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There were some positives in the existing front yard, says Colleen Holmes. But the overall space needed lots of attention to turn the Koi pond and its bland, disjointed surroundings into a warmer, more effective transition from the public sphere to the family's private retreat.
There were some positives in the existing front yard, says Colleen Holmes.  But the overall space needed lots of attention to turn the Koi pond and its bland, disjointed surroundings into a warmer, more effective transition from the public sphere to the family's private retreat.
By Colleen Holmes

In my lengthening career as a landscape designer and installer, I have worked on every aspect of a variety of residential and commercial projects – indoors and outdoors; on backyards, sideyards and front yards; on formal gardens, wild meadows and stands of trees; and on pools, spas, fountains, ponds, streams, waterfalls and more.  

I enjoy every part of the projects that come my way, but I take special pleasure in working in a front yard and making it a welcoming place for my clients, their families and their guests.

As I see it, a building’s primary access point is the key to experiencing the entire space:  It sets a mood, changes a mood, and manages a transition that starts at the street and concludes once the door is opened and the living or working space surrounds whoever enters.  I love the level of control these spaces offer me, and I strive to do my best here because I know how important these transitions really are.

The project discussed in this article is a distinct case in point.


We at New Leaf Landscape (Agoura Hills, Calif.) had originally been called to this property to remake the backyard.  The site is in the dramatic hills of Pacific Palisades, Calif., an enclave of Los Angeles that in this case offered fantastic (but underexploited) views of the Pacific Ocean.  

As we completed our work after many months of dealing with an efficient but excessively pragmatic engineer and California’s notoriously stubborn Coastal Commission, the homeowner led me over to the gate leading to the front yard and said, “Colleen, you know what we’re going to have you do next.”

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As we found it, the front yard was a jumble of plants (left) with a bright, white path leading to the front entrance (middle left).  Once at the top, the view through the plants featured the distraction of neighboring’ homes (middle right), while the transition from the front yard to the back was stark and forgettable (right).  The entry way’s pond was a redeeming factor – but it definitely needed relief from its bland surroundings.

Outside that gate was an ill-defined entry space with an existing pond filled with Koi that all had names and were clearly much-beloved family pets.  Despite their presence, absolutely nothing worked together out there:  no cohesive plan, just a bunch of disparate elements that each stood alone, from the driveway to the pond to the home’s formal entry.

Our first step was calling in a Koi master to help us make the right decisions about the fish.  We painstakingly transferred them to containers he provided, then moved them to a special storage facility he’d set up in his garage.  Having them safe and sound was important for two reasons:  It gave our clients peace of mind, but it also set us scurrying to complete our work so the Koi could be returned after as short a time as possible.

With the pond empty, we then worked out all of the details of its revised and expanded interior with the Koi specialist.  He helped us set depths and contours, for example, and also guided us in establishing fish tunnels and caves where the Koi could hide from predators.  Most important, he endorsed our concept of placing a stone bridge over part of the pond because it offered both shade and additional security.

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Our work in the backyard had been detailed and extensive, all with the aim of enabling the homeowners to exploit and enjoy their view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.  The wall fountain was part of a grand retaining-wall system that considerably opened the space.

He also specified the equipment that would keep the pond’s water moving and healthy, including a biofiltration system supplemented by a sand filter.  All of this noisy stuff was set down a slope that flowed away from the front door – out of sight and unobtrusive on all levels.

The design was spun off what we’d done in the backyard with respect to materials and plant selections, but we treated the front yard as a distinct space with a different function from the backyard:  It all works together front to back, but the design out front is intended to slow things down, ease the mood and work a transition from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles to the glorious charm of the ocean views beyond.


The key to the design is the way the area near the entry door functions as a sort of “secret garden” separating the back and front yards.  

As we first encountered it, this space was a collection of non-related, purely functional elements:  A plain driveway led to a clear (but dull) path to a drama-free main entry.  There was a pond off to the side, but in no discernible way was it integrated into the setting.  And past the front door, there was a path toward the back gate – again, as nondescript as could be.    

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We completely reworked the front yard’s features, preserving the sweep of the entry stairs and a few of the larger plants (left) – but mostly starting over again with the majority of the surfaces.  A key addition (visible at right) was a structure made up of both artificial and natural stone:  With plants added to fill in the gaps, the area surrounding the front door took on the character of a hidden garden just waiting to be discovered and explored.

But now, whether you’ve come up the driveway or passed through the gate from the backyard (or walked out the front door), you find yourself caught up in a green space that offers beauty and a sense of bliss with every turn of the head.  By virtue of the bridge, the pond is fully part of the new composition, but it’s also a discovery once you move past a structured space marked at first by an assortment of trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

The revised setting also includes a large amount of rockwork, much of it real but a lot of it artificial to make things work close to the pond without compromising its structure.  And then there’s the bridge, which represents the point of transition between the public space of the driveway and the private space of the hidden garden:  It’s a simple but significant span by day, but at night, the lighting from the waterfall, the front entry and the landscape make it magical.

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The revised front yard is warmer in tone and detail than the original, with the bright concrete surfaces removed and replaced by warm flag- and ledger stone.  The plantings are thicker but more organized, effectively blocking views to neighboring homes, while the waterfall fills the space with warm, welcoming sounds as the homeowners and their guests make the transition from public to private spaces.

To enhance the sense of calm transition, we also included a small seating area.  It might not see all that much use, but its mere presence is an invitation to relax and drink deep from the surroundings – another major step in using the space to establish a transforming mood.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that the original space was back-alley scary – but it’s not entirely off base, either.  As we found it, the area was less than friendly, and that was despite the presence of a Koi pond, which was there in such a way that it wasn’t easily seen, heard or enjoyed.

By contrast, the revised space is gorgeous rather than stark, inviting rather than off-putting and, perhaps most important, fully integrates the Koi pond into a setting that is now harmonious, welcoming, charming and mood-altering.  That’s just the sort of transformation a front entrance should bring to a home – a cheerful farewell at the start of a day and a clear break at its end.


Colleen Holmes is president of New Leaf Landscape, a full-service landscape design/construction firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif.  A professional with more than 35 years’ experience, she began her career as a child at the side of her father, Charles Prowse, who instilled in her a love of the art of landscape design. She studied landscape architecture at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., where she was profoundly influenced by sculptor/landscape artist Michael Watling, and later attended UCLA’s school of landscape architecture. Her early work focused on designs for country clubs and gated communities in the Coachella Valley. Since then, Holmes has run her own pool and landscape maintenance firms and founded her first landscape design/construction company in 1980. She established her current firm in 1987.  She may be reached through her web site:

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