run amok,  I try to find solutions for practical issues that help make aesthetic decisions maintainable.


The finished landscape,, with new sod, is simple and very clean-lined.  The wall looks great. The columnar carpinus will grow together, and provide a dense green enclosure, perfect for celebrating something yet to come.  A sod topped bench?  A sculpture?


I like planting 25 gallon size columnar carpinus.  They seem to recover from transplant shock faster; they fill out quick.  Someday I do want to plant a hedge of them with the trunks impossibly close together, but in this case, the spacing is what it needs to be.

reno4This view from the new terrace is my favorite.  There is a simple overall shape, which unexpectedly drops down in the center to a lower plane. What is brick in the upper terrace reverses to granite in the lower; this is  a change in material that does not interrupt the big organizing idea, but makes it more interesting.


One more element is yet to come; I hope to install it next week.  Can you imagine what that might be?  For sure, I will keep you posted.

Under Renovation

This charming and architecturally distinctive house was in search of a landscape; this much my client knew.  A member of the design community herself, she had spent a lot of time renovating the interior. She was ready to renovate the outdoor spaces.   A designer always needs to pay careful attention to the architecture; this is a given.  But this house had certain unique and compelling features.


The Spanish style of this house came with a beautiful and intact tile roof, and old concrete stucco painted white. The brick terrace was in considerable disrepair, but the brick itself was old and good.  The remains of a previous landscape seemed neither here nor there. Some poorly performing rhododendrons and azaleas struggled in the blazing sun and no doubt highly alkaline soil.   Add to this a noticeable slope from the house to the center of the rear yard, and more importantly, my client’s interest in strong clean modern lines; I had plenty to think about.  Small urban properties make their own demands.  Not the least of these is that every gesture needs to be right.  Small spaces are unforgiving of mistakes, or leftover unresolved areas.  The mistakes made in small spaces seem to be so much larger than those made in big spaces.  No room for error, as they say.

So we piled up the good brick, and ripped out all the ailing plants.  In the meantime I was looking for a graceful expression that also felt strong and simple.  I had my answer in the wall.


I was completely enamored of the white stucco wall that completely enclosed the rear yard. Completely overrun with trumpet vine, and various other weedy plants, that wall was still so architecturally strong and interesting I could not help but make it central to the design. My client carefully and completely repaired all the shaling stucco, and repainted it-the transformation to the entire space was striking.

This old wall was certainly deserving of attention.  Infilled in 2 spots with old iron grilles, it was completely unique and unusual in its design.  Surely the hand of a particular person, I have never seen a wall designed like this.  While walls make beautiful landscape features, whatever their height or material; I had considerable excitement about this wall.  Though quite old, it had strong and unusual lines that could be interpreted in a number of ways.

Cleaning out a space takes plenty of time, as does proper grading.  I planned to enlarge the existing terrace to fill the entire space off the rear door and French doors.  As the original U-shaped brick terrace had a unfriendly slope to it,  I decided to create a step off, into the yard.  The best move: a new stucco wall, built at seat height, to set the terrace apart from the rear yard space, that could also provide casual seating for guests. This new wall would integrate the new landscape into the old; it seemed  natural to repeat that stucco feature.


The happy result are two distinct and level spaces.  The terrace and a rectangular grass space friendly to the dogs, and in distinct contrast to the terrace surfaces.


To come, a U-shape of columnar carpinus, mulched in gravel, which would answer the brick shape on the terrace; the center of the terrace we did in gravel.

A terrace entirely of brick would have overwhelmed the space.  Sometimes switching materials can make a big space read read in a more friendly way.  No home needs a parking lot for a terrace, even though a big terrace is great for furniture, dining and entertaining. We are at a good stage here.  Two rectangles at right angles to each other are ready for the finishing touches.

Designing Driveways Part 2

debroahsdrive1Few of us have the luxury, opportunity, or headache of designing a drive from scratch.  My home was built in 1930, and had a gorgeous brick driveway; this became mine in 1994.  Over the years the drive had heaved such I could only broom the snow-not a good option in Michigan.  I took up the old brick, with the idea of replacing it with a concrete brick made by Unilock in a pattern called “Copthorne”- in exactly the same configuration and pattern. Unbelievably, there was a concrete foundation under that old brick-I still do not understand how it ever drained. The original garage is part of the basement of the house. I understand now why I have a huge steel trench drain inside the basement door, which is tied into the house drains.  In order to insure good drainage to the street, I now have to take a step down into my garage.  This I do not mind, as I love my old house from start to finish.


My driveway is a full 28 feet wide when it meets the street. In 1930, there was a fountain in the center of that approach. An owner in the 1940’s must have driven a giant Buick that he kept smashing into the fountain. I am sure in a fit of exasperation, he cemented over that “bollard in a fountain costume”. Whatever unknown great designer narrowed that drive to barely 10 feet halfway to the house, and then expanded it back out again near the garage, I salute you.  I have an hourglass shaped driveway-why not? I am sorry I cannot say that I designed it myself. I have a lavishly over scaled welcome home feature at the street, and a narrow transition that requires careful driving to get through.  I call that the “slow down, you are home now” checkpoint.  This opens up again at the garage/basement entrance.
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Designing Driveways


For good or for ill, we Americans do love our cars, our garages, and our driveways. We site our mailboxes so we can drive up to them. Many of us own homes that present the garage as the prime architectural feature. If you are in the fortunate position of being able to choose a driveway, I could make these suggestions.

drive4Consult a landscape architect or landscape designer about the drive; be clear about your needs. Do you entertain frequently, and need extra parking? Do your kids need a place to shoot hoops, and skateboard? A driveway that doesn’t work well for you can be an irritation you have to visit every day. Once the plan for the drive addresses your needs, then you are ready to plan for a beautiful driveway.
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