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Outdoor rooms extend the useable living areas of the home. Sometimes they are adjacent to the home itself as in a covered patio. Sometimes they are fully detached and separate from the residence and have their own roof structure.

So what differentiates a patio seating area from an outdoor room? The answer is by how many “indoor elements” are included in the design. What are those landscape elements that define an outdoor room? Here is a partial list:

  • Defined flooring such as an area rug,  stone, tile or wood with a distinct edge
  • Overhead cover to define a form of ceiling or canopy
  • Walls or enclosure defined either by solid walls, barriers or other form of containment which articulates the space
  • Furniture that allows relaxation and comfort or a place to serve and enjoy food and beverages
  • Outdoor kitchen accessories including grills, refrigerators, sinks and countertops with bar stools
  • Curtains or drapes that provide enclosure, privacy and an interior feel
  • Patio heaters, fireplaces, firepits
  • Entertainment elements that substitute for a family room such as big screen televisions and outdoor sound speakers

A simple shade structure may or may not be designed to create the feeling of an outdoor room, because it may only be designed for shade as the primary function. In this case, do we want total shade as in creating a solid cover, or do we want partial shade which allows light to filter through an open beam structure?

Most shade structures are not designed as outdoor “rooms” unless they have some kind of wall or enclosure that defines the area under cover. The furniture and other amenities that are placed in the space also define how well the ambiance feels like an true outdoor room.

Today, many pieces of furniture and fabric can withstand the elements including area rugs. Some outdoor speakers are also designed as water resistant.

This outdoor space pictured left has the essence of a room primarily because of the solid tile mosaic wall and the open beam patio cover above.

This ramada below forms the ceiling of this outdoor kitchen and seating area (pictured below). The space is further defined from the main patio level by two steps descending to the outdoor kitchen level. Can lighting, a ceiling fan and accessories complete the design giving it that indoor feel.  Although there are no walls as in the picture above, the room is defined by the four columns while the absence of solid walls mimics a great room indoors. Stairs lead to the view deck above.

This sitting area serves as an extension of the indoor living space because of the proximity to the transition between indoor and outdoors.

Defined by walls on four sides, an atrium that was big enough for sitting areas could also be designed as an outdoor room.

Outdoor rooms have been a trend among design professionals over the last several years mainly because of their relationship with architectural elements and the influence of interior designers who see the spaces more from a “room” perspective than from an outdoor patio perspective. Both however, led to the concept of landscapes being more appropriately defined as outdoor living areas whether they have defined rooms or more casual outdoor retreats.

Before the interior professionals began defining outdoor rooms, garden designers had always designed secret gardens, meditation gardens and other sanctuary spaces that could also be considered outdoor rooms. In retrospect, it seems that the architects and interior designers were trying to expand their design territories into the landscape of outdoor spaces.

Whether its an inside room or an outdoor room the design principles are the same for all the design professions and how the landscape elements are transformed into rooms is a reflection of our creativity.


Over the many years I have been a professional designer and landscape contractor, I have seen patterns of behaviors, misunderstandings and a general  lack of how the landscape industry works from a homeowner’s perspective. Here are the top 7 landscaping mistakes homeowners can avoid.

“Isn’t a gardener the same as a landscaper?”


1)  Being your own general contractor and architect

You should have a good handle on big picture thinking and a good sense of design if you intend to be your own general contractor/supervisor of the workers that you hire. Where most homeowners make mistakes is when they have a larger project that may involve several components such as grading, irrigation, lighting, masonry and  plantings — even for a very small area and rely on their gardener to give them design advice and a quote.

  1. 2)  Peacemealing the installation over time often results in a hodgepodge appearance.

Hiring multiple tradesmen to do work one “project” at a time usually results in a hodgepodge appearance and which may lack cohesiveness after its all completed.  Do these individual “projects” fit into an overall plan or are you shooting from the hip as you go?  Piecemeal installations often result in inefficiencies and additional expense.

3)  Asking your regular gardener to perform work and/or design advice beyond their expertise

Arizona law does not require a contractor’s license to maintain landscapes, i.e. tree trimming, mowing, weeding, etc. but do require a license for any work that exceeds $1000 which is then considered to be contracting.  Thus most ‘gardener-landscapers’ are not licensed but often advertise that they install pavers, walls, etc. which all could easily fall into the category of contracting.

4)  Getting “Free Estimates” to compare different designs

Homeowners may feel they do not want to pay for a separate design even though the project may warrant one. Here’s the scenario: Homeowner calls several contractors to give them a free estimate which requires some kind of design to be put on paper, perhaps an entire backyard. Some contractors will not charge a design fee, others will credit the fee towards construction costs, but many will do a design and proposal in the hopes of getting the work and perhaps present the design but not let the homeowner keep it.

What happens is that these contractors are preparing a design and a cost proposal based on what they think they heard you tell them what you wanted. You end up comparing essentially, the “best design for the best price”. With different design variations in terms of material, area and scope of work, you are comparing apples to oranges.

5)  Sacrificing quality of work, expertise, credentials and legal issues for the lowest price

We all are driven to get the best deal on our purchases, but in the field of construction, we think we are like the government who sends out a call for bids and who then selects the lowest bid. Governments have lists of qualified contractors who are previously approved so that the only decision made at the bidding stage is to select the lowest price. As homeowners, we need to go through the process of qualifying those from whom we obtain bids, not only licensing requirements, but other credentials such as education, experience and references.

6)  Hiring unlicensed contractors

Not only is it illegal for a homeowner to hire unlicensed landscape professionals depending on the licensing laws of their state,  a person who engages in the work of contracting which in Arizona is defined as any scope of work of at least $1000, requires that person to be duly licensed. Hiring someone without a license allows you know recourse to file a complaint with the state for shoddy work or non performance. It is tempting to get the work done for a cheap price especially if your neighbor thought they did a good job, yet you are taking a risk nonetheless.

A small classified ad in your local newspaper offering landscape services with the disclaimer at the end “not a licensed contractor” does not exempt them from the licensing rules. In Arizona, all advertising by licensed contractors must include their license number. It is most likely the policy of the newspaper to require ads to include the disclaimer.

7)  Not having a written contract

A verbal agreement alone is a recipe for disaster. Even if you get a written quote, is it in the form of a contract with clearly identified scope of work, progress payments, specification of materials in terms of type, size and quantities? or does it simply say “install paver patio in backyard”?

In summary, the vast majority of homeowners simply do not regard “landscapers” as professionals. Because of the overlapping services between an architect and a contractor, or blue collar vs. white collar if you will, the average homeowner lumps most all services provided in this industry to that of the “landscape guy”.

If your needs are to simply do some clean up around the yard, you don’t call an architect. But if you need an entire backyard remodeled, you do not ask your gardener to prepare a design.

Part of the problem is caused by the services offered by these “landscapers”. Many who are not licensed, qualified, skilled nor educated will claim they can do virtually everything a landscape would need from tree trimming to building a retaining wall.

So now you know the top 7 landscaping mistakes homeowners can avoid.

As a professional landscape designer, I have written several articles and posts about how important it is to prepare a plan before you create and build your landscape and garden areas.  But do we, as designers follow our own advice?

What I mean by a plan is something mapped out on paper or computer. After all, that’s how I was taught in school and it is also the way I operate in my life. I am a planner type personality — not at all a spontaneous; shoot from the hip type of person. So preparing a master plan for a landscape from a big picture perspective comes natural for me.

When I cruise through neighborhoods, checking out everybody’s front yard, it is frustrating to see so many landscapes that are obviously unplanned or simply poorly designed. Plants are placed in the wrong places, typically overgrown for the space, a hodgepodge of species, or a complete disregard for any sense of design at all. You’ve seen it, that barren desert look with all gravel and maybe a few shrubs that can survive without an irrigation system.

What about my own yard? As a professional designer, should my yard be the best on the block? Clients will often remark, “I bet you have a beautiful yard”. Well, truth is, I did in the past, but not in my current residence. I have only been in it for 3 years and am dealing with all the previous owner’s poor plant choices, overgrown natives and other design issues.

I did prepare a plan of the entire yard when I was thinking of building a koi pond, a perimeter wall, a spiral staircase and other projects that could not be easily designed in my mind by simply visualizing them on the spot and building them. Items involving hardscape, electrical, plumbing, grading and elevation issues are best put on paper. In fact, for certain items, I am better working from a plan view perspective than 3D in the space itself.

What has evolved over time is that I stopped designing anything on paper and have designed everything so far based on simply being in the spaces and pondering various design ideas over time. Living in the space allows me to do that, something I cannot do for my clients.

I have a collection of sorts of Buddha statues spread around the yard. I brought these from my previous house and have found suitable spots. They are  not oversized statues and so I have placed all of them on some kind of raised platform or pedestal in order to make them more in scale with the surroundings. I also have accumulated more and more bamboo, some in the ground and some in containers. Much of the yard is in a natural state with local species of Juniper trees, Pinon Pines, Manzanita and scrub oak. An Asian feel blends well with the natural surroundings.

I do have a couple of Celtic items though, a 5 foot tall Celtic cross and a couple of gargoyles although there is no semblance of an Old World or Medieval style around the landscape. The cross fell over the other day when the support brace broke. I repaired it and decided to relocate it to a suitable spot in the yard so we could enjoy it more than where it had been.

It was a hard decision, choosing a spot without having thought about it before. Just the kind of mistake people make when they don’t have a plan. Everywhere I considered placing it; you could see something Asian and mixing these two styles just didn’t sit well with me.

The good thing about accessories and pots is you can rearrange them as your design ideas evolve.

I ended up placing in next to a grouping of pots on my deck and although another Buddha is within view, it is separated enough to justify. In design terminology, this is often called an eclectic style.

My own yard is a work in progress. I am continually walking through each space considering how I can enhance the overall function and feel. Just as the spaces change over the seasons, my thoughts evolve as I become more and more attuned with the yard, the light, the plants, the views and my needs. Usually I end up doing nothing as it seems I enjoy the process of designing in my mind until I come up with an ideal concept. Things change and so I allow this process to happen before I act upon my ideas and start any kind of construction or rearranging.

So there is a kind of plan, it’s just not something I need to put on paper. I am able to visualize my plan in my head, take my time and allow things to change. That is the pleasure of not following a plan. Nothing is set in granite and design ideas are as fluid as my thoughts.

Nativescapes – The Ultimate Green Landscape


A type of sustainable landscape design that uses mostly native plants is often called “Nativescaping”.  Sometimes it is a type of theme garden labelled as a “Native Plant Garden”.  It is  actually a more descriptive name in lieu of the term Xeriscape, which to many people, means nothing.

What is a Native Plant? A native species (also referred to as indigenous) is a plant that has evolved over many thousands of years in a particular bio-region. Throughout their evolution within a particular area, there have been challenges placed upon the survival of the plant, mainly influences of soil, hydrology, temperature extremes and degree of sunlight.  Such plants make up a part of their bio region in which they share the climatic factors with other plant species to form a plant community. A community of native plant species differentiate the habitats that animals and other creatures inhabit.

What is a Non-Native Plant? Non-native plants (also called non-indigenous plants) are plants that have been brought into an area in which they did not evolve. Introduction of non-native plants into our landscape has been both accidental and intentional. For example, Purple loosestrife, was introduced from Europe 200 hundred years ago as a medicinal herb and ornamental plant. It quickly spread and can now be found in 42 states.

Just like an exotic animal being brought into a non-native habitat, a plant can become overly aggressive and out compete other native species because it often has no competition or predators to control it. Such plant species in our natural ecosystems can be a real problem. But in our own gardens and landscapes, we tend to have virtually all non-natives comprising our plant palettes. That’s the fun of gardening – that you are not limited to native species.

However, because they are not native, such plants require much more intense care, water and energy. A green approach to landscape makes use of native because of the lower water requirements, energy expenditure and the like.

Here are some reasons why native plants can be a benefit:

  • do not need fertilizers.
  • require fewer pesticides.
  • require less water.
  • help reduce air pollution.
  • provide habitat and food for wildlife.
  • respect the natural biodiversity or our lands.
  • saves on the cost of purchasing plants.

So now, it should seem a no-brainer to have at least a part of your yard or garden full of native plants that contribute to an overall sustainable landscape.

The best way to have indigenous plants is to not remove them in the first place! If possible, don’t look at your native vegetation as an overgrowth of weeds and scrub. Natives can be pruned effectively to integrate with your introduced non-native species for a garden that is sensitive to the needs of people.

If you are selling your home, from a real estate marketing perspective, a home’s first impression is based on its curb appeal as seen in the eyes of a prospective buyer.  Adding curb appeal boosts a home’s first impression and gives a prospective buyer a positive feeling.

In a buyer’s market, curb appeal is even more crucial since there are many other homes on the market competing for attention. It makes sense to invest in making certain improvements so these prospective buyers don’t decide to pass on getting out of the car when they pull up in front and are disappointed.

Just as the inside of the home is “staged”, the landscape can also be staged. The underlying premise is to not only appeal to buyer’s emotions, but deal with practical aspects as well. The most fundamental thing to do is to clean up the place and clear away all unnecessary clutter. Put all personal items such as kids’ toys, rusty bbqs and tools behind closed doors. Remove all yard art that the buyer may not find as amusing as you do.

Stand out on the curb and imagine you are looking at the home for the first time just as a prospective buyer would. This is the home’s first impression. What do you feel? Would you enter the landscape into a “best on the block” contest? Does the landscape enhance the appearance of the home? Does the landscape have an overall ‘neglected’ feel as if the owners don’t value having nice landscaping?

From a psychological standpoint, the visibility of the front door is perhaps the most important aspect of curb appeal. The front door and entry area is where the eye and brain focuses. When we arrive in front of a home, we navigate the property and seek out the entrance. We need to know how to get inside and where the owner will be to greet us.

A front door that is hidden or obscured will subconsciously convey that the owners and the house itself is not welcoming, secretive and nonconforming. Therefore, it is my opinion that the front door is the number one criteria around which all curb appeal enhancements should be focused. All the other elements support the focal point of the front door and are in harmony with each other.

Curb appeal is an emotional response that is difficult to measure. One thing is for sure though; properties that we have boosted curb appeal or otherwise enhanced, have sold more quickly than others according to feedback I have received from the listing agents.

Below is a list of things and ideas to consider that will enhance curb appeal, not just to improve the marketability of a property for sale, but for anyone’s home.

Landscape Features

  1. Remove overgrown vegetation that blocks a clear view of the home, the front door or otherwise takes away from an open, welcoming feel as seen from the street
  2. Clean up, prune trees and shrubs and remove any dead growth and remove any shrubs or trees that do nothing to enhance the property or were planted in inappropriate locations
  3. Add or refresh planting beds that create balance and enhance the front door
  4. Fix or repair any obvious flaws that take away from the appearance of being well maintained such as crumbling driveway.
  5. If there is a lawn, make sure it’s as nice as you can get it by dealing with brown spots and fertilizing it to make it lush and green weeks before you put the home on the market
  6. Add color in the form of annual flowers, colorful pots and flowering perennials

Architectural Features

  1. Replace old hardware
  2. Paint the door a contrasting color
  3. Replace and/or enhance the mailbox and relocate if necessary
  4. Add window boxes
  5. Enhance the front door with sidelights and moulding
  6. Add shutters or trim to windows and paint a contrasting color
  7. Add an arbor or pergola

General Design and Appearance

  1. Create symmetry at the front door using pots, lights or moulding
  2. Add a walkway leading from the street to the front door and not just from the driveway
  3. Add a fountain
  4. Add a low wall enclosure to create a courtyard with a gate
  5. Add lighting along walkways and light trees

photo licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Dru Bloomfield


A landscape professional who sees the problem areas from a designer’s perspective and who has knowledge of plant materials, curb appeal principles and real estate awareness is the key to providing the best solutions to making your home a property with great curb appeal.

Lack of curb appeal or simply a problem of not being able to find the front door was the subject of a landscape project I featured on another blog post.


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