The owners of this contemporary style residence built in the 1970s loved their home, but they had some issues with the landscaping – particularly the hardscaping. A two-story deck out back served them well, but they never left the deck to entertain because the backyard was unappealing. They hired landscape designer Elizabeth Johnston to redesign their backyard, make their front walk safer and amp up the privacy level throughout.
Johnston met with the homeowners for an extensive interview. “I always ask to come inside to see their style,” she says. “The architecture of a home doesn’t reflect the customer, but the interior decorating will many times offer me a lot of insight about details I can incorporate outside.” Johnston wants her customers to be able to cut flowers, bring them inside and have those colors immediately blend with the décor. “I also want to see from the inside the ‘borrowed view’: What can I see beyond their immediate yard? There are always things you want to distract from or enhance.”
Another important thing to know is what a customer doesn’t like. Plant design and landscaping is often unfamiliar to homeowners, but they always know what they don’t want. “I also ask if there is any plant material in the yard they are attached to. One customer had a huge weeping Alaskan cedar they wanted to keep, and we went to extensive measures to protect it,” she says.
A work in progress
Johnston stresses it’s important to assure your clients you can complete the work. Give them your education and certification credentials. Give them a list of references. “They can talk to any of my customers,” Johnston says. “I’m not the cheapest, and I want you to know why. I’m trained and I know how to install a proper landscape.”
After the interview, Johnston goes back to the office and puts a design together, including a presentation board. Most of her designs are done using landscape software, but some are hand-drawn.
“Include binders of pictures you’ve taken from magazines, and show customers things that closely resemble what you want to include in their design. You really want to impart a feeling of ‘I sell trust’,” she says.
This home’s interior is very eclectic, which allowed for a lot of design leeway. The owners love nature and wanted an element of surprise for their front entranceway. The front was originally railroad ties and bluestone, but Johnston built a curvilinear tumbled concrete block retaining wall to hide the steps from the street. This provides a visual, delightful journey to the front door.
The backyard was a clean slate, very shaded and full of trees. The homeowners were willing to remove a few trees to create outdoor living spaces. Johnston installed a small tumbled concrete paver patio lower than the grade of the backyard so she could build another tumbled concrete block retaining wall for extra seating. This allowed the plantings behind the wall to be higher and create more privacy. “Instead of putting in a lot of large plant material – which can be expensive – I try to lower an area, making the plants feel taller,” Johnston says.
The homeowners wanted a small koi pond, but it ended up being three times larger than the original design because they loved the idea so much. Along the pond, Johnston built a shallow bird bath, and a small waterfall creates a nice atmosphere.
“At the last minute, the homeowners wanted a hot tub, so we put that in,” she explains. “The element of creating planned and unplanned design is what makes landscape design so wonderful. It’s a flexible medium, barring extenuating circumstances.”