Water-wise gardens bloom with nonliving materials


mixed garden flooring

This geometric design shows a range of nonliving garden materials to mix artistically with succulent plants. Water-wise gardens can double as living areas.

Although we tend to think of a garden as a gathering of plant materials, much of the landscape is taken up with noniving materials. This is helpful space in the water-wise garden. There is the soil between one area and the next, a front pathway, and probably a driveway in the front of your home. But even these prosaic members of the landscape need not be dull. Permeable paving has become popular in recent years. It allows water to sink into the garden rather than sheeting off flat surfaces, gouging out erosion gullies and wasting water. More than simply creating flat surfaces for foot traffic or for setting things on, consider that non-living areas can add more color and texture .

Unlike a few decades ago when everything was covered with cement or brick, the choices for paving areas have exploded – both for flooring and vertically. Now there are colorful types of stone in a wide range of designs and finishes as well as woods, vinyls, metals, glass and more, all perfect for integrating into the new landscape.

Becoming creative about landscaping offers a chance to think about more than the usual ground surfaces for non-living garden décor. Any space is now a place to have fun with.

With the cost of materials rising and landfills overflowing, this is the time to put to work all that stuff in your home, garage and yard that is just taking up space.

recycled sculpture

Recycled old auto parts make a decorative garden sculpture


Recycling has donned the elite title of ‘up-cycling’ when you re-use old items for new purposes. Look for all those pieces of left-over building materials: pieces of wood, pipe, PVC, screening, odd tiles or latticework hanging around your yard, garage or home. These can be formed into safe-houses for growing vegetables to keep out pests, fashioned into trellises or cobbled into artistic fencing. Old concrete chunks stack into fine retaining walls.

Battered car parts, sinks, toilets, tubs or cracked fountain bases make unique container gardens. Broken dishware and pots can add color and texture as mulch over small garden areas where no one will be digging or walking. (These can have sharp edges.) Repurpose young tree stakes or poles into low fences, an archway or a series of pee posts over a washable gravel area for male dogs you don’t want marking your favorite plants. (Paint them bright colors for fun.) Hey, one designer even used bowling balls from an alley that closed down to cover open soil areas. This was one material guaranteed not to float or blow away even in the most aggressive winds!

metal landscape effects

Corrugated metal makes an interesting addition to this nonliving part of a landscape.


Even mulch offers more interest and color in the water-wise garden than ever before. Bark pieces come in colors, gorilla hair (shredded bark) clings to hillsides, gravel and decomposed granite can come in a wide range of colors – even greens and purples – or mix your own blends. Find durable colored shredded, recycled tire chips. They are bouncy for running, sitting and playing as well as just covering exposed soil. Go glittery with colored tumbled glass. Invite imaginative materials into water-wise gardens.

unusual stepping stones

Have fun with cast critters as stepping stones.

Form paths, edgings or designs with bricks, stepping stones, flagstone or a wealth of precast concrete blocks.

water-wise gardens

Gravel and stone in gray hues make for an artistic combination of living and nonliving materials in this water-wise cactus garden.


Floor a patio with slices of tree trunks for a rustic look. Check out some of your local industrial plants. You can find extruded waste materials in vinyl, metal, plastic and glass that may be ideal for decorating surfaces of your landscape. (Just make sure the material is not toxic, sharp or anything that could degrade into an undesirable form.)

Get creative or hire a designer or artist to help you make your space special. Decorate walls, furniture and even cement areas with murals or paint them with your favorite colors or designs. Hang outdoor curtains. Spread around colorful outdoor pillows or create gardens of metal or colorful pots.

Add a trellis, pergola or a screen. Lay down outdoor rugs.  Or paint your own yellow brick road on recycled materials to lead you on a winding path that tours your garden. Place sculptures. Dangle wind chimes. Post colorful fabrics to be spun by the wind. Mix living and nonliving materials for the widest range of effects and for a healthy, eco-friendly, easy-care landscape.

Assorted stone floor

Assorted nonliving stone shapes create their own floor design

As you can see, there is an endless supply of nonliving materials you can use to make your landscape into a work of art. Partner your creations with drought-tolerant plants, some comfortable furniture and turn your yard into a water-wise garden/work of art that invites you to live in it.

Growing the ‘New Climate’ garden


rain clouds

A well designed garden will thrive with rain or drought.

As the weather becomes more extreme all over the world, polar ice caps melt, technology shrinks distance with instant communications and the biggest population of human beings ever to walk the earth are now traveling from one place to the next transporting lifeforms of all types planet-wide, Mother Nature is finding her own ways to adapt to a changing world. We can individually reclaim harmony and sanity with a sustainable garden to adapt to nature’s changes.

mixed vegetables

A crop of mixed vegetables from a small garden

We need to look at the bigger picture. Gardening, something too many people are ignoring in the frantic demands of everyday scheduling, is quietly becoming one of humanity’s greatest tools for survival. Food production is changing. Profitability has thus far triumphed over sustainability and long term human health. So avoiding chemical and hormonal additives as well as eating nourishing fruits and vegetables is now a project for each individual. Chemical pollution (plenty of which is added by the home gardener) threatens water resources – again something we individuals can impact. And so many diseases are being traced back to the stress we impose on ourselves – another area where our gardens can help us heal.

Whether your local area is experiencing cold, heat, dry or wet weather, you can grow a garden that will help you and your family to grow a ‘New Climate’ garden that can make a difference to your quality of life. You can deal with extreme weather by designing good drainage and places to trap and store water.

rain barrel

Rain barrels can blend with attractive landscapes.

You can build in protected areas to shelter your favorite plants from too much cold or heat and even recycle old tubs and glass shower doors, turning them into protective vegetable gardens or cloches to extend your food growing season. (Recycling will save you from having to buy new materials while increasing trash in your home or in landfills.) Add decorative umbrellas or overhangs to provide shade from hot sun. Or plant in pots (or creative recycled containers like old sinks, broken fountains or even old toilets for a bit of humor) in sunny spots in gardens that have too much shade.


Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs beckon visitors to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Look to your garden to extend your living space, add a place for rest and relaxation, meditation, play, hobbies, entertainment, outdoor rooms, sports and whatever else can give your mind and body a chance to heal from daily stress. There is always some nook you can fill with herbs, a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, a favorite vegetable – or a whole vegetable garden for fresh, healthy food. Surround yourself with beauty. In our fast-paced techno-society we are losing the magic of fine arts, replacing them with quick, cheap forms of immediate gratification and we seem to be finding ourselves more impatient, angry and frustrated than ever. Surround yourself with the shapes and colors of nature’s garden and in will fly birds to supply natural music and butterflies to brighten your heart. We are learning how very important ‘mindfulness’ is to our mental and physical health. Ironically, we have everything we need provided for us naturally. We can then add our human ingenuity to create works of art, spaces for fun and activity and centers for delicious food, rest and relaxation and places to share our ideas, laughter and love.

backyard entertaining

Design your yard to entertain.

Yes, the ‘New Climate’ may be changing the weather, but it’s larger than that: it is a loss of being grounded to the bigger picture of life. There are so many great ideas to help you create a thriving garden despite changes in weather. You don’t have to look far to enrich your life by balancing the speed and demands of the changing technology and social climate with the secrets of wisdom mankind has known for thousands of years. Look to your own garden. You may find you can thrive better with your own version of a new climate to grow in!

What to look for in patio flagstone work

laying flagstone

A job in process: Well-laid flagstone is evenly spaced. Gaps need to be filled and edges trimmed. Closer, tightly fitted installations are more time-consuming, but look more impressive and stand up better over time.

If you are planning to lay flagstone for flooring in your patio – or elsewhere – you’ll find there can be a wide range of prices quoted for the installation. That is because there are many kinds of flagstone that can be used and, depending on the texture and color you like, different stones can vary drastically in price. The other reason is that installer can also offer different qualities of workmanship. A more carefully placed job will demand more time than a job quickly done. The difference is easy to see if you know what to look for in patio flagstone work.

Price the various kinds of stone you like before buying. If you go to a builder’s supply store you can see not only many different types of stone, but get an idea of how each will look when spread out over a wider area. It can be difficult to get a realistic vision from a small, single piece.

Once you have your flagstone chosen you will want to choose the style for laying it. For an informal or more rustic look you can piece together complementary shapes so the rough edges remain at a consistent distance from each other throughout the installation. The closer the fit, the better job you will have. A good installer will chip edges naturally so gaps create uniform lines and the design will slot together like pieces of a puzzle. A poorly installed job will look more like slabs of stone that have been randomly floated on a sea of concrete. The best jobs will have even spacing and will fit accurately.

Another approach is a little more formal with a more polished look in that the stones can be fitted by cutting with a saw to have simpler, cleaner lines. Just like the chipped stones, the tighter the fit, the more time-consuming the job will be. The neater and consistent the spacing, the more polished your finished flooring will be.

A good job of installation will often come down to the finish work — the details of how pieces fit together, corners are joined and surfaces are smoothed. A good job of basic installation and finish work will make the difference between a good job and a bad one. Once you know what you are looking for, you’ll find the comparison to be easily noticeable.

flagstone floor

A good job will look smooth and even when finished.

Landscape Design with Rocks

Landscaping with rocks

A combination of real and faux rocks gives this garden and pool a naturalistic setting that looks much larger than it really is.

Although this article was written with Southern California in mind, the concepts are universal and can help people design landscapes in just about any garden anywhere.

One of the most powerful natural decorative effects in a landscape design is the placement of stone, rocks and boulders. Rock varies as you travel through Southern California. Even locally you can see the wide mixture of stone that has been pushed to the surface by the contorting jolts of earth movements in our hills and mountains. There are sandstone rocks in reds, beiges, yellows and whites as well as multicolored granites. You can find wind and water rounded rocks and boulders and sharp-edged splintered rocks. Some areas boast iron in the stone formations making them orange and others are laced with copper that turns rock green. Mica and quartz can make stone glitter. There are rocks and boulders that will go with just about any kind of landscape you may want to design on your property.

Rocks are perfect to enhance a Southwest landscape theme, to set off the interesting shapes of a cactus and succulent garden or to offer natural seating in a wild or native landscape design. Add a boulder to highlight an ornamental grass garden or use scatterings of rocks to trace out a dry riverbed. Single stones can be the focus of an Asian or Zen garden or they can be carefully placed to be used as furniture or to set off a shapely tree. Design with rocks and boulders into almost any theme to add accents and character. They can also be used to create spacial effects and perspective illusions.

You can buy rocks and boulders, priced by the pound or you can collect your own from your own property or from open, undeveloped land or dry rivers. Do not take rocks or stones from parks or other California public areas: it is against the law. If your yard has an unblocked view of surrounding land, you might want to choose the same kind of rocks that will blend with your local, natural stone. Using a material that continues outside your boundaries will help your garden to look like it flows beyond your property line

Avoid equally spaced rocks forming a pattern unless you want to create a formal, contemporary or minimalist design. Often landscapers with no design sense will line up stones or set them in neat, equidistant spaces. Nature would never do that and these overly calculated rock settings look silly in anything but an intentionally contrived – and carefully, artistically designed  –overall landscape design.

Rock and stone can be integrated in walls and into the surface of concrete. Pebble finishes can be used for textural effects and designs can be drawn into different areas of colored stone. Big boulders make powerful statements. They can guard an entry or tower over a natural-looking dry river bed, stream or pond. Rocks are heavy so expect to need power equipment to move them unless you stick to sizes less than 18 x 18x 18 inches. Medium rocks can be moved with a crow bar or lifted with the help of several strong backs. Be very careful when moving rocks. They are very dense and weigh more than they appear. Always lift with your legs and don’t try to move something that could cause injury.

Look around at some examples of the landscape design with stone and rocks by checking out garden magazines or the Internet. Visit parks and public gardens. Do you want to create your own stand of jutting rocks? Do you like the squat, rounded rock forms that pile into mounds? Are stacked walls or flat flagstone areas more to your taste? Decide on the kind of stone, rock or boulder you want and blend it into your own garden. Build with rocks and stone that will complement your garden style, the area you are living and even the design of your house.

Adding stone, rock and boulders not only creates interest in the design, but it can help you build areas of drainage and permeable paving that will help with excess rain run-off during the winter wet season. Gravel offers water-saving, non-growing surfaces for practical use, play or design. Use it to fill in hard-to-plant areas so they look great in hot or cold weather and smother invading weeds in spring. Stone is a natural product that can be used to advantage in your landscape design. It can even function as a top-dressing or a layer of mulch. Just remember that dark colors absorb heat so they can get hot in summer sun for delicate feet and plant life.

Natural rock comes in all sizes, shapes and a surprisingly wide range of colors. Use it in your garden for ease of care and beauty. It can become one of your most important and stable design elements.


Tips on Building a Japanese Landscape Design

Japanese garden

Natural materials, simplicity and well-chosen decor help set the mood of this Japanese garden

A Japanese-styled garden can be designed into landscapes with many different climates. Work with your own, local environment to blend an Asian feel into your outdoor surroundings. Collect pictures of the kind of landscapes you like from magazines, books and the Internet. Take a trip to any nearby public gardens with an Asian theme. See how designs flow, make a note of décor that would work in your own garden and ask about the plants chosen. They should give you some clues of which plants will do well in your own Japanese landscape design. Then, armed with some fresh ideas, take a look at the space on your own property.

Start with a layout that will follow the natural flow of your property. Use different levels and areas to design your picture. Paths are ideal to lead from one part of the landscape to the next while keeping in harmony with the theme of a Japanese garden. Walls can be constructed of bamboo mats or tall, narrow plants. If you only have a small space to work with, design it like a single Oriental-styled room.

Keep your plant selection simple. Most Japanese gardens make each plant into a statement. Ferns, azaleas, Japanese Maple trees are some favorite plant choices, but the kind of plant is less important than the harmony created between the shape of the plant and the space in which it is planted. Choose plants that will thrive in your garden space.

Then be selective about your décor. Add a lantern or a sculpture. Carefully place a tricking fountain. Or if you have a large space, design in a koi pond. Use building materials like natural stone, rock, gravel, sand, wood and bamboo. And make sure you design seating into your Japanese landscape so you can spend time relaxing and enjoying it in good weather.

There are many features you can build into a Japanese landscape. The most important tip to remember is to keep the design simple. You are trying to create a peaceful space. Clutter will only add confusion. Design you space slowly, select carefully and use the same calm, serene state of mind putting together your landscape as you want reflected back to you in your finished garden. This way you are not only likely to end up with a successful garden, but you can enjoy the process of building it, too.

Landscape design costs

Garden design

Landscape plans aren’t just for fancy gardens. A good plan will save ANY homeowner money.

If you have a new landscape to do or an old one to renovate, this is the perfect time to do it. Since housing values are not likely to rise radically for some time, fixing up your home will make it a good place to ride out the real estate slump.Landscape design costs are only likely to rise in the future, so there’s no real value in waiting. And with the cost of gas and the discomfort of travel, you might want to convert your property into your own vacation land. The challenge is how to get the best value for your money.

Money is still tight for most people so spending needs to be done wisely. Pricing out garden design today is important. That might even mean spending more than you planned at the beginning to make sure you get the best deal in the long run. Please be aware that you rarely get more than you pay for, but you can certainly get less. Do some serious research before hiring help. Landscape costs can vary. Make sure the lowest bid isn’t giving you the lowest quality that will lead, eventually, to the highest expense. Grill the “salesman” because a good “salesman” (and you are not getting “free consultations” – you are getting free “sales calls”) will be focused on impressing you. Ask questions. Listen carefully. No one’s going to tell you he or she is cutting corners that may cost you dearly in the future. If you want something personal, you need to sit down with someone who can spend hours to get to know you and your space. Most landscapers and nursery people cannot afford to take the time to do this. “I wish I’d known to seek extra help,” Jeanine, a Santa Clarita homeowner, confessed to me last week. Speaking of her landscaper, she said: “He agreed with everything I said and gave me no guidance … now the trees I had chosen are getting taller all the time and I need to top them at least twice a year to keep them from getting into the neighbor’s gutters…. I thought they’d stay smaller.”

Most landscapers are not plant experts and depend on the ‘regular dozen’ plants that are commonly grown, easy to guarantee and offer a great mark-up for the installers. These lower-risk, high profit plants may or may not be the best choices for looks or for the spot where they are being planted.

Some installers want to impress you with a pretty planting right away. It is not cost efficient to consider what disasters may occur when these pretty plantings begin to grow into their normal size. Check to see if whoever is coming up with your design has creative skills. Some, but not many landscapers or nursery people have a design or artistic background. Fewer are imaginative. And fewer still, can take the time to design with safety and future growth in mind. This is NOT to say avoid landscapers and nursery help! Both of these have important roles in the creation of your landscape. Just make sure the person you select has what you need. At the beginning of a landscape project, you need to focus on making the decisions of how your space will function as a design both practically and aesthetically. If you’re not confident you can do this yourself or that your nursery or landscaper has a talented designer involved in this critical part of the project, then call in a consultant, designer, design coach or landscape architect (depending on the kind of job you need) to insure the cost of your landscaping will be well spent. And be careful not to negate what you have learned from an expert if someone later promises to fulfill all your wishes for the price you want. If the expert quoted high, there is usually a reason for it. I have seen so many jobs where the hundreds saved in the beginning cost tens of thousands several years later. The landscaper honestly thought the experts’ advise was in excess since he could get the same result cheaper. But most landscapers are not experts in all areas, even if they believe themselves to be so. I repeat. You rarely get more than you pay for, but you can certainly get less.

Just like everything else in life, taking the time to do something right at the beginning of a project will usually be the most economically sound choice. If you can’t afford the full job, then it’s better to do it in pieces than to do it badly. Or prioritize your expenditures — not by emotion — but by practicality. Once again, if you are unsure, spend the extra to call in an unprejudiced expert. This person is being paid to focus on your needs, not any other part of the job. He/she has nothing to gain by giving advice that isn’t to your advantage. It is confusing out there. Everyone claims to know what is right, yet I have to admit I’ve seen expensive disasters (or potential future disasters) in a remarkably high percentage of local landscapes. Despite the recession, building materials and construction overheads have soared. It’s hard to do even a very small, simple landscape installation for less than $15,000 and larger or more ornate landscapes can easily cost hundreds of thousands. Isn’t it worth $500 to $3000 to make sure it’s done right? (These are prices for the Southern California area. They will vary considerably around the country.)

If you already have your property landscaped, this may be a good time to give it a bit of a garden makeover so you can get the most out of your backyard this year. Think about what you want to improve or add to your garden. You can build a patio, add a fire pit or spruce up your space with some new outdoor furniture. You might want to add a shade or patio cover or an umbrella for sunny days. And don’t forget to get that barbecue cleaned up for use. Or maybe it’s time for a new one? You can also build a play area for the kids or pets. Or how about really splurging and constructing a sport court or a backyard putting green to keep everyone entertained, guests and family alike?

As summer approaches and money remains tight, look to your own backyard to ride out the rest of the economic slump in comfort. And not only will you be enjoying your property now, but the investment you make is likely to add even more value to your home when property values once again begin to rise.