Renovations Vs New Construction-The Ultimate Cosmetic

45 Which do I prefer? Renovating an existing place or working with new homes, set on earth and nothing else? In landscaping, it’s almost a tossup. Going in and facing this totally blank tableau of dust and flat or steeply-angled dirt has much appeal. So much appeals immediately – images form based on one’s experience and garden design logic based on the past. The very idea of wrestling something civilized and becoming out of simple bare earth has a rare fascination. (enlarge all pictures by left-clicking the image) part9rI have always depicted landscaping itself as an “Ultimate Cosmetic”. There are very few trades indeed who literally “finish” the expanses we deal with on a daily basis. I was told by the owner of this home, below, to “do what I wanted”. It was 10 acres.  😉  Sure enough, we did and he paid happily for the service. We began, more or less, right here:

212 And we ended up with these two views – for a microcosmic look at progress:


Crystal Springs March 3 09 259

Panning out – we have this oft-cited photo from here: (big job on lots and lots and lots of dust)


This has always been a favorite of mine..under the new construction theme:

With an interesting result:

And yet, we also have undertaken projects such as the one below by crashing our way back into the thickets of forestation and undergrowth, rendering it something else entirely.

bo-020What you see on the periphery of this pond and patio was what was at the exact spot that pond now lies. To even call this a renovation is almost funny because it involved such epic change and deconstruction first.


Other types of renovations include the epic “Get my broken cement outta here!” Such as this one:


Ending with this and a far happier client:


And on and on it goes………. Truth is, they all have many moments of pure constructive joy, along with injury and accidental failures and successes. Landscaping itself is creating something from either nothing or recreating Nature with our own intervention.

Face it. It can get pretty wild going from this:


To this:


As for renovations, this is almost not fair. From this humble beginning:

We achieved this result:

And this:

Became this guy:

And this:

Generally Cool Files – Front Yards

Feeling a bit random, my current urge is to go through some old files and reminisce a bit about discoveries made in the world of plants, flowers, design and installation. My first design enthusiasms so often dealt with front yards. Since so many of the homes I landscaped came fully equipped with dust or mud and nothing else, most people contracted wanted a fresh face to welcome visitors with. Back yards, as fully recreational and private as they could eventually be, pretty much always finished second in the “presentation” category of landscaping concerns.

Neighborhoods bust it out in Spring – to the max! How can we augment such beauty at our own homes?

Se we labored at “Faces”, presenting the best possible ones.

Gentle greenery at my brother’s ex-house presents a lush and relaxed greeting, profuse with perennial promises yet relentlessly green in all the various shades. Theirs is a very Portland-esque sort of greenery and treatment.

Below, something a bit different – a front yard landscape in Reno, Nevada featuring just a swath of grass in an amoebic shape with very defined and maintained borders.

The range of perennials as well as more permanent shrubs including the very obvious Purple Smoke Tree and Variegated Dogwood shrubs offer a selection of sizes, colors and effects, hopefully all very pleasing to the eye and all timed to bloom at various times during a year.

Below, also in Reno, we were able to obtain some sizable and gorgeous Tanyosho Pines to place as welcoming sentinels aside the garden gate. A profusion of other goodies are clustered around them but these are the true anchors of this landscape.

This picture is taken in the first year after installation. Later growth was pretty robust, with ample color and variation setting up a very interesting walk down to the front gate.

 Other front yards of a more standard variety are easy to maintain and offer the succulent greens and colors which invariably please the eye.

Simple, in this sense, is not a bad thing at all. Spicing things up with an interesting shape of lawn or sidewalk can add interest, depth and overall beauty.

Still others enjoy a “special” category of complexity and a focused diversity of form and function.

There is also always the effort made by apartments and more public spaces to present that enhancing face of things to busy people, just to slow them down enough to “smell the roses”.

Imagine what adding something as simple as a strategically-placed watering can could do for your yard!

Landscape and Garden Design Implications of Water Conservation

It is almost embarrassing to live in Louisville, Kentucky owing to the current weather trends. In mid-November we have yet to experience below freezing temperatures. The entire year has been incredibly moderate with near perfect periodic rainfall supplying near-perfect landscaping conditions. The very notion of some impending drought seems ultimately wacky.

But I sympathize with other geographical micro climates, having lived there and having always suspected this pass of water angst. The ideas below may seem absurd to Kentuckians, yet many of the artistic principles are being adopted here for purely aesthetic reasons. That is a also product of smaller land areas and sometimes with homes built on tricky land forms. Urban life, of course, deals heavily with dense populations and somewhat smaller plots for homes. And – make no mistake – water will become an issue at some point, even if it implies shipping it out and allocations of local water intentionally allotted at a higher level to those in need. And now I am making this unnecessarily long.


I have 500 posts in a blog produced over the past 9 years, making it incredibly easy to forget how many times I have addressed a topic. 😉

It turns out, after a small audit, I have a dozen or more articles relating to water conservation. In reviewing these, it was almost like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey choosing which ones to recirculate and why. But topical it remains, this entire water problem, particularly now with corporations buying water rights as a new investment tool, then undoubtedly allocating the supplies which were once free-wheeling and natural to us all. I hope the seriousness with which I view this now-growing problematic situation comes through.

All pictures in this post are of my own designs and installations. I have always felt a personal experience viewpoint delivers a more impactful statement of a subject of any complexity at all, because we can see my own adaptations to the realities, instead of it being some theoretical concept.

Water may well end up as the “new Oil”, in terms of resource value. Understanding this will matter as time goes on, especially Out West in the United States, as well as in countless other climates and continents. This is a recirculated post which – combined with a part 2 – explains how one town deals with landscaping in the midst of water shortages.

With the thought of conserving water borne foremost in mind, what does an unrepentant garden lover do to adjust to the new realities? How do we change the way we design gardens and landscapes? What fundamental changes are required in us to develop gardens in still-beautiful ways when we face so many hard decisions about social responsibility and in such a public way? Let’s face it – as I have said before, landscaping is the “Ultimate Cosmetic”. No one deals with a larger palette.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


What do we do when we find out we have an actual budgeted amount of water use? As absurd as this question may sound, it is the height of design wisdom. Water auditing for existing landscapes and gardens have been and should take place prior to their installation or further development. A sense of how much water we have used in the past should reflect favorably on making changes to lessen them in some very specific ways. The methods are out there and the results for redeveloping existing lawns and gardens as well as for installing future ones can be and should be more than exciting, actually. There is much to learn but it does not have to be anywhere close to disastrous. The fact is, done right, we can literally make things better as opposed to merely settling for some dire end.

(click all images to enlarge)


What to do with grass lawns?

In the first place, the primary sponge for water in typical landscapes remains lawns. I have always maintained that cutting down lawn space actually can give a completely new and fresher look to an existing home landscape. While lawns serve a variety of functions, including a place for children to play (perhaps its most important role, IMO), they do not have to be a monolithic presence. Broken up appropriately, over time, a lawn can change into many things, among them an adjunct and contrast to new color and new features. Lawns do not have to be gigantic at all. Inasmuch as their cool characteristics make them so similar to water in a landscape design’s effects, leaving a pool or “lake” of green is wise and refreshing.

Cutting the size down to resemble a feature in their own right can include shaping them to reflect their “semi-aqueous” nature. It can set a lawn apart, actually and thereby take advantage of how glorious colors look as a backdrop to swaths of green.

Grass can be engineered to resemble a literal trail, or pathway. Instead of having a monstrous assembly of grass as a mono-colored foreground, it can lead to interesting places, offering a cool walk in bare feet to inspect the place better. At the same time we find it interesting in form as well as function. The gentle and most inviting curves of a lawn lead the eye on in a wholesome way, appreciating the structure and form of a landscape itself. It’s a bath in cooling and soothing color and texture – the perfect use of grass lawns to a designer.

Lawn grasses have been developed now which send their roots an insane depth, which require far less watering and are virtually geared to a more responsible water usage. They stay just as green for longer during Summers- in fact, more so than Bluegrass – owing to their drought tolerant natures.

My bottom line is this: so far, I have not cut out the notion of grass lawns, simply because I happen to love them. Admittedly, they should be used far, far less in desert climates – among others – and there is a body of thought that has no need whatsoever for a lawn to make a garden beautiful. In fact, let’s visit some of them now.

How do we replace lawns in design?

This is a huge and interesting subject. It reflects all that is newest in landscaping, from the array and plenitude of hard-scaping materials to even water features themselves. I realize how ironic it must seem to proclaim a water feature to be some sort of alternative method of landscaping with less water. But they do. And they do it well, indeed.

Water features recirculate water. Once filled, the same water does the same dance over and over and over – well, you get it. Yes, there can be evaporation loss and, yes, we install automatic fill mechanisms to “top off” the feature once it reaches a certain lowered level. But, even in hot and sun-drenched and hot Nevada, we rarely run a 3/4″ feed pipe more than 2 minutes a day on normal sized features, implying the use of about 30 gallons, or less than a shower a day.

Landscapes whose be-all and end-all in the past was a wide expanse of lawn studded with trees have now become far more complex and interesting. In place of the expensive water-thirsty lawn, we now have “features”, like this water feature and the pretty patio and walkway pictured here. Full of color and shape, the carnival atmosphere lightens the mood yet still provides a consistency of form and function. The ultimate irony of a landscape such as this is that, after figuring the watering costs for a lawn set ion the same place over time, this place will have comparatively paid for itself in three years. After that it is just beauty and money.

The home owner of this place below wanted lawn and nothing else. He owns a car dealership and he listened closely as we explained what the costs of lawns was and where they were headed. As a businessman, he investigated on his own as well, having some thinking fodder to work with. Delighted with his research, he assigned the water feature you see below which he thoroughly and absolutely relishes watching as it rushes along below his patio deck above. Lit up at night, the falls and the creek have phosphorescent appearances at three different falls locations. As with all well-installed features, such as lighting and waterfalls with pumps, it runs off a timer and stops automatically to preserve power. He also served good wine. 😉

The source:

A different mind set in general accompanies all this increasingly complex designing, now that the monolithic lawn is out of consideration. Suddenly, things like more patio space are entertained. The notion of sculpting the actual land by creating hills and mounds studded with rocks and plants becomes a fascinating alternative, making the entirety of any landscape suddenly more riveting an event. More park-like, less boring, more interesting and livelier by far, suddenly we are actually released to play around a little bit. Art seeps into the equation at about this time and all designers, I bet, can trace the moment of this discovery. It actually gets a bit intimidating, the truth is, because designers become far freer to experiment and to entertain alternatives for the regular folks – instead of just for the wealthy. In fact, it becomes an imperative.

We arrive at features like Bubble Rocks.

We do new things – different things – things like inserting lighting, making vineyards, enlarging patio space and making walking platforms from natural stone – all of which I will show next as we consider what features we deem suitable for a water-conserving regime which retains beauty before all else.

Recapping – Water Bills, Irrigation and Design

This is a relatively ancient piece (all the way back from mid-2009, 😉 )  I also feel this is one of my best articles on water usage, design and general conservation issues. Please note the quantities I list from our everyday activities so that we can have some quantitative material with which to address our own roles in understanding this complex but needful subject.

(enlarge pics by clicking)

Many thanks to Annette, the proprietor and blogger also known as Israel Mom for taking these pictures. Thay fit like a glove: (A big one).


How many of us actually read our water bills? I remember once, long ago, checking ours and I discovered we used nearly 20,000 gallons of water one July. I went………..”Whoa, Nelly!!!”

It was a wake up call at the time, especially inasmuch as the bill included the recent increase in the rates. This is usually where it hits first.

What we now face is and will be a consistent rise in the price of water as the years go by, owing to its increasing preciousness. I submit that Global Warming is a real event and very obvious. I have no idea whatsoever of Man’s role in it and I don’t wish to even argue that.But it has always been precious – from our very origins.

The picture below was once again taken by my great good friend Annette (Thanks, Annette!!) who actually does not live far from this picture, in Caesarium, in Israel. This construction gives us an idea of the extent to which Man has gone to supply water in the ancient past. This is the remains of an aqueduct. That small trough at the top that conducted water was the reason for this entire edifice. (Man, I love the Internet!)

(enlarge any picture by clicking)

I know that there was an Ice Age about 25,000 years ago and there is not an Ice Age today. There are caves 200 feet above Reno, Nevada where can be found fishing implements from thousands of years ago. It has become obvious that these caves were on the virtual edge of a giant “super lake” called Lake Lahontan, some 6,000 miles in square dimension. Glaciers nearby where I live are no longer glaciers. Believe me, it’s warming up and we will face it in our water bills.

And besides, were that not the case, the population explosion would have deemed it precious anyway. The planet’s population had increased by a factor of 6 over 120 years. Here in Portland, we are already facing watering restrictions almost yearly.

So I’m here to help. I think there will eventually be changes and there already are, of course, out West in the US as well as in Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and in many, many regions.

Here we have the luxury of being able to consider such things as landscaping and edible or even flower gardening. Home owners and just plain garden lovers can devote lavish attention to something objective and stress-relieving in the pursuits and in the wonderful ambiance of our sitting gardens. As well, we can enjoy the labor of love towards them and our flower and food gardens. They are abundantly healthy for us and for others, in the end. And we can take so many different directions

I realize how odd it seems to put something like a swimming pool into a water conservation post, but the gallons of water used after filling are actually rather small. In fact, far less than watering a lawn, for example.

Maybe this next one resounds more with a way to get an interesting design while saving water. The scarcity of plantings can be an asset, as well as the fact that all the plants are fed via underground drip irrigation technology. The amount of water this landscape uses is less than, say, taking two baths a day. And it is not small.

Another view of the same property:

It turns out there are many ways to use water more efficiently. In fact, almost anywhere where we are compelled to take a watering can or to use a water wasting hose, we could get that same work done automatically and more efficiently by irrigating. Drip irrigation has the capacity to climb – I have installed many and various drip units to feed hanging baskets suspended 6-8 feet off the ground and for irrigating pots on the ground. I have had lines climb sculptures and have even bored holes in both cement and granite boulders to be able to irrigate a small plant ot basket/pot.

In drip irrigation, any emitter can put out a pre-designated amount of water. On hanging baskets, I typically install an emitter which has a device that can control the amount by a small turning up or down. The maximum is rarely reached but the amounts can be tweaked daily and easily if desired. In warm weather, we can put more water in by tweaking the mechanism, in cooler weather, by turning it down.

Here, once again, is a list of how much water we use during a typical day doing those things we do:

Bath: 50 gallons
Shower: 2 gallons per minute (15 minutes shower = 30 gallons)
Teeth brushing: 1 gallon
Hands/face washing: 1 gallon
Face/leg shaving: 1 gallon
Dishwasher: 20 gallons/load
Dishwashing by hand: 5 gallons/load
Clothes washing (machine): : 10 gallons/load
Toilet flush: 3 gallons
Glasses of water drunk: 8 oz. per glass (1/16th of a gallon)

Obviously, this is the baseline I use in my own considerations of how much water I want to see used.  What I am saying more than anything is that there are methods of ascertaining how much water we use up, and where. My other contention is that it is possible to use water at the same rate as almost anything else, like toilet flushing and bathing. Our bills do not have to spike at all during warm seasons, in order to have full, lush gardens and landscapes. It is by use of better irrigation practices and of utilizing all the design tools at our disposal that we can create even nicer gardens at a tenth of the water use.

Adding a room!

If we opt for doing things “the interesting way” by solving old landscaping problems once reserved for water-wasting lawns, we find we can still even have some lawn available for use, just less. And by “interesting” I mean by regarding the entire garden differently. Any more, there are more and more ways to expand out living area to the out of doors. Up-lighting now means we can build virtual “walls” of light at night, forming a limit on our field of vision and virtually visually enclosing an area of interest. Inside that area, we can feature interesting “hot zones”, where we make a waterfall “phosphorescent” by placing a low wattage Haloid lamp under a falls. (Thanks to “Outdoor Lighting Perspectives” for the picture):

All these things make things – well – different now. We are finding ourselves considering landscapes and gardens closer at hand, much more immediate than the models many of us were raised with – the expansive “Estate Garden”. Even now I actually do put some of those in. But they are typically done where someone has their own water source, fed from wells, so that his own water actually gets reused. Here’s one of those taken from one of the tiers. I actually feature this project in an earlier post under “Large Landscaping Project – 2”.  (You can see I have a way with words!)  😉

But there’s no way this is anything but eye candy, maintenance intensive (‘fuhgitaboudit’) and an impossible dream to most of us. More than likely, a picture such as this captures most of our hopes in terms of lawn size:

Presenting a gorgeous front and then actually living in the back yard is what so many of my clients have gravitated to. Finding a place to relax and enjoy, away from the madding crowds. And this is where it always gets most interesting to me, personally. Sticking in thematic but novel things such as sculptures, water features, larger patios for entertaining make a yard far more interesting. Here’s the thing –  we can do all these things on a fraction of the watering than we have become accustomed to. Even small spaces, squeezed in on hillsides in a desert climate can yield a terrifically reduced field of interest right off the back deck. The trees here are also lit up at night on the outer perimeter. Watering this place takes a bath a day.

There are lots of options in the water-saving realm of landscaping and design. You can choose any number of remarkably diverse styles and budgets.

I have studied all this pretty assiduously

And my best advice is to make sure you have some fun, work within a budget, and think for yourself – your ideas are still what makes it all go.