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Modern Landscape Design for Family and Dogs

How to Adapt When the Modern Landscape Design Changes

Before photo of dog only back yard in Mt Tabor neighborhood needs modern outdoor entertaining areaMy new clients are a family of six, four humans and two dogs. Their home near Portland’s Mt Tabor is three stories (2 plus a daylight basement) of mid century modern. It’s what I call a sleeper home. The front facade is attractive and simple –  so walking in the door to see the remodeled interior is an exciting surprise. They clearly know good design when they see it as they worked closely with an architect to achieve the  stylish and perfectly proportioned modern interior.

Clients Wish List:

Create a backyard landscape with an inviting sitting and entertaining area, a non structured kids play area, 1 or 2 raised beds for flowers or edibles and very low maintenance plantings.  Help make the back yard for everyone, not just the dogs.

Site Description:

The property has difficult access to the back yard. The family has to walk down a flight of stairs. It’s hard on their oldest dog. The only other access means going down and out the first floor, which is not used regularly. They primarily enjoyed the outdoors from balconies on the upper floors. The view south into sky and their tree tops (13 mature conifers) was lovely from the house. The large yard was lined with huge trees creating lots of privacy and bird habitat. The center of the yard was a blank slate.

The primary activity associated with the back yard was cleaning up dog poop, avoiding it or stepping in it and mowing the wild lawn in the spring and fall. It was not irrigated in the summer.

Designers  Solutions:

After photo of modern landscape design in Mt. Tabor neighborhood of Portland OregonAs much as I love starting with the layout first, (hardscapes, patio, planting beds etc.)  we needed to solve the dog needs first and change this to a yard for the whole family. To do that we needed to control where dogs went to relieve themselves.

I needed easy access for the dogs to get to their poop area and confine them from entering the rest of the yard. This means (it’s very simple really) the dogs can fly down the stairs to their run around and poop area but they can’t get into the main back yard except with their people.

We used the existing stairs location but made dog steps off the side of the landing allowing the dogs into a large area fenced off from the rest of the yard. This area is higher than the rest of the back yard so it’s not so far down. It’s big enough for the younger dog to romp around and do perimeter fence work, less stairs for the sweet old dog, has great shade and it’s easy for humans to get in there and clean up the poop.

After close up of hardscape in modern landscaping design in Mt. Tabor neighborhoodTo reach the back yard, we go down more stairs and enter into the outdoor family entertaining area through a gate. Dogs are invited to join their humans through this gate, after all they will get to use the big back yard too, accompanied by their humans. 90% of the poo goes in the dog yard which is covered in 6″ of special cedar chips.

New large Patio pulls the family outside

The new large concrete patio was scored in large squares to pick up the modern style of the house. These lines are repeated in the dry set large square concrete pavers set into the lawn as a path. The new patio connects to the house on the basement level. This area is covered by the existing balcony on the main floor, and has a storage area for yard toys, furniture and tools.

Finished Design or so I thought?:

We had our large outdoor entertaining and sitting area, a cedar chip area for kids unstructured play, a special area for the dogs to play and to poo,  a path into a second unstructured forest(ish) play area for the kids and a covered storage area. I specified synthetic lawn to protect the large native cedar trees. They are adverse to fertilizer and excessive water which is of course what a real lawn wants.

Sad Story – Cedar Trees have Seiridium Canker:

Before photo of dog only backyard needs attractive modern outdoor entertaining area

View from the master bedroom balcony before Seiridium Canker disease caused 11 large trees to be removed.

I referred Donna Burdick of D & J Landscape Contractors. Donna came out to meet the clients and assess the site about a year after we completed the design. Several of the cedar trees had lost significant foliage and what remained was yellow. The contractor brought an arborist out to examine the trees before moving forward.

The cedar trees had a disease called Seiridium Canker. The disease was so infectious that all 11 mature Incense cedar trees would be infected in a short time and so they were all removed. The two large Yew trees were immune and unaffected. Sadly we now had plenty of sun for real lawn………..The trees, privacy and shade were gone.

Re-Design Time:

We had plenty of light so we nixed the synthetic lawn and selected a roll out turf called RTF. (Rhizomatous Tall Fescue)

Carol Lindsay, Portland residential landscape designer sites tree in Dog Friendly landscape design in Mt Tabor neighborhood

Carol Lindsay with specialty evergreen Holly Oak (Quercus ilex) Sam of D and J Landscape Contractors just off camera will plant the new tree.

I did more research on evergreen trees for replacement. It was important the new trees be immune to the Seiridium Canker that had killed the cedar trees. After talking to a few arborists, Steven Peacock and Chad Honyl, I selected very drought tolerant trees, able to handle the expected temperatures of summers to come. The new trees will not fix the loss of privacy soon but my clients wanted a long term solution that acknowledges the climate change and is not a quick fix.

Quercus Douglasii – Blue Oak

Quercus Ilex – Holly Oak

Cupressus glabra – Arizona Cypress ‘Blue Ice’ 

Once the new trees were selected I completely redesigned the planting plan to handle the sun and fit a landscape that had real lawn and the irrigation that would accompany real lawn. On planting day I was on hand to place the new trees and see the progress. It is still shocking to me that the large trees are gone but I love the new design and most importantly so do my clients.

Client Comments:

“We only had a rough idea what we wanted at first, and knew little about plants and trees. After we finished the Landscape Design in a Day kit, Carol and her assistant Alana came to our house and went to work. We went back and forth as she created her plan, sharing our likes and dislikes. It was a pretty easy process. 

After photo freshly planted Holly Oak - Quercus ilex in newly fenced cedar chip area for dogs.

Quercus Ilex – Holly Oak is highlighted by newly installed night lighting.

One of our goals was to build out a new area for our dogs, so they could have their own comfortable place while keeping the main backyard clean and poop-free. Carol worked all of our ideas in, and we’re delighted with the new dog area. Not only that, but our new modern patio makes our backyard much more welcoming and usable.

Landscape Design in a Day was a good fit for us because we only had to set up one on-site visit and a few conference calls to participate in the collaborative design process.

The contractor she referred us to, Donna Burdick of D & J Landscape Contractors, was excellent. We would recommend Landscape Design in a Day and D & J Contractors to anyone wanting a thoughtful, worry-free experience that results in a quality landscape.  We love our new backyard!”  Steve

Materials used:

Lawn-RTF Sod – Rhizomatous Tall Fescue

Patio – Acid etched (washed) concrete creates a beautiful finish

Lawn pavers – 18″ Mutual Materials Architectural (concrete) Slabs are flush set in the lawn. The color is called Cascade.

Dog area – The retaining walls are juniper posts, (no staining needed) with Hog Wire in fill fencing and Fiberx cedar chips

If you are looking at a modern landscape design for your yard, please contact me for more information.

Ornamental Grass in the Landscape

Low Maintenance Grass for Your Landscape Design

Low maintenance xeriscape landscape design with good grasses.

Good grass like Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny – Dwarf Fountain Grass is drought tolerant along with Stepable Thymus praecox ‘Elfin Pink, a nearly flat Thyme groundcover.

Designers love to use ornamental grasses to add structure and seasonal interest. They have instant appeal and we designers are suckers for plants that soften pathways and make a dramatic statement.  They are a staple in modern landscape style. However, grasses have a bad reputation.

Grasses for those Who Hate Weeding

I’ve had to reassure more than one new client the grasses I use don’t spread or reseed. My years of experience with plants means I’m slow to use the untested new plants, including grasses.  I’ve seen too many new industry introductions (plants) that looked like a good thing turn into thugs after a few years in a garden. Most of my clients say weeding is the worst of the outdoor chores so I shun plants with potential for adding weeding to the maintenance list.

Researching New Plant Material

 Low maintenance landscape design using Salvia Raspberry Delight Bouteloua BlondeAmbition

Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight’ with Good Grass Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ Photo credit High Country Gardens

I’m writing this blog during my winter break when I research new plants and prepare for another busy year designing Portland gardens. I confess to being a teeny bit bored with my tried and true grasses.

I was quizzing a couple of my landscape designer buddies about new ornamental grasses.  I discovered they are sticking to the tried and true grasses and not using any new risky plants in their designs either. Here I was thinking they might be experimenting with new plants and that I was getting behind! Nope they are nervous nellies about using an unknown too.  We see what happens when a client buys some cute new plant only to have it take up a forever place all over the property…

Beautiful Bad Grass? – Mexican Feather Grass

Edited Mexican Feather Grass

Beautiful bad grass – Mexican Feather Grass Stipa tenuissima. Photo credit Proven Winners

Designers are concerned about grasses that seed and make weed problems for our clients.  The Mexican Feather (Stipa tenuissima) Grasses are highly desirable because they are so finely textured the slightest breeze sends them into graceful sway. They are over the top beautiful! They can seed some or a lot and they are the darlings for xeriscape or low water gardens.  This grass is perfect for many dry and hot natural areas in California and (so naturally enough) it is on their noxious weed list.

This Bad Grass is so good in Modern Design

I don’t use Mexican Feather Grass but I have wanted to…they are unique, beautifully blowzy and are a stunner for modern minimalist designs.   I have a local gardener pal who has them in her large Portland modern garden design to fantastic effect. People who are gardeners with a capital ‘G’ may keep up with weeding out the unwanted grass seedlings. Still, all it would take is a distraction, health problem, or too much overtime, and this grass would be seeding into a new planting bed at your property and then your neighbors! Part of hiring an experienced designer is the safety margin we bring to the design process.

Beautiful Good Grass: Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’ 

Low maintenance plant Blonde Ambition for Portland landscape design.

Bouteloua Gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ moves in the breeze like living art.

Bouteloua gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ relieves my boredom in a flash and is a great substitute for the wildly popular Mexican Feather Grass. Discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens, this plant has all the drama of Mexican Feather Grass but won’t seed around.   It’s very dramatic looking with a flower head that juts to one side like an eyebrow.  It’s evergreen and moves beautifully in the breeze so it’s not just a plant, it’s living art.

A Great Drought Tolerant Grass: ‘Shenandoah’ Switch Grass

Switch Grass Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ is a colorful Good Grass.

Another great grass for our Pacific Northwest landscapes is Switch Grass. Although there are many varieties,  Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ is a lot of fun…for a grass. It emerges in the green tones, then quickly adds red coloring throughout the summer. The tiny garnet seeds are nice and airy, followed by a great fall show. To top it off, this grass is well-behaved and drought tolerant once established.

Low Maintenance Landscape

Grasses can be very useful additions to a low maintenance landscape. For the ones listed here, cut the plant down in February to a few inches tall, scuff the crown of the plant and pull away any loose grass stalks from the crown.  It will thrive in a lighter soil mix with lots of sun.  It prefers no fertilizer, low water and can be fully drought tolerant after established.  To kill these grasses, plant them in heavy clay and over water them.  I’m excited about adding these good grass to xeriscaping planting plans in the coming year.

If you are looking for low maintenance landscape design, contact me to learn more about grasses for your Portland area garden.