General Design Archives

Thought about having a small container water garden for your patio or deck? Water gardening is a great hobby, but a container with aquatic plants and perhaps some fish will also look great greeting visitors by the front door. Here are some container water gardening ideas that will help you decide just how to create one or more.

A container water garden can be created using any type of container provided it is water sealed. A container that is not otherwise considered or designed to function as a fountain, must be fixed up so it can hold water and not deteriorate form being wet. Large ceramic pots work well as long as the insides are watersealed. Probably the most popular idea is to purchase a kit that uses a Whiskey Barrel design with a pre-formed plastic liner that fits inside to hold the water while still maintaining the rustic outer whiskey barrel appearance.

The larger the water surface area of the container, the more aquatic plants you can have. So you may want to get several containers and group them, perhaps even create a tiered grouping to create more visual interest and variety of heights. These container water gardening ideas ares also used when dealing with traditional containers for plants alone. You can work them in with your regular planting containers.

A container water garden should be designed primarily around the kind of aquatic plants you would like. You may want to create a Zen like container water garden with a low profile container with a single Lotus or single Water lily. The design principles of arranging plants in a conventional container apply to a water garden as well. Groupings of plants that provide contrast, a variety of textures and colors will add to its appeal. Select plants of different shapes and size and make sure you read about how large they grow and their tolerance to freezing temperatures. Also consider the balance of water surface to the plants so it doesn’t look crowded or overgrown.

If you add fish to your water garden, the volume of water the container can hold will be important. The more the volume the better as the temperature of the water will not undergo drastic extremes which most fish do not like. Mosquito fish however, can tolerate warm water quite well. If your container holds more than 20 gallons of water you can add any type of goldfish.

With the addition of fish, along with the plants, you are creating a mini ecosystem and as such, a harmonic balance must be achieved between the capacity of the bacteria in the container and the debris and waste contributed by the fish. Adequate oxygen levels must also be provided and so a small recirculating pump that has some kind of way to aerate the water should be included. This could also provide the element of sound and splashing. It will also disturb the water’s surface and prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs.

If you have ever had a fish aquarium, you are probably familiar with feeding the fish, adding aquatic plants and cleaning out the aquarium’s filter from time to time. The maintenance of a container water garden outdoors is quite easy since the plants do much to keep the water clean. Just don’t add too many fish that exceeds the ability of the bacteria to break down the waste material. The water will evaporate over time so keep an eye on the level or better yet, install a float valve connected to a water source and you won’t have to worry about evaporation.

Don’t limit your ability to have more than just a container water garden. Consider other waterfeatures as well. Waterfeatures is a collective term that includes all types of fountain like designs such as tabletop fountains, container water gardens, stand-alone fountains, bubbling urns, rock waterfalls and ponds.

When it comes to outdoor living, a gas barbeque grill is a must for most homeowners and having a kitchen island makes it more entertaining and functional as an outdoor bbq cooking area.  Beyond the basic five foot long grill island, you can add a side burner, a refrigerator, sink, ice container, countertop grill light, drawers, cabinets, and other accessories. In order to simplify the process of determining your needs, lets go through this list below to help as a guide to barbeque grills and outdoor kitchen islands.

What need or desire does it fulfill?

Are you satisfied with a portable grill that you can move about? Or would you prefer a grill that is built into an island where it is integrated into your backyard patio design? Do you intend to socialize around the grill where you can entertain family and friends? Are you a gourmet chef and want all the bells and whistles that one thinks of with an outdoor kitchen?

Form vs. function.

If you primarily want a barbeque just to grill and then eat inside, the simplest form of grill station will probably do and functionality may be the priority. How will it look on your patio when not in use? How does it fit in with the other landscape elements you may want to include such as an outdoor fireplace, seating areas, pools, fountains and lawn areas?

Does it serve a purpose other than grilling?

Add a sit up bar to a basic island to allow guests to interact with you while you are cooking. A countertop also is a place to put beverages, plates and dishes like a table top. A refrigerator or built in ice chest adds a convenience factor in not having to make multiple trips to your indoor kitchen. It lets you hang outside with your guests.

How should it be situated on your patio?

The location of the bbq grill is always a major decision. But answer the above questions first to determine its form and function. These criteria will go into its design and configuration. If it’s a simple grilling station, which direction will the grill face? How close to the kitchen doors should it be? Is there adequate ventilation and separation from combustible structures? Will it be straight, L-shaped or angled? Is there adequate patio area for circulation around it, and at the bar seating area?

What design choices do you have? (custom vs. modular/prefab)

Barbeque islands can be either custom designed and built out of masonry block or they can be pre-manufactured using steel studs, cement board and finished with stucco coating or stone veneer. Today there are many manufacturers that build islands to your specifications and then either ship them to you to finish or bring them to your home in an almost completed form.

Infrastructure – electrical, gas, footings, waterline, permits

Regardless of custom built or prefabricated, you will need at the minimum gas which can be either propane or natural gas. A natural gas line must be underground and stubbed out to come up inside the island or come in through the back depending on how it is situated on your patio. Propane tanks are not as convenient as having a connection to natural gasline, but are much less expensive in terms of initial installation.

Electrical may be needed for a grill light, hood light, countertop light, rotisserie motor or for accessory outlets on the island. Not providing an outlet to an island is a mistake which is why many grill owners end up using battery powered clip on lights.

One of the benefits of a premanufactured bbq island is you do not need to pour a significant footing as you will with a custom built masonry island. Just a solid patio surface will do. Building permits may or may not be required for the island itself, but if you are running electrical and or gas, those items should require permits. Check with your building department to find out what is required.

If a sink is desired, a cold waterline will need to be connected as well as a discharge line for the wastewater. Most building codes require a sink to be connected to the sewer system, but is usually not feasible when building an outdoor kitchen after the house’s plumbing system has been built. Usually a small dry well is constructed to allow for the sink waste water to percolate into the garden or planting areas. Just don’t use your sink as if it were a real kitchen sink. Think about what is going down the drain.

Finishes – countertop and sides

The countertop surface can be tile, travertine, granite or stone. The sides can be stucco to match your house or a cultured stone veneer depending on how fancy you want to get or perhaps tie it in with another structure such as a fireplace. Don’t forget ventilation along the sides to allow gas to escape.

Accessories and Features

The size of the grill is the most important consideration when determining the size and length of the island as it will displace useable countertop space. How many people will you be serving? Side burners are available to place sauce pans and skillets. Here’s a list of some of the accessories that you may want to consider:

  • A smoker
  • A wood burning grill to accompany the gas grill
  • A backsplash with raised bartop
  • Cantilevered countertop with no backsplash
  • Refrigerator
  • Ice chest/beverage holder
  • Drawers
  • Access doors to inside the island to reach gas shut off valves or propane tanks
  • Shelving or Drawers for storage
  • A tilt out garbage holder

Spend a good deal of time thinking about what you really want in an outdoor kitchen island and barbeque grill and whether you need all the bells and whistles that are available. You may be able to figure out the cost online researching the premanufactured options, but a certain amount of onsite installation will be needed. Better yet, contact a local landscape professional to help you with either the design and or construction of your island to avoid overlooking anything.


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.

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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