My new clients love architecture and have a great appreciation of modern design. Their new home is a beautifully designed ultra modern split level in the West Slope neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. If you have preconceived notions about modern toss them out right here. Wow what a great house. My clients wanted to design their own landscape woodland sanctuary but the problems with the unusual site, especially in the back yard, had them baffled. Finding a landscape designer who sees her clients as design partners felt just right so they contacted me for a Landscape Design in a Day. Collaboration wins the day……… Full disclosure……….this property was too difficult to create in the same time frame as my more typical Landscape Design in a Day. It took several appointments and many more hours to reach the right design.
Easy access to the backyard from the house
What to do with the steep mound by the back doors?
Create a large enough entertainment area that is easy to access from the house
Create privacy from the adjacent park without blocking the view into the park
Block the view of 20′ concrete wall up the hill at the rear of the property. It loomed over the property
Create a planting plan for the steep shady hillside that provides year round color, and native plants for birds
Design an edibles garden for their narrow south side yard and create easier access to it
I’ve never seen a property like this one in 25 years of Portland landscapes. The back yard is separated into two sloped spaces, an uphill and a downhill divided by a gully.
There is no functional access from the house to the back yard. Reaching the back yard requires negotiating down a steep muddy slope. The only level area is too small to use and also skews the proportions of the house. The house feels as if it’s floating and not remotely connected to the site. How could we pull this property into an integrated whole?
It’s a tough one and deserves my Difficult Site Award. The house is truly amazing and I love the challenge of making the outsides match the value of the insides. Once we get the design just right and it is installed, the back yard will be a jewel…….and yep it’s going to be a lot of work.
I knew a multi-level deck would solve our 3 biggest problems.
The house is fantastic and modern so the deck design must be up to par. One way to do that is to give our deck interesting angles rather than a rectangle thrust straight out into space. Another way is to repeat the color of the house exterior in the planters and to skirt the deck to match the siding of the house. Integration is the mantra for this design.
Our deck design created several functional areas. The upper deck is for BBQ and intimate seating and sets up the transportation flow to the lower deck and north side yard. The stairs down to the lower deck is set at an angle creating both interest and best use of square footage for entertaining areas. The lower deck is for larger group dining. Their stairs help handle the grade issue (hide the steep mound) and allow us to easily reach the edibles garden.
Trex Contour Chateau Grey – deck walls and planters
Next, they tackled the deck installation which required professionals and significant expense. Now that the deck is mostly completed, boulders will be installed in a rockery style around the deck. Planting this area will follow which my clients will DIY.
The next project is the hillside. They hope to install the hillside paths and finish installing their woodland planting plan on their own. Understory trees and shrubs will soften the view of the 20′ concrete wall and provide for birds. Forest floor plants like Salal, Vancouveria and Trillium will feed birds and pollinators alike. The narrow south side yard was the only location with enough sun for the edibles garden. They installed this garden right away, satisfying their gardening itch.
“We are grateful that our painstaking research of local landscape designers led us to Carol and Alana. After a preliminary questionnaire to elicit our preferences, Carol and Alana spent significant quality time assessing our space and then sitting down with us at the dining table to begin their detailed and highly-tailored design process. We look forward to seeing our plants and gardens grow over the coming years and thoroughly trust that Carol and Alana have set us down the path of greatest success.”
Thank you to my collaborators; my clients and my design associate Alana Chau. For more information on how we can help your landscape design, contact us!
A Portland residential landscape designer shares her thoughts about placing a firepit.
My client Lisa had a dream about sitting out in her garden even when it’s cold. I was enthusiastic until I heard she wanted a fixed location firepit. I’m a little nervous about long term commitments when they come to firepits. I’ve seen too many whose poor placement ruined the flow of the entire back yard. It can be awkward to use and too expensive to remove and correct. Here’s how I think about it.
The Firepit Must Be Integrated into the Design
The fire pit must be visually subordinate to the overall garden design. It’s easy to get excited about a firepit and forget about the other purposes of the backyard.
It must be integrated into the design and must work well with the other functions of an outdoor living room. For instance, there has to be ample room between the firepit area and the dining area or it feels clunky and cramped. Lisa’s dining table is on her deck so we had no crowding issues.
Watch out for Pointing Corners
When the firepit is a square or a rectangle we need to be sure the corners are not pointing at the door to the house. Walking toward a strong point doesn’t feel inviting, it’s a basic feng shui principle that is very powerful and I keep a “sharp” eye out to avoid this problem in all my designs.
I prefer the materials for the firepit and the patio hardscape have strong contrast. The patio surface is square concrete pavers so we went with a multiple sized natural stone for the firepit walls. This is important. It will look outright bad in my opinion, if this contrast is not factored into material choices. Concrete paver for the patio and then repeating something similar or worse, matching is my idea of a mistake.
The way I made the firepit subordinate visually was easy since Lisa is a serious gardener……….by which I mean she is knowledgeable but very serious about having fun with her plants. There are 4 rooms to this garden. The firepit, the bird sanctuary patio, the existing rustic deck, and the raised sun garden. The plants weave in and out of these rooms softening the entry to each
room and integrating them into one garden. I also love how the angle of the firepit wall leads the eye straight to the bird sanctuary patio.
We worked closely with D & J Landscape Contractors and NW Natural gas company for Lisa’s gas firepit. She met with the gas company and made the final decisions. The result is fabulous. It’s large enough to provide real heat and the ambiance it creates is so welcoming.
Landscape East & West, a large local landscape installation company has a blog regarding fire pits.
It’s the water
To advocate the use of Manzanita is to advocate the use of drought tolerant plants. Happily we landscape designers are encountering more clients these days who want a low water landscape or want a completely drought tolerant yard. I can advise about the site conditions drought tolerant plants require and select attractive plants that meet the curb appeal test in addition to drought tolerance.
It’s a new look for the landscape. My younger clients are done with rhododendrons and azaleas, which are somewhat over used here. While Manzanita has attractive flowers, it is the whole package, foliage color, shape of plant, bark color and flower that is creating the popularity. I’m especially happy with the boost these plants give to the winter landscape.
Fusion of modern style with NW Natural
These plants are too naturalistic for formal landscapes but they look great with modern and craftsmen homes. Style-wise Manzanita fit nicely with NW natural, Mediterranean or even a southwestern look. We get strong foliage contrast with leaf blades (Yucca or ornamental grass), tiny needles like dwarf conifer, heather (calluna type), lavender or fat leafed succulents like hens and chicks or sedum palmeri or other sedums.
New kinds of Manzanita to use in landscapes
The fact that we now have more than one kind of Manzanita we can use can be laid at the feet of a handful of people who have crossed different kinds of Manzinita to produce plants that can thrive in our rich Willamette Valley soils. They then tested the plant in different soil conditions and identified the plants that can handle life in an non irrigated garden or landscape.
When I started my Portland landscape design practice in the 1990’s there was a native Manzanita tree from the Oregon coast that “sometimes” survived here. They are so beautiful that I was tempted. Still “sometimes” was not good enough for my designs. I needed cold hardy Manzanita ground covers, shrubs, and small trees that would thrive here in the Willamette Valley and there weren’t any. Now I have them!!!
This benefit could take some time to realize. Manzanita leaves contain a substance that discourages weeds. Leaves that shed from the plant should be left in place. It takes several years for these small leaves to build up enough of the substance in your soil to be effective.
One of the common mistakes with Manzanita is to underestimate the width of the shrubs and small trees. Most cannot be pruned heavily and can be rendered so unattractive by pruning that tries to contain them, they will be removed. If you have no pruning skills (and most people don’t) be sure to place these plants where they have room to mature with yearly tip pruning only.
Where to find these plants?
While Xera Plants, Inc. and Cistus Nursery are the primary resource for retail, there are the Hardy Plant Society Sales (spring and fall) and tried and true mail order plant resources. If you are wanting drought tolerant landscaping and need a landscape designer contact me, I love to design with Manzanita.
As a Portland landscape designer I enjoy helping clients who want modern landscape design plants.
While well crafted hardscape is the key element to a successful modern style landscape, plant selection and how they are used is critical.
Here are a few things I keep in mind. Balanced plant repetition, contrasting textures and overall shapes of plants, full season interest plantings, and low maintenance plants. Keep in mind that the typical plants for modern style are not great for wildlife because they lack diversity. My designs consider the clients many unique interests. A modern style design can have wildlife friendly plants included.
Here are 10 plants that work well for modern landscape design and are fairly easy to find.
Japanese Holly ‘Sky Pencil’ – Ilex crenata (pictured)
Italian Cypress ‘Tiny Towers’ – Cupressus semptervirens
Italian Cypress ‘Swane’s Golden’ – Cupressus sempervirens
Black Mondo grass – Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’
Green Japanese Mondo grass – Ophiopogon japonicus
Hens and Chicks – Sempervivum
Grama Grass ‘ Blonde Ambition‘ – Boutelous gracilis
American Switch Grass ‘ Shenendoah’ – Panicum virgatum
Nandina D. ‘Firepower’ – Nandina domestica (dwarf form)
Hebe (prostrate form) – Hebe Albicans ‘Sussex Carpet’
If you are looking to update your design for a modern landscape, contact Carol and start your perfect outdoor space.