General 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.

The Amara Resort and Spa is a boutique hotel owned by Kimton Hotels and Restaurants and is located in the heavily visited uptown district of Sedona, Arizona. Catering to the upscale visitor, Kimpton purchased the property about a year ago and began major renovations including the exterior grounds and landscaping. JSL Landscape LLC was engaged to perform a much needed landscape makeover. Since JSL Landscape is a design and build landscape construction firm based in Sedona, the corporate decision makers decided it was a good fit for their needs.

The existing landscaping at the Amara Resort and Spa was in need of a major overhaul as it was not only neglected in terms of maintenance, but the basic design – especially the choice of plants, would have to be totally changed to reflect the desire to create a more “chic” look as was requested by Kimpton’s Director of Design.
During the design process, John Leslie, owner of JSL Landscape, performed a site analysis and made several observations to develop a plan that would provide solutions to the lackluster design and give the overall landscape a clean, sophisticated look. There were several problem areas that needed attention:
1) The main entry lacked a sense of arrival. There was no distinct focal point. No statuary, fountain or other bold statement embellishing your sense of arrival.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

Main entry at Amara Resort and Spa before landscape makeover

The main entry was rather simple, comprising the end of a long driveway that looped around the parking area. The Amara Spa was located across the main entry and interestingly, did have a waterfeature in front consisting of three contemporary oblique shaped basins with a metallic sphere which gurgled out water. Unfortunately, they were low to the ground and could not be seen if there were cars parked in the adjacent parking spaces. Furthermore, the handicap access ramp along with the railing was directly in front which really made one question why this fountain was placed there at all.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

Waterfeatures are not only too low to be seen, they are blocked by parked cars and surrounded by the handicap access ramp and railings.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

A repainting and some pedestals to raise these fountains in proportion to their surroundings was a minor improvement.

In order to improve upon the waterfeature, we built split face stone pedestals to raise them higher at different heights and relocated one of the basins to the main entry of the resort to give it a focal point and tie together the resort and the spa.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

One of the fountains was relocated to the main entry and raised much more prominently to provide a focal point and structural element.

This is no Bellagio resort mind you. Sedona’s resort properties are low key and certainly do not attempt to be ostentatious. We also had to keep their budget in mind, so creating an expensive solution that could otherwise be achieved economically was the way to go.

2) The central courtyard where the pool, outdoor restaurant seating and the outdoor wedding venue is located had major problems with its planting design as well as the poor condition of the turf.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

The existing courtyard showing the lackluster plantings and scruffy grass.

One of the biggest objections to the existing plantings was the use of deciduous shrubs that would look dead in the winter – especially the use of Red Barberry. Further, there were mass plantings of Deer Grass, which is not a deciduous shrub, but needs to be given a haircut during the winter in order to stimulate new green growth in the spring as well as keep the growth in check.
Other plantings included long continuous rows of Juniper that was pruned to keep it like a hedge. Small Blue Festuca grass was also planted in mass, with most of them dead or full of brown leaves. There were also Arizona Cypress trees newly planted about three feet from the guest rooms. It was determined that they planted the species that can reach 60 feet tall. Presumably, they wanted the dwarf variety but that is not what was planted.
So the solution to the courtyard plantings was to remove virtually everything in the courtyard (there were several Magnolia trees in suitable locations that would stay) and replace with a new planting configuration that favored groupings of a select number of plants in a repeated fashion. This would provide variety and interest, yet avoid the monotony of continuous rows of the same plants.
All of the new plantings would be cold hardy and evergreen so as to provide year round interest. Shrubs and accents would be used to give varied textures without creating a need for continual maintenance. The basic plant palette was as follows:

Lirope muscari (Lily Turf) both regular and variegated
Pittosporum tobira ‘Wheelers Dwarf’ (Mock Orange) both regular and variegated
Raphiolepis indica (Indian Hawthorn)
Chrysactinia Mexicana (Damianita)
Hesperaloe parvifolia (Red Yucca)
Muhlenbergia regens (Deer Grass ‘Regal Mist’ – in limited quantities.

In the shaded areas which made up most of the main entrance we used:

Aucuba japonica (Gold Dust plant)
Aspidistra elator (Cast Iron plant)
Liriope muscari (Lily Turf)
Nandina domestica ‘Nana” (Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo)
Euonymus japonica ‘Gold Spot’ (Golden Euonymus)

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

A more user friendly courtyard turf scene that invites you to have a seat and enjoy the view.

JSL Landscape designs and builds a landscape makeover at Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona

Even the new synthetic turf was “power broomed” so as to mimic lawnmower tracks seen on ball fields.

The turf in the courtyard was the subject of much debate among the corporate decision makers. When it was suggested that synthetic turf may be an option to the existing natural grass, a heated debate ensued as to whether “fake grass” was in keeping with the stylish nature of the new renovations. There was also concern that synthetic grass would not be perceived as being “natural” or that the resort was not “sustainable”. But in the end, the practicality of synthetic grass was decided to be preferred. The reasoning is simple: synthetic grass looks great all year long, has no maintenance needs other than blowing off leaves, needs no watering or mowing and stands up to having gatherings such as weddings and other events without having to worry whether the grass looks good enough or placing signs that tell the guests “no pets allowed” – in the pet friendly Amara Resort.


What exactly is a Feng Shui garden? What does a typical Feng Shui garden look like? The same elements that are essential to good design are the same used in designing a Feng Shui garden.  Feng Shui principles are as subtle as basic design principles. They don’t jump out at you with overly thematic elements. Let’s look at a case study of a remodel of the front entrance of a contemporary southwest custom built home that was in need of some curb appeal. Or, contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

The subject property was built about 15 years ago and as such, the front entry evolved to fit with the needs of the owners. Recently, a large native pine tree that graced the entrance died and was removed leaving a large empty spot near the front entry. Not only did it soften the architecture of the home it gave the entry a woodsy feeling – the type of energy recognized in Feng Shui as that coming from living creatures including trees and shrubs. A form of good Chi, or beneficial energy.

Without that tree, the entrance felt bare and lost its vitality. Focus was also shifted to what remained – a 6 foot high iron fence that was installed to keep deer out of the owner’s small collection of roses. But now the fence seemed more like an afterthought, certainly not intended when the home was initially designed. The area inside the fence was rather small, filled up with a mixture of shrubs that became overgrown, further affecting the flow of Chi.

The owners knew their front entrance needed some help. They agreed the fence took away from the potential of a newly remodeled entry and were willing to see it go away. They also wanted to be able to sit out and enjoy perhaps a small fountain. I was then called in to prepare a design. With that background and basic criteria, I began to further study the front yard area. My criteria however, is a stealth one, that is, to blend in Feng Shui principles into all of my designs whether or not the owners request it. Of course, I knew in the end, the new entrance would not “look” like a Feng Shui garden, but would have that certain attractiveness that is hard to put into words.

In addition to creating a more Feng Shui friendly entrance, the secondary focus was to create a remodeled entrance that did not appear as an addition, but rather, that it resembled the original architectural design and features. The result is a more inviting entrance, with excitement and drama, a small patio space to sit and enjoy and a mix of native and low water use plants that are not as attractive to deer and wildlife.

With the fence out of the picture, I could literally open up the entrance and let the Chi pour into the front door and circulate around the entry, the sitting area and the new plantings. Here was my approach:

1) Remove the psychological barrier of the uninviting fence.
2) Use deer resistant and native plants that obviate the need for a barrier to wildlife.
3) Add a fountain to improve the flow of Chi and prosperity and abundance to the entrance and the occupants. Also serves as a focal point and a reason to pause and admire the space before entering the home.
4) Remove a portion of the existing concrete and replace with paver stones to delineate the entrance area from the driveway and to allow for more useable space.

5) Create a small patio space to enjoy the view from the north side of the house, previously where there was simply a walkway.

6) Use the Chinese 5-Elements Theory to create a balance among the elements.

The vision was a low key, low profile contemporary style fountain that was based on the strong strip-stone style flagstone used on the veneer of the house. I created a two tiered set of pedestals that were elongated and set perpendicular to each other, each with a wok bowl style fountain that created a double series of pouring scuppers. The lower wok bowl poured into a submerged basin covered with red polished river stones.

 Here are the solutions that incorporate the 5 Elements Theory:

Earth: Use of low profile horizonal lines, natural flagstone stripstone

Water: A flowing fountain

Fire: Red Sedona flagstone colors, spiky grasses, Agave

Wood: The proportional use of plants to balance the hardscape.

Metal: Steel agave sculpture and the circular shape of the wok bowls


This contemporary style front entry landscape remodel shows that you don’t have to create an Asian style garden when using Feng Shui principles. So we now have an example where  contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

Photograph contributed by client (name withheld for privacy)

Note: I want to give credit to the client/owner for many contributions and inputs that went into the details of this project including the idea and selection of the steel agave and planter and its night lighting, the off setting of the pedestal walls to reflect the angle of the home, the color of the basin pebbles, the choice of pavers and the styles of the planters in the background.


Top 5 Reasons to Use Concrete Pavers in Your Landscape

Whether its for a driveway, a patio sitting area, a walkway or pool decking, concrete pavers should be considered as an alternative material choice in every landscape design. There are numerous reasons why they have captured such a huge part of the landscape flooring market and here we discuss what those benefits are that make them so popular.

Concrete pavers have evolved over the years from being used in many commercial applications to simulate the look of bricks to now simulating the look of real stone. They color blends and textures have now allowed designers to use concrete pavers in applications that call for an economical alternative to using real stone materials.

Concrete pavers cannot compete with real stone such as travertine flooring or random flagstone, but it is considered because of several factors. Lets see why concrete pavers are indeed so popular and why the manufacturers are coming out with more and more variations on the basic design.

1) Flexibility in Design

Pavers come in a variety of patterns, textures and colors from contemporary patterns to combinations of units that mimic European cobblestone. Because they are molded, texture can be created to not only resemble a brick but a rounded stone or even a piece of cut flagstone.

Pavers are generally smaller units and can be laid to follow the terrain. They can be installed directly on the contours of the land. If you have a driveway that dips down and then slopes back up, pavers will look natural over the topography. There is no need to have level sections such as when using wood.

2) Very Low Maintenance

Unlike wood or real stone, concrete pavers do not crack or react to absorption of water. Wood will rot if not sealed to resist the penetration of water. Real stone will also become vulnerable to constant moisture. Pavers do absorb water, but do not change their inherent structure. They do not flake or become weakened by the presence of water or moisture.

Debris that accumulates naturally simply needs to be swept or hosed off. Application of a sealer is optional and not required. Sealers are often used where someone wants the pavers to take on an enhanced tone. Sealers will also help to resist the absorption of stains as concrete pavers are porous just like natural stone.

3) Pavers Will Not Crack

Compared to regular concrete, pavers are crack free. Their inherent design allows them to flex and move because of their many dry joints between the individual pavers. No poured concrete is used in the installation, only a compacted aggregate base and sand. Edge restraints can be packed concrete along the outer perimeter or special plastic edge restraints designed specifically for pavers.

Tile, stone, flagstone or any other material that must be installed over a concrete slab is subject to cracking of the underlying slab. Poured concrete without stone on top will also crack because it’s the nature of concrete to crack. Expansion joints are intentionally placed in poured concrete applications to allow for this natural cracking. Unfortunately, concrete does not always crack along the expansion joints. And when it doesn’t the whole appearance can be ruined.

4) Paver Cost is Reasonable

A cost comparison of alternative flooring surfaces will show that  pavers are in the mid range of available options. Materials such as higher end travertine or flagstone are at the top along with premium wood or composite wood. At the low end of landscape flooring options, we have basic gravel, then loose flagstone pieces set in sand and then basic natural gray poured concrete which is why so many of our driveways and sidewalks use basic natural gray concrete.

But if you want to stretch your budget a bit and get something that has a completely more exciting look and feel compared to basic concrete, using pavers is a great option.

When you embellish basic concrete by adding color or perhaps adding aggregate for texture, you are adding to the overall cost, but remember, you still have the risk of cracking.

5) Innovation is Improving with Paver Technology

The styles and shapes now available in the market give the designer a lot of flexibility to emulate the appearance of natural stone. Travertine quarries have even created cut travertine stones that are typically 6” x 12” and thick enough to be used in lieu of concrete type pavers. Other natural stone is not conducive to being cut in this fashion. But travertine pavers are also popular for the application where a natural stone is preferred and the budget is a bit higher than for concrete pavers.


The case in favor of real turf grass

The Lawn Institute has an extensive list of benefits and value of maintaining natural lawns or real turf grass in our society. They point out a number of benefits including environmental, economical and even psychological issues to make the case in favor of real turf grass. They do not however, make a side by side comparison to the artificial grass alternative. So as you read through all of these benefits, think if artificial grass would provide the same benefits.

I  particularly liked the quote , “Surveys conducted by … bare out the fact that green space and especially green lawns may be as American as apple pie, hot dogs and baseball”. The issue is green open space.

The following survey results speak for themselves:

Psychological Health

  • 93% of homeowners rank green space important
  • 86% find that a nice lawn is a positive reflection on the homeowner
  • 63% of homeowners feel a landscape is an outlet for self-expression and creativity

Regional Economics

More than 90% of homeowners surveyed feel that having a well maintained lawn improves property values.

  • Roughly 74% of homeowners feel lawns and landscapes of neighbors are important when buying a house
  • 73% said the lawn is an important consideration when buying a house

The artificial grass alternative

I often bring up artificial grass as an alternative to real turf grass in most cases where the grass area considered is not too large. Since artificial grass costs much more than natural sod, homeowners often ask, “how much more is it?”. I have found that it is generally 2.5 to 3 times more in terms of initial costs. The maintenance costs including the cost of water should also be factored in over time.

Costs however may not be the only deciding factor and that is where the quote about grass being “as American as apple pie, hot dogs and baseball” is intriguing. I cannot cite an actual survey, but I do believe that all costs and environmental comparisons put aside, people would prefer the real thing over the fake alternative. People naturally will gravitate towards something natural when presented with a “fake” substitute.

Artificial is perceived as having less value and desirability. It’s also perceived as being inferior, cheap, less prestigious and not as sophisticated as the real thing. This is often true with plastic alternatives to natural materials such as stone or plants.  Fake indoor plants are lifeless substitutes for real indoor plants. So of course we would prefer real grass over something fake until we educate ourselves beyond this simple fake vs. real comparison.

Studies have shown that patients in hospitals and nursing homes that have view onto a natural landscape, perhaps one with a nice green lawn improve their conditions compared to patients who are not exposed to those same views. I wonder if those same benefits would be experienced if artificial grass were present. Given today’s technology of being able to make fake grass look as real as natural grass, I would guess that it would have the same psychological effects.

Americans love affair with the natural lawn

63% of homeowners feel a landscape is an outlet for self-expression and creativity (1)

Another psychological factor is the degree of enjoy-ability. Some people take great pride in maintaining their lawns even though they spend hours maintaining it. They see their lawns as an extension of their own identity, and if exposed to the public as in the case of the front lawn, may even be more sensitive of how they (and their lawn) are perceived by their neighbors. Artificial turf takes away any ego identification with how well it is being maintained. They may even be concerned about being labeled as “the guy with the fake grass”.

But as the technology to recreate the real lifelike appearance of natural grass improves with the synthetic alternatives, more and more people will be fooled into believing it is indeed real. And when that happens without the homeowner disclosing that its fake at the outset, they can only feel proud of their choice because almost everyone is usually quite astonished when they are told that it is indeed artificial grass.

Here is the laundry list of benefits of real grass as cited by The Lawn Institute.  and where you can find the citations made regarding the survey results.

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