Large Residential Landscape Project – Part 2

We pick up from the prior post reprising this particular home in what I have always  felt is a perfect example of the entirety of a landscape affair, beginning from the initial meeting to the planning, and the budget work through all the various phases of their implementation.

I believe landscape construction processes are typically complicated dances around all this stuff – and not just rocks and dirt – but which also touch the persons involved as well, on both sides of the job. Of course, we can say this about anything one does to construct anything to improve or remedy the problems found in any home, so much so that my exposition relating to landscaping is not uniquely serious or somehow secret in the slightest. In the end, it is what I do and have done for a living and it’s really not more complicated than that. In a very general sense, it’s universal, yet I opt to make it unique because it’s what I know. I allow others to judge its merits as anything other than typing and pictures.

But it can be cool. ūüėČ

So – with the creek pretty much 80% done, we begin running the water to check the electrical and pump systems and to finish all the detail work in the crevasses and work on ‘hiding’ the liner.¬† We also run¬†the water¬†to clear it. The first passes of water collect all the dust and grime from the initial construction phases- all the dust from feet and from spills and from the rocks themselves. Naturally, someone¬† washes off the rocks as well. We’ll then leave it running for a bit, then grab the end of the hose we saw inserted inside at the top for providing the initial flow, aim it onto the slope or some adjoining ‘dry creek’ and basically empty out all the water. We’ll refill it with the automatic fill apparatus we installed and work away elsewhere while it fills up, runs again and then clears itself a further step. We’ll repeat this step more than once, looking for that clear water.

(click on all pictures to enlarge)

Here we can see¬†the water’s¬†still running pretty murky, as we will also see in a lower photo. About this time, generally speaking, we are ready to start planting the plants and running lighting wire for the outdoor lighting system. You can see our ’12-2′ low voltage lighting¬†cable (above) which we ran to a light under that small falls there. Some wires were also sent through the creek, between the rocks and over to the other side for uplighting trees with.

We also began adding the decomposed granite (“D.G.”) which compacts well and which will provide the traffic surfaces for the horseshoe pit, seen below leading off from the upper patio area. We are add “D.G.” to the pathways on the upper hillside which we carved out. We are pretty much at the compacting stage at this juncture. We will pack them, then get them wet and they tend to crust over nicely. In time, they make a perfect bottom.

Drainage Issue: What is a tedious chore is getting the grade just right, making sure rainwater and irrigation water all are directed away from the house to somewhere relevant that can conduct it then disperse it – in this home’s case – out to the front street. That’s a long way and we made small rock-filled creek beds to do this with. These end up being an aesthetic feature when possible, in the end, adding a designed touch to a very functional consideration. In the picture below, in the distance, you can make out a small creek bed we installed for this purpose. Basically, half the lawn and lower section drains directly to there.

Time to start planting! Bear in mind, this is as exciting as it gets for me. I always see the future in what I put in the ground. Frankly, a newly-planted landscape can look pretty barren when just-finished, and especially one this large. I posted a picture below that shows us¬†a look at this landscaping 3 years later. Suffice to say, you won’t believe the change. Yes, it is the same place.

OK, so on with the planting and the Green part of the gig:

It’s looking a bit more orderly out there now, don’t you think?

Hey!¬† Here’s the sod! (below) The sod comes on pallets of about 550 square feet each, with about 60-65 rolls per pallet or so. We lay these suckers one at a time, just like a carpet. While it is an exceedingly reliable “plant”, the grass, since it occupies so much space, is a huge development towards finishing. It makes everyone’s day, honestly. Grass is the one finishing operation that really brings it all together and points the way ‘over the hump’. There is much to be done yet, but there is something “final” about seeing the green grass outside after staring at dust and mud for a month or so.

Here, we are adding the final pieces, getting ready to trim the edges, roll it all down firmly, then give it its first dose of good watering. We will adjust the sprinklers perfectly at this time and set the clock for a test of it. Right now, Hugo is adjusting the radio, a constant need (!) while sodding as everyone must surely know! We had some good dance music going on for much of this, I remember. Yes, some of it was Mexican on demand, but I got my time in with some good R & B, too. Sam and Dave and James Brown can do a lot for motivation!

Here’s a look from above. What a difference a day makes!

The two colors of the grass were merely different crops, cut at different times. I warned them of this possibility and that it meant zero, in the end. Inasmuch as the grass comes essentially fertilized, it takes about two-three days for the green to really start setting in.

Our remaining work is all “finishing” at this stage. I term applying the drip ¬†irrigation to all the plants as “finishing”, although classically, it’s still strictly ¬†‘construction’. While setting up the drip irrigation lines and running the appropriately sized pipes and emitters to the trees and plants we bury the lines, then rake the dirt¬†– in other words, we finish those areas. This project would not need mulching until some future date, owing to the expense – it was one of the ways we budgeted things – and it turned out delightfully. We were able to use a pre-emergent herbicide for the first two years and the weeds just never got any purchase at all. Jeff and Denise were also able to add plants wherever they wanted quite a bit easier than by dealing with a mulch cover.

Here below,¬†Romero is adding the emitters to the “main line”, a 3/4″ drip line that he sends a bit of smaller pipe off of attached to an emitter which regulates the amount of water delivered to the plants roots per hour. The coiled pipe seen in the picture above is this 3/4″ pipe. It goes to every single plant on the property, run off a valve in a timed release.

Drip irrigation is the single greatest achievement in landscape technology in my recent memory. It applies the water exactly where it goes – to the roots – and does not evaporate in the air or cause wasteful watering which is endemic with spray systems. For those who wonder, that’s a Weeping Larch tree beside Romero there, a favorite plant of mine. The Larch is one of only two deciduous conifers in the world. They look amazing in the Spring, when they ‘re-needle’, in a soft green that gets greener. The weeping characteristic I have always found terrific around water features. “Weepers” are a Steve characteristic.

We also did work on the upper paths, naturally, but in every respect relating to finishing, starting with the top –¬†running the irrigation up there and then bringing it around – we were always working our way ‘out’.

Here’s the patio area. The grass is greening up as promised and the line is about to be buried.

Time for the all-important “Road Testing” of the horseshoe pit. The owner, Jeff, was never going to be easy to please, and especially with his Father-in-Law as competition. I gave them a break and didn’t compete with them. They got a break without knowing it, lucky stiffs. I would’a massacred ’em. ¬†ūüėČ

He liked it!  Well, we were just about finished. Please note the scrawny and tiny little plants all set there looking so lonely and forlorn. Then please look at the picture at the very bottom, 3 short years later.

Meanwhile, guess where our next project was!

Here you go, three years later! Different?

Here’s another look at the more mature place:

In the end, I stood next to Denise as¬†I collected¬†the final check and we had a moment to assess everything – the relations, the progress, the push and pull sometimes, all in respectful ways – and we shared one of the best moments I ever had as a contractor. We hugged briefly, and she spoke of all the guys she would miss (It’s an excellent, proud, professional and nice crew)¬†and how the action would be so slow now for her hyped-up young red heads and how they’d miss seeing us. (It did take a full month to do.). I looked at her and I quietly asked: “Denise, do you like it?”


Denise started sobbing. “God, Steve, I l-l-l-ove it!” she said, tearfully. I looked at her and was just awed. I was dumbstruck, I swear. She was telling the truth. We had shared the deepst sort of history and a nice and sincere warmth together in just that moment and not just then, either. I was embarrassed, because I had put a lot into it, myself,¬†and I began tearing up a little myself. Honestly, who wouldn’t??

It was just the best dang thing I ever heard. I’ll cherish that one moment forever. Love you, Denise!

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 Рeventually Рbikes 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 Рno that is an understatement Рwhat 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 Рthere 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??¬† ūüėȬ† 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.

High End Landscaping – Workin’ For The Rich Folks

Landscaping at the lunatic fringe of wealth, like carpeting at the lunatic fringe of wealth, or any other contracting trade, is its own class. Whereas it is a most heavenly possibility to help relieve these people from their overburdened wallets and bank accounts, the results can be disappointing, sad to say. Let’s just leave it at the point that not every encounter with the Uber-Wealthy is a positive experience. In fact, it’s about 50-50, the truth is.

I will absolutely not name names in my blog, other than referring to conversations of a casual or humorous nature. But I can tell of stories where people were strikingly miserable who were wealthy into the hundreds of millions and even billions. They’re people too! They need landscaping and all that stuff. Let’s just say – on a personal level – in many cases people get predictably suspicious of others when they have a lot. There is something to the adage that plenty yields some paranoia. Sometimes, a whole dam lot of it. In some cases, it becomes a threat to your own security. The rich play by their own sets of rules. In fact, many is the time that they make them up!

Anyway, rather than continue this line, knowing nothing we can say will change things that much, just know that merely working for impressive people with “beyond-impressive” homes is not some automatic entree to becoming rich one’s self. You can also go broke working for them – and almost just as easy. Sometimes – through no real fault of your own.

Here’s the third most expensive home in the US: (weighing in at a mere $100 million)

all pictures enlarge by clicking them


Here’s the pool! That’s marble, by the way.


Now, I admit, that was something of a freak show. In one case, it may well have been the most nervous time I ever spent landscaping. We literally had to transport ourselves in a huge excavator, complete with about an 8 ton boulder in our grasp, for placing in a water feature I regret to say I have no pictures of. The slightest rock or article in the way as we crept inside could have tipped the machine enough to scar the walls – or worse, of course – of the granite facing, there was that little tolerance. In fact, we graded and raked towards a perfect finish underneath, just so we could get that monster machine between the walls without incident. It was a white knuckle experience, right off the get go. In fact, as interesting as this project might seem to an outsider, it was a small version of Hell in many ways, there were so many eyes, including the owners – on us at all times. Nor did we last – lol, there were a total of 5 different companies who worked on the project, jettisoned one after another like players on a chessboard. Some projects are not worth the trouble, frankly. And that’s a tough lesson.

Now here’s a mere 17 million dollar home. Now we’re slumming!! Actually, this homeowner was in the dumps at various times for reasons which were his own, lol. I confess, I never really cared for the dude. He once referred to it as a “dump”. Go figure. Fortunately, we were contracted by the builder, rather than the owner, so we almost got paid completely! Oh – I almost forgot – it’s rare to get all your money with many of the more miserable of these types. What really makes that odd is the generation of higher prices to begin with for the proactive contractor, familiar with their ways. I once literally gave a rebate to a client in this category of wealth because he paid his bill in full. I’m not kidding, either. It may well have been the best few bucks I ever spent too. He sent more people my way than I had time to do.

So here’s what $450,000 worth of landscaping will get you: (bear in mind the more open areas were filled with perennial and annual plants and some very gorgeous lamps and lighting which were articles of beauty on their own at about $250 a piece, copper tulips, in fact, with blooms for lights, all multicolored. It is typical of this site that my pictures are made either during construction or soon – like real soon – after completion. We then move on.)


That waterfall there is a two part deal, branching out at the top and going in both directions. Here is the other side of it:


From the street, here is a longer range view:


Nor were these the only water features! We installed this one up by the front door.


It’s rather hard to make out owing to the fact that our drip irrigation¬† sprayers were on at the time. Those Aspens, by the way, were our additions. 30′ feet high, it was a mighty tight fit putting them in so close to the house. They each weighed a couple of tons and were placed by a monstrous hydraulic tree spade, along with some Noble and White Firs we placed at other locations nearby.

Anyway, here is what the little water feature looked like in process. From this:


To this, then the finished product above. What was funny was that we decided to toss this in as a “toss-in”:


It had one humongous rear patio of stamped concrete:


The stone work was a triumph, however. These walls really add to the overall ambiance terrifically:


The driveway was an interesting mix of brick pavers and stamped concrete.


I really enjoyed the brick work on this project. It worked out outstandingly. Note the Firs in the picture above. Those we also planted, same with the Aspens. Here is a look at the large trees we inserted before we worked on the pavers. One is before we finished the project and the other is after. Of perhaps even more interest is a look at the wild numbers of electrical wiring, pipes and the general traffic in underground services, shown only slightly in the picture just below. Wiring for lights was inserted at the same time as the irrigation piping, irrigation wiring, electrical for the pumps running the water feature (220V) and even power for the heat tape and security gate which goes under the brick driveway:



Stressful at times, yet often resulting in sublime satisfaction for purely selfish reasons as an artisan and tradesman, projects such as these are what we literally die for.


I have a few of these cataloged and I await some pictures from my brother which include other outrageous projects, all of which mixed pleasure and pain in ample amounts – and in every conceivable way.



Making A Somewhat Formal Waterfall



My good and hard-working friend Rick Barrett analyzes his most recent impossible situation, looking for clues. We got a call from a designer in Portland who designed this most interesting water feature from the comfort of her drawing board. While we agreed it would be a beautiful edifice, we also wondered just how we’d pull it off. The notion of hanging the deep black slate, composed of various thicknesses but the same color, off a block cement wall posed some bizarre and – to us – new material. It would have to be cement, owing to the varied thicknesses of the slate. All sort of adhesives could do the job, but the thickness thing hung us up. We needed a material which would allow us some “squeeze room” in order to have the absolutely perfect outer dimensions to align. Anything other than perfection – with water flowing over it – would show up like crazy.¬† And this referred not only to the top lip, where it would be grievous if not straight, but the front and sides as well.

Of course, I neglected to mention that the plan also called for adding real rocks at the front and a corner of both levels of the falls system, making the cement idea even more emphatically needed.

(click on any image to enlarge)


So we arrived at a conclusion – erect the walls first, then nail burlap to the block walls, which would give the cement something to grab onto. It would also allow us just enough “wiggle room” to align all the slabs of slate so that they matched at every possible angle. Now, inasmuch as we are working with a natural stone product, total perfection would be absurd, layered and split as they are. But I believe Rick¬† got very, very close.

He’s a working dude! ūüėČ


I missed many episodes, picture-wise, as the construction proceeded, which I now regret. Often, we were busy elsewhere from the rear of the home, working on the landscaping out front or one the sides, which involved irrigation and the construction of some garden carpentry projects.  Rick did almost every bit of the water feature by himself. He also Рit bears mentioning Рerected the stone walls. I thought his work was masterful and so did the client and even the designer.

The blue tarp, for the record, was not only handy for preventing the brick walls from getting splashed with wet cement or from the splatter from the debris of brick and stone-cutting, but it also doubled as a “rain roof”, keeping the guys and the stuff dry.

Generally speaking, here it is on the day we pretty much left, all done up and proper.


Quite a change from the first shots…………..note the stones – and not only the Basalt Chrystal cemented around using that “exposed aggregate” concrete finish. Note as well the insertion of natural stones by the bottom basin as well, sort of stuck into the patio floor finish. It added a natural touch. The patio is also cantilevered over the water, allowing us to hide the water pump which sits in the bottom basin. There is far more to this project than meets the eye, I guess is what I am saying.


A bit longer view –


Now closer –


With some cool garden carpentry in the form of these trellises.


This was an interesting project, also.