Design Archives

Landscape Lighting Can Add Drama and Elegance
You’ve seen those million dollar mansions on the cover of the luxury real estate magazines. There is always a collection of design features that give it the wow factor. Building the wow factor into your landscape is no different. Here are five design features that give your landscape the wow factor.

Sophisticated Design

A well designed and professionally built landscape will exude a type of appeal that reflects the designer’s touch. Good designs follow the fundamental principles of design including balance, contrast, color, scale, movement, cohesiveness and focal points.

A well designed landscape will reflect the designer’s thoughtfulness represented in the way all the elements and spaces work together in a stylish yet uncluttered fashion. Each of the principles of design can be observed if one knows what to look for.

Elegant Simplicity (keep it simple)

Elegant simplicity is a term I devised for my design questionnaire in which I am attempting to appeal to those clients who prefer simple, unpretentious design. It is a type of look that is beyond the starkness of Zen or the staleness of contemporary mundane. “Less is more” is also known as understated, yet in order to rank in the wow factor category; it has to have something about it that gives you that stirring emotional response. This is often difficult to put into words or a finite set of guidelines since it has more to do with your reaction to the objects, their placement and the setting.

Unique and Creative (not cookie cutter)

There is nothing unique about having a cookie cutter kidney shaped pool built in the center of your backyard. This is the essence of having a customized design that not only is functional and serves your needs, but also is reflective of your personality and style. Unless you want to be like everyone else, why not add something unique and creative that is out of the ordinary yet tasteful? Sometimes creative features in landscapes are the result of “accidental design” often unique solutions to a problem on site. Not all creative and unique design features are thought about on paper.

Vanishing edge concrete pool designed by JSL Exteriors Landscape Design Build

Infinite edge pools add drama and excitement to the backyard landscape adding to the wow factor

Have you ever been to a garden that is like a paradise? What makes it feel like a paradise is the emotional reaction you have to the elements and spaces. The garden itself is not paradise; it’s the term you use to describe it in terms of how you feel.

Gardens also need strong visual components that keep you engaged and interested. It could be a focal point, the bold use of color, the fragrances or statuary that is symbolic of something profound.

Creative use of fire and water can add the element of drama that conjures up feelings of excitement or tranquility.

Another emotional component of a garden is whether you feel safe and secure or does it make you feel like you are on display? Are there private areas for seclusion? Does the whole garden give you a sense of sanctuary – protected, safe and secure free to let your mind wander or focus of friends and family?

All the Bells and Whistles – (the E-ticket ride)

Pools, spas, ponds, fountains, outdoor kitchens, gazebos, ramadas, fireplaces, fire pits, sculpture, artwork, accessories, synthetic grass and other amenities can all be designed into a backyard. If that is what you want or want to feel like you have your own resort backyard entertainment paradise, then you will have to have all the bells and whistles.

Of course, the available space must be able to accommodate all the elements so it doesn’t look crowed. It still must possess cohesive design so all the elements work together instead of appear like a showroom or some kind of garden Disneyland.

The key here is to design it in a way so that it does not appear cluttered with too many things going on. The mind’s eye needs to come to a rest at some point and not get a sense of chaos.

A garden with all the bells and whistles will naturally possess the wow factor; it just has to be toned down so it doesn’t become an “Oh my God!” factor.

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 outside areas 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

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 one of my blog posts.


Designing a Pool with the Landscape in Mind

A pool is only one part of your yard. Ideally you should plan the whole project at one time so there is an integration of the design and materials for the pool, patio, pool deck, outdoor kitchen/BBQ area, walkways, spa and water features. Here is a partial list of some of the key questions to consider and which will help a landscape designer prepare a plan when designing a pool with the landscape in mind:

  1.  What other activities or functions do you want in the backyard besides the pool? (Barbeque island, fireplace gathering area, lawn areas, flower beds, etc.)
  2.  Do you want a spa as part of the pool? Would you like the spa integrated with the pool or more secluded away from the pool?
  3.  What amount of shade do you want around the pool and would you prefer to stay with trees or perhaps use more formal structures such as ramadas, patio covers, lattice covers, etc.
  4.  Are you interested in having a water feature such as a waterfall, sheer descent, deck jets or other type of fountain?
  5.  What basic shape do you prefer, formal or informal?
  6.  How will you use the pool? For exercise, for children to play, or to just cool off?


In terms of shape, I shall limit myself to concrete in-ground pools since I am not familiar with other types. The shape is therefore whatever design you wish to create. Although when talking about pools with a pool sales person, they may initially show you pre-designed shapes which are popular among past customers. But don’t be limited to simply picking a shape. Before you do that, consider all the other factors that surround the pool and the amenities that you may want to go with it.

If you have a preferred theme or style expressed to your landscape designer as a criteria, this should be reflected in the pool shape as well. Modern, contemporary, naturalistic, classic European styles are all found in pools and can be carried out in the landscape elements as well.

The site’s topography may lend itself to incorporating a “negative edge” pool, also called vanishing edge or infinity edge. Here the outer edge of the waterline seems to disappear off in the distance as if falling off the edge of a waterfall. The ground below is not seen from the primary vantage points on the other side of the pool such as the main lounging areas or from the key views inside. This is a type of waterfeature that is both subtle, yet very dramatic if the elevation change on the property is significant.

Swimming Pool Decking

The decking surrounding the pool must first be designed in terms of circulation and use areas and secondarily as to the material. The material choice will be affected by the style or theme of the pool and landscape as well as the edges of the decking.

Most pools are fairly close to the house which often has a covered patio. This covered patio surface is then often extended to become integrated with the pool decking, but not always. Designing a pool with the landscape in mind allows the transition from the immediate decking around the pool to blend in with the surrounding landscape. 

Circulation is important to consider as well. Do you need to be able to walk completely around the pool? Would you want to? Perhaps that feature would be appropriate for children playing in and around the pool and provide more than one entry/exit point.

Areas for patio tables, chairs and lounges must be accommodated and should be about 15 feet for a table and chairs and less for lounge chairs depending on how many pieces of furniture is desired. Patio umbrellas should also play a factor in deck design as umbrella sleeves can be built into the decking during construction.

Seating and lounging areas should factor in not only what views they will have, but the orientation of the sun. How will shadows be cast if shade is desired from a shade structure or umbrella?  If there is a great view beyond the pool, perhaps the lounge seating area could be on the opposite side of the pool so that one’s view captures both the pool itself as well as the view beyond. If such a seating area was on the other side of the pool, one would be facing away from the pool. These types of analysis should be considered when designing a pool with the landscape in mind.

Pool Decking Materials

Decking around a pool should consider how slippery and dangerous it could be while wet. A non-skid surface should be a priority for safety concerns. The other issue is heat absorption. Generally the darker the material, the hotter it will be and the lighter the material, which reflects light and therefore absorbs less heat will be relatively less hot.

Many pools sold by the pool industry at least in the Southwest US, over the past 20 years overemphasized the use of the pool industry standard decking material known as Kool Deck. It was easy to install and when pitched based on the fear factor of not wanting to burn your feet, was an automatic choice for the uninformed homeowner. Nowadays, there are other materials that are considered reasonably cool on bare feet that provide design options instead of the contemporary simplistic look of Kool Deck.

Decorative concrete coatings that mimic natural stone or tile is often used as a cost savings alternative to natural stone, travertine and flagstone. Concrete pavers are also a popular choice for pool decking today although most concrete pavers are on the darker color range. Travertine pavers are light in color and their pits and imperfections are unfilled so their natural pitted texture adds to their skid resistance. Since they are created as pavers, there are no grout joints.

Pool Waterfeatures

Waterfeatures may be natural boulder waterfalls, formal fountains, scuppers that shoot water out from a raised wall, deck jets that shoot streams of water from the decking or sheer descent waterfalls that put out a wide sheet of water through a narrow slot.
Each type of waterfeature should be consistent with the overall style of the pool and landscape theme.

I would highly recommend a pool have some kind of moving water that not only creates visual interest, but sound and can serve as the focal point. Pools without any moving water can appear lifeless, almost too serene if the surrounding landscape is not designed well.


Spas that are built as part of the pool can be situated on the edge of the pool or could be separated. One of the benefits of integrating the spa with the spa is to elevate the spa so it can cascade water into the pool and serve as a scupper type waterfeature without too much added cost. In this case, they are usually raised 12” to 18” which gives sufficient height to create a noticeable waterfall effect as well as provide more surface of the waterline tile to be exposed up the face of the wall between the pool and the spa.

A raised spa will also provide for a separate sitting area which could be expanded to accommodate seating or lounge chairs. Perhaps this would provide you with just enough added height to capture views.

A concrete spa does have limitations compared to its cousin the portable spa or hot tub. Portable spas are free standing self contained units that are designed more as therapeutic benefits by having many more jets and ergonomic seating and lounging. Concrete spas are not at all therapeutic other than the heat, bubble action and swirling jets. You cannot recline in a concrete spa as you can in portable spa and the jets are not designed to directly hit specific parts of your body such as the lower back or neck areas.

A spa can add about $7-$10,000 to the cost of the pool depending on how high it is, the decking around it, and the type of heater you use. If you are attracted to a spa for its therapeutic benefits, you may want to consider a well equipped portable spa for the same cost.

Swimming Pool Fencing

Many jurisdictions require a swimming pool barrier to protect children from accidental drowning. The simplest way to fence a pool is to surround it with a fence. But if you simply wrap the perimeter of the pool with a fence, it will look like it is caged in. I’m telling you from a design standpoint, this is the most difficult thing to deal with when designing a landscape with a swimming pool. It becomes safety vs. aesthetics vs. cost. It is best to place this barrier as far away from the pool decking as possible depending on the design. But how do you fence off the direct access from the house? You cannot avoid having to look out on your barrier fencing as seen from the house and this destroys the aesthetics from a design standpoint. You as a parent, must decide how to balance these issues.

Shade at the Pool

Landscape designs for pools should have some shade for at least one are of the pool decking. Basically there are several options from naturalistic to formal structures. The simplistic and least expensive choice perhaps is to include shade trees that are not too close to the water’s edge to keep debris from being an issue. Umbrellas are another alternative and can be placed in umbrella sleeves embedded into the decking for multiple locations including inside the pool itself.

Structures such as ramadas and gazebos can provide not only shade, but an outdoor room if fitted with appropriate seating and perhaps an outdoor fireplace or outdoor kitchen. Keep in mind the direction of the sun and as the sun gets lower in the afternoon, the shade canopy may not function as well as during midday. So placing shade structure towards the south and southwest may be the most practical it may not be feasible given the placement of seating areas and potential view blockages.

There are many other considerations to explore when designing a pool such as lighting, heating, filtration, chlorination and general maintenance, but they go beyond the topic of designing a pool with the landscape in mind.

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.


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.

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