My new clients have a corner lot in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. They were referred by their friend Julia whose Rose City neighborhood landscape I had designed. The flow of this back yard just didn’t work. They didn’t have anywhere to enjoy sitting outside. They tried to imagine a new design but the house and property would not cooperate. I have felt this sort of surliness from a house in the past. The house crosses its arms and says I will not let you change me. Okay that’s a little weird but this was one of those times.
Designers Site Assessment
The yard area between the driveway and kitchen door on the west side is small and well past its maximum uses. It has the back porch, a planting area with a fig tree, a basement door, a garage door and a door to the mud room and kitchen. Each door requires transportation space to access it. They were trying to use the small back porch to BBQ and sit out on but in addition to being way too small, it was hot as Hades in the summer. The sunny south side yard was narrow but had no easy access to the kitchen. The door you see above leads to the basement, not the house, so they did not use the side yard.
Landscape designers know that a great design is all about how you move through a space and this yard needed someone to treat it like the Rubik cube it was and explore what was possible.
Client Want List
They wanted a place to BBQ and sit outside in cool shade. Their small porch radiated heat and baked in the summer. They wanted shade and plantings that would bring birds and life into the landscape, plants for low water and oh did I mention SHADE? They wanted to want to use their south side yard for something but it had no easy access to the kitchen and had an extensive french drain to work around. They wanted absolutely no lawn and any new plantings to be low maintenance.
We created many different layouts for the property searching for the best use of space. We all liked the design that replaced the tiny existing porch with a multi-level deck/porch. We took out the planting bed with the fig tree. This allowed us to add a new lower level “dining” deck all the way to the fence and put the BBQ function on the upper level. Dan could not believe how much wasted space they had in the old layout and how much room they gained in the new one. But how would we provide shade to this baking area?
Getting great shade exactly where my clients wanted it was challenging. Designing overhead cover options for the new expanded 2 level porch was going to add another 8 to 15 grand. Our obvious choices were:
an arbor with canvas shade cloth – expensive
a large retractable awning – expensive
a very large tree (price tag installed at 8 to 10 grand)
The answer came from an unexpected place.
South Side Yard to the Rescue
After Alana and I flipped several layout drawings every which way, we discovered there was a perfect spot just around the house corner begging to be a small patio. We could plant a tree between this small patio sitting area and the SW sun to provide shade the very first summer. Our clients could use their new dining deck the first year on cooler days and use the new side yard patio for hot days. This small stone patio will have shade quickly. Which left us free to purchase our primary shade tree (to shade the porch) at an affordable size. We planted a 3″ caliper tree at about 12′ feet tall.
It will be 5 years before this tree provides much cooling. They will have to use an umbrella now and in ten years they will have the shade they want.
(Alana Chau was my apprentice for this Landscape Design in a Day and is now my design associate.)
The dry well and french drains were a little tricky for us. By law, landscape designers cannot make changes to drainage or make recommendations. We had to create solutions that would not disturb the drains. We knew our favorite licensed landscape contractor, Donna Burdick, would be able to simplify some of the restrictions we were given by our clients regarding the existing drain systems. Happily, our clients decided to hire Donna of D & J Landscape Contractors for the install. She had installed the design for their friend Julia as well. Donna was able to improve the grade and lessen the volume of water to the dry well which gave us more room for our plantings.
By adding a small stone patio along the side of the house and making a raised garden bed for the plants, we gave our clients a reason to enjoy their side yard which previously had been a dead zone. Dan says, “it’s so much better being back here because it is so much more alive. Now there are birds and bees in the garden.” This planting area includes pollinator friendly cone flower, lavander and nearby native plants such as vine maple, ocean spray, salal and sword fern. We included a manzanita for hummingbirds and winter flowers.
I confess I agonized over the selection. I wanted to use a Kentucky Coffee tree for its fast shade and strong wood but could not find one big enough to start with. I also toyed with an unusual evergreen oak but it grew too slowly. I finally went with a Japanese Elm, Zelkoua serrata ‘City Sprite’ because I could find it in the perfect size for planting and it would not get too wide for the space between the garage and the second story of the house. The “surprise patio” tree is a Cornelian Cherry, proper name is Cornus Mas and it is an unusual form of dogwood. It’s a wonderful tree for birds, handles hot sun well or part shade and will be a smaller round headed tree.
The Family Entry
The driveway didn’t have enough room to get out of the car comfortably because of the location of the fence and gate. I have to comment that my clients were fine with the tight access from the car. I am the one that felt it was too tight. It was hard for them to believe that giving up 18″ of their precious deck dining area could possibly be smart. However, they were sure they only needed room for 4 people on the dining deck and that 90% of the time it would be 2. That gave me a stronger reason to gently push my idea about a spacious entry area from the driveway. Christie was the one who parked in the driveway and I think maybe she thought I was nuts at first. Happily they went for adding the additional space to the driveway area which gave us room to set the new gate at a welcoming 45 degree angle. They still had comfortable access into their new back yard whether carrying groceries or something more complicated. They lost their existing fig tree to the new dining deck – it was extra sweet to find the perfect spot for a fig tree in the new design.
Materials used in the design
Variegated Lavender Blue stone for the dry set flagstone patio and path
Cedar decking 2 x 6
Deck stain brand is Storm – color is cedar
1/4″ minus compacted crushed rock for the paths
Mossy rock for the raised planting bed -It has a rustic feel to it that I like and it will moss up nicely. It also has the advantage of being lighter than basalt so easier for the contractors to bring in and use.
Check out the beautiful gate!!!
Cable railing for the deck; Dan says the open cable railing makes the whole garden feel like one space including the deck. He loves it.