Large Residential Landscaping Project – Part One

This post is of a project we undertook in 2004 – in the Spring – for a great couple, Jeff and Denise, and their young red headed kids who were not even arguably cuter than buttons. They were a feature every day, the little guys, and who were, not surprisingly, fascinated by their daily Big Show out back of huge machinery and big fellows moving dirt and rocks all around.

(click on any picture to enlarge)

What 4 year old in his right mind would not dig (pardon the pun) this set up?? Huge and gnarly, all these humongous toys kept them entranced as long as they were awake. Below, for example, is what it looks like when you get 20 yards of topsoil delivered to your house just a few feet from your favorite back window!

This picture is us digging those tiny (not!) channels for irrigation pipes. Hey, you use what you have!

The Story

The home was pretty much Jeff and Denise’s “dream home”. After getting the inside of their place whipped into shape, they then focused outdoors, naturally enough. They had a full acre out back and they wanted to maximize what they could get out of it. They provided me with a laundry list of things they wanted which read something like this:

1.) A running water feature with a creek and small pond. 2.) A platform and an electrical (220V) supply near the water feature for setting up a spa away from the house. 3.) A nice big irrigated lawn with a surrounding pathway for the kids and their trikes and – eventually – bikes and motorized transportation. 4.)A horseshoe pit straight out the back. 5.) A play area for the kids. 6.) Some pathways on the rear hillside. 7.) An upper level patio, very informal, bedded in Decomposed Granite.

They were looking for ways to squeeze the budget which would still allow them to get all the goodies they wanted. The list was long and challenging but I immediately saw the potential in the overall landscape. We would take advantage hugely of the hillsides surrounding the East and Rear sides of the property, using it for our creek and the spa placement. Providing pathways would be easy and interesting and would cut through the landscape in a winding way. Jeff and Denise and I huddled and came up with a reasonable budget. Helpful – no that is an understatement – what swung the deal in favor of total possibility  was that Jeff could provide all the machinery we would need. What also helped were his connections regarding trucking and rock suppliers – there being some excavations nearby that had the marvelous rocks you see throughout the property. That brought the budget down so far that suddenly it was all as doable as it could be. So we shook hands and took off on our grand landscaping experiment. It would be fun, especially inasmuch as Denise was at home with the boys and offered her opinions daily and in an unobtrusive and truly cooperative fashion. In the end, she has as much to do with the ultimate look as anyone. I consulted with her often, and as often at my request. She was always a treat, honestly.

Anyway, we began and, once we finished the irrigation issues, and after burying the pipes and backfilling them, we were ready to entertain deliveries of both rocks and soil, both in the 200 yard range as totals. So, here they came:

Once delivered, staging became an increasingly knotty problem. In the picture above you can see us placing rocks in their eventual resting places with the smaller excavator placing them and the larger one picking and separating them just after their arrival. They tended to come in 3 sizes, from humongous 2-3 ton slabs, to medium sized ones from 500-1,000 pounds, to smaller, one man sized rocks. It is actually somewhat tedious at this stage, in a way, although the placing of permanent fixtures is always bracing and challenging. You can never get bored with supplying something permanent for a client – the appearance and selection will be there for ever. Some heavy duty cosmetics here. So, anyway, things began taking some shape.  In this picture, both the “upper level patio” and the horseshoe pit have been outlined in boulder placement.

Yes, there is still one huge pile of rocks down there. That is for some detail work as well as almost entirely dedicated to the water feature, which is being scratched out in the picture below. We typically excavate the channel which the water and all acoutrements will follow, then add the liner and, of course, the rocks defining it last.

And there you have your standard-average scooped out water course. Next, we make the water feature, starting at the top:

Adding rocks on top of liner is always the single most nerve-wracking part of any large job. One false move with that machine and the rock – and especially this type of “fractured rock”  – can poke holes in the liner, the worst possible result. So we operate gingerly to say the least and we also use other pieces of the liner wedged between the new rocks and the liner to protect the all-important liner itself, providing a measure of security as we worked.

The excavators we like using for these events are amazing tools. You act like a jeweler or watch smith or something placing one and two-ton boulders as precisely as possible in place. Plus, as you can see by the always-helpful Fernando’s directions, you always get helpful advice, lol.

Looks like Chaos, don’t it??  😉  Note also another wonderful development which is the very durable flexible pipe we use as the source. This one was a 4 inch pipe and made the project ten times more do originates in the lowest level, at the bottom of the pond itself, then stretches back up the hillside to where we see it, ready to provide the essential “source” for this recirculating edifice.

Now just add cement and we’re finally getting somewhere!

So that yields to this:

Next post, we add plants, grass and finish all the paths and stuff. I think you can see the madness all actually had some later-crystallizing plan to it. Thousands did not!  Had to say it.

18 thoughts on “Large Residential Landscaping Project – Part One

  1. Thanks, Camilla. I still have a few archives like this. I really do wish I had more. It’s really fun reconstructing the process from here, the fact is. And remembering so much also brings a smile. This was a great project for some very good people. Their level of interest and cooperation was off the charts.

  2. Visionary. You have to be! To engineer the technical and massive details and to create at the end of it a landscape that is grand and beautifully sympathetic to its surroundings. What a great experience for those little red head sweeties I am sure it will influence the creative ingenuity of possibilty in their own lives, too.

  3. Hi Steve, that was just like traveling through time! To do gardening on such a large scale and with huge equipment no less seems so far removed from the kind of gardening I do at home. Visionary is the word for you. ;-> The plant you asked about on my Black and Blood post was Salvia coccinea, a volunteer seedling that had black calyx.


  4. Shauna – Yeah, the little guys remember us. Only they got a lot bigger! I have to remember to send a link to Jeff and Denise so I can see the latest shots. If I get something back, I’ll update.

    Thank you for your always-kind comments. I just love your blog.

  5. Visionary is a bit much, Frances, lol, but I appreciate the thought. In the end, it is what we do. I have been on far larger projects which require much the same patience and one-by-one, step-by-step attitude towards finishing. There are times you wonder if it will ever end, I readily admit. But there is an almost unmatched pleasure in seeing it all come together, too. Denise and Jeff both made it all very worthwhile in their graciousness and patience.

    Thanks for the plant information. It (the Salvia) sure looked like a Cardinal Flower – or even my personal favorite – a Penstemon.

  6. These spaces are so raw to begin with. In less capable hands there would be not too interesting. I am so impressed how you are creatig magic in a big way with a buldozer!
    You are creating landscapes that will look enchanted and natural when the plants mature. so very interesting to observe the progess and the approach.
    Just wonderful.

  7. Thanks, Philip. I was wondering when you’d pop by, lol. Your post on the Green Roof on the museum in Golden Gate Park may be my favorite of all of your posts. I’m actually thinking of making a post about what goes on on my projects and why people should read mine and feel more empowered to do their own work. As anyone, I guess, I see it as pretty easy, in the end. Follow a few general principles and you have it done.

    Then they could feel as good as I do when they are done. You know the feeling. Remember, I’ve seen your yard, lol.

  8. Wow! That is a lot of yard. I want to see the finished project. With a lot that size, I am sure irrigation of all the flora was quite an issue. My name is Chris Eader a fellow landscaper and an inventor. I have created a water saving device for all landscaping projects needing sprinklers. It stops the flow of water to a broken sprinkler head while maintaining water pressure in the system saving water and other flora needing continued watering. Please check it out at

  9. Chris, I appreciate the visit and the link. You of all people would know the value of your product. I am more than a little intrigued. I’ll be checking your site out. Thanks!

  10. What I could do with major earthmovers in my back yard! For one thing, as much as I love rocks and stones in the garden, all that I have have been little specimens that I could move around the garden on my own steam. A couple well-placed boulders does so much to define a garden space. Looks like you gave your clients more than a couple, though! I’m looking forward to following the progress.

    PS I hope the move went well and that you’re getting settled in with your new life!

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