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Pastoral Frenzy

Landscape artist Colleen Holmes is known for wonderfully thoughtful and entirely distinctive projects.  In the one she describes here, she was asked to do her usual in designing and executing an intricate job complete with a pond and waterfall, extensive plantings, retaining walls, pathways, lighting, a teahouse and more – and to make it all happen in a frantic 60 days that saw her and her crews working around the clock, seven days a week.
Landscape artist Colleen Holmes is known for wonderfully thoughtful and entirely distinctive projects. In the one she describes here, she was asked to do her usual in designing and executing an intricate job complete with a pond and waterfall, extensive plantings, retaining walls, pathways, lighting, a teahouse and more – and to make it all happen in a frantic 60 days that saw her and her crews working around the clock, seven days a week.
By Colleen Holmes

My first experience with these clients had to do with their backyard pool:  They let me know they weren’t quite satisfied with what they had and wanted me to come in and set things straight.  The result of this collaboration was a tropical, Hawaiian-style paradise they truly love.

The next time they called, it was about their large front yard.  I initially assumed, of course, that they would want me to carry themes established in the backyard out to the street, but I was mistaken:  What they desired instead was a Japanese garden-style woodland complete with a pond/waterfall system, a teahouse and more.  Admittedly, it’s somewhat unusual for a property to have so pronounced a split personality, but in this case, it was not only what the clients desired, but it also made perfect sense because of the way the property is configured.  

So far so good, but then they hit me with the timetable:  Everything had to be done in 60 days so all would be ready for a holiday party they were planning.

Truth be told, just the preliminary design phases in most of my projects at New Leaf Landscape of Agoura Hills, Calif., take at least that long, because my preferred method is to collaborate with my clients over time on almost every detail and run a design through as many iterations as it takes to make everything come together.  But these clients were in a crashing hurry, expressed their complete faith in my ability and gave me carte blanche to do exactly what I thought should be done.

It was an exciting way to work, but it was also extraordinarily exhausting.  It also  required supreme effort on the part of my crews to produce results that in no way betrayed the frenzy we all experienced in creating this calm, soothing, restful space.

SUBURBAN BUFFER

The impulse to split the property’s personality in two had mainly to do with location:  The home is in the hills of Sherman Oaks, Calif., an upscale residential area marked by a number of busy, noisy streets.  

My clients’ place is on a three-quarter-acre lot that slopes down from one of the busiest.  They told me they wanted to create a dramatic transition from that raucous environment by establishing a private forest in which it would be possible to lose touch with the street beyond.  

For starters, this meant adding a thick, noise-filtering hedge along the property’s frontage – a barrier that would serve the dual purpose of providing them with some privacy by blocking the view of the house from the street.  Moreover, seeing the heavy privacy screen from the street would foreshadow the sort of wooded experience people would have in passing through the front gate.

As it stood, the existing landscape was a quite the mess.  The original entrance was no more than a straight brick path that descended some 25 feet down from the street to the front door – boring and unimaginative, to say the least.  The rest of the yard was a mass of brambles that might, to the untutored eye, have been sort of interesting; to me, however, it was a benighted wasteland redeemed only by the presence of a number of large trees I knew we could save, prune and use to create a wonderful new canopy.

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As originally configured, the approach to the front door was a straight shot after an unceremonious descent via a nondescript brick stairway.  The rest of the yard boasted wonderful, mature trees, but the space was mostly a disorganized mess.

In all, the front yard covers about a quarter acre, so we had plenty of room in which to develop areas and features and generate a complete outdoor experience:  This would not be a space through which people would numbly pass on the way to the front door; rather, it was to be a sequence of restful havens – refuges from daily cares to and through which my clients and their friends might wander, relax and generally spend quality time.

As it turned out, the goal was to make the front yard every bit as much of an event as the backyard.

Before I get too far into the details, it’s important to mention that the clients themselves are something special.  They never wavered in their trust in me and were wonderful collaborators both in redeveloping the backyard and in tackling the front yard.

The home is a typical California ranch-style structure with relatively muted, indistinct architectural features.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that the landscapes front and back actually define the architecture rather than the other way around – so much so that one of the key phases of our work had to do with developing a new color palette for the home’s exterior that would blend well with the landscaping.

SWEEPING ARRIVAL

Given the directness of the program outlined above, it’s only too easy to forget that the project unfolded in a style that resembled nothing so much as a fire drill.

We started talking things over in mid-October 2006, and after I showed them my initial sketches (which they loved), they broke the news to me that it all had to be completed in time for a pre-Christmas party.  I told them we could do it, but that we’d have to start right away, had no time to put anything out to bid and saw no alternative to handling everything on a straight time-and-materials basis.  They agreed without hesitation and we started working on site the very next day.

As a first step, we brought in the heavy equipment and began ripping the place apart.  But right away we recognized we couldn’t go at truly breakneck speeds because we were going to preserve most of the existing trees.  As a result, the demolition and grading actually had to be done carefully.

To make certain all would go well, I brought in an arborist to help us avoid damaging any of the trees – Chinese elms, various pines, a redwood tree, an avocado tree, an ash, an acacia and more.  As it turns out, this was a good way to start and helped us get accustomed to working frenetically, but with great care as well.

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At the start of the rapid-fire installation process, we relocated the gate most of the way toward the other side of the property, allowing us to set up a sweeping pathway from the busy street down through a completely revised garden space and along the back of a small pond/waterfall feature.

Once we fully engaged in the process, however, I’m the first to concede it was all something of a blur.  I, for one, completely lost track of time, worked constantly, created details on the fly and basically put everything else I was doing on hold for the duration.

I give a tremendous amount of credit to my crews, who stayed with me every step of the way.  We had a never-ending series of on-site meetings and kept communicating through thick and thin – so well, in fact, that at no point did we have to rip anything out and start over.  Indeed, the whole process unfolded without a single major mistake or delays that might have resulted from unexpected complications.

If I may say so myself, it was an operational marvel to behold, especially as the days began to add up (with less and less daylight each day, lest we forget).  I also had to beg the patience of my family and office staff, all of whom were pulled into my complete immersion in the tasks at hand.  There were more times than I care to remember when people around me had to remind me to eat and take breaks.  

I certainly wouldn’t want to work this way on every project, but I must say there was something exhilarating about designing and managing the execution of such a large, involved project in so short a time.

INTO THE GLADE

With the site cleared and ready, we tackled one of the most important elements in the design – that is, the complete reconfiguration of the entrance to the property.

The home’s front door is far toward the end of the house on the left, which essentially meant that all of the original, impenetrable greenery was off to one side as you walked onto the property and was truly just wasted space.  We repositioned the street-level approach at the center of the frontage and created a sweeping stone path that leads down through the new garden – a journey of arrival in which you punch through the privacy hedge via a large wooden gate and discover a private forest beyond.

The existing trees were quite large, so I wanted the rest of the planting to be bold and express the sense that all had all been there together for countless years.  To achieve that look, we went with large groupings clivias, ferns and other species that do well in the shade.  We also broke the pattern with single specimens that created focal points amid the sweeping masses of greenery.

Just as you enter the yard, you can choose the meandering stone path that leads to the front door, or you can turn right and follow a gravel-and-flagstone path that leads to an sitting area with a café table; moves along to a large teahouse; and ends in an area of the side yard known as Nielson’s Meadow, named for the clients’ beloved dog of the same name who spends most of his time in the area.

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We used retaining walls to establish a number of terraced spaces throughout the yard.  This enabled us to create a variety of destinations – intimate seating areas, serenity-inspiring waterfeatures and, most elaborately, an openwork teahouse that serves as a gathering place as well as a spot for relaxation and meditation.

If you take the direct path to the front door, you walk over a surface finished with a combination of Montana multi-blend stone, polished-aggregate inlays and ledger stones at various step locations and come to a landing outfitted with a bench that overlooks the pond and waterfall and most of the rest of the yard.

The pond is the space’s primary watershape.  It measures approximately 25 feet long by 10 feet at its widest and is encompassed by moss-rock structures and rich plantings.  The pond itself was the handiwork of David Duensing of Point Vedra Beach, Fla., who did an amazing job of setting up the system on short notice and managed to complete the task amid the localized maelstrom that blew all around him and his crew.

Visible from a number of key spots in the yard and from the kitchen/breakfast area and the master bedroom, the pond serves as a beautiful central feature.  It’s not right next to the house, which may seem unusual, but one of the reasons it’s there is to serve as a source of noise relatively close to the street that masks the sounds of traffic beyond.   

To that end, we spent a good bit of time tuning the three-foot-tall cascades, making the flow vigorous enough to hide the thrum of passing cars – but not so overwhelming that it undermined the setting’s tranquility.  We achieved balance in good order, and it’s amazing just how well the sounds of the flowing water work together with the privacy hedge and other plantings to make the street noise almost completely disappear.

COLORFUL CONTOURS

There are a number of interesting artistic touches throughout the space, and the area around the pond is no exception.  This is where, for example, we installed two NightOrbs (La Sorgente Glass Studio, Media, Pa.), using their reflections to give the water an otherworldly look at night.  We also installed a pair of blue-heron sculptures there as well.  

The pond has a number of Koi in it and the bronze herons do them no harm, but real birds in the area have occasionally used the water as a sort of avian smorgasbord, so we went back in and inserted some extra shelving and subsurface hiding places for the costly fish.  (That’s slowed down the predators a bit, but Koi still vanish on occasion.)

As you continue past the landing on the way to the front door, there’s another area in which we inserted a small, brimming pot surrounded by stones and plants and backed up by one of the many retaining walls we built on site.  We located another bench at this spot, where you can sit and look back over the entire space and enjoy the noise-masking sound of the water flowing past the rim of the pot and trickling into a chamber below.

The sloping site gave us ample opportunity to break up the visual planes with retaining walls.  They’re all clad in a thick ledgerstone with a rough-hewn look occasionally interspersed by cobbles to lend a bit of variety.  As is the case with many of my designs, I like to use such walls to mark grade changes while letting them make artistic statements as well.  In this case, all the walls are all relatively low – no more than three feet tall – and they’ve been organized to set up terraces highlighted by the walls’ winding, undulating lines.

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A large measure of the garden’s true charm emerges when the sun sets – testimonial to an elaborate lighting program and the way destinations are arrayed under a tree canopy we carefully drew into the picture.

From the landing near the front door, you get a prime view of the teahouse in the distance across the yard.  Along the way, the eye passes over the pond and all the plants, walls and other visual elements – a compelling invitation to double back and explore the entire space.  

The teahouse sits near the top of the slope beneath some trees and is a house only in a metaphorical sense because it’s actually an open-beam structure that allows clear views of the tree canopy and, at night, of a gorgeously illuminated space.  We left it open so it would never feel dark or overly shaded and outfitted it with a wonderful metal chandelier, beautiful outdoor furnishings and a number of other bright aesthetic touches – a wonderful spot for outdoor relaxing and entertaining.

As mentioned above, we also revamped the home’s exterior color scheme, mostly picking up colors of the Montana multi-blend stone used on the entry path, in the retaining walls, on an expanded patio area at the front of the house and as cladding on the house itself.  This gave us several shades of green (with cream and terra cotta colors mixed in as well) to cover the house and complement the camel-colored front door.  The front gate and teahouse timbers are all painted green.

It’s all quite tranquil and soothing while still carrying colorful highlights and points of interest.

IN GOOD TIME
   
One of the key features of the project is the extensive lighting system, our ambition being to give the setting a magical quality at night.

In rapid order, we installed fixtures for an unusually complex lighting array with approaches that included backlighting, depth lighting, moonlighting, path lighting, uplighting, cross-lighting and more.  There are also firefly lights in some of the maples, and in some cases we used lavender-colored lenses to create a distinctly moody effect.  

Growing Concern

In a garden with such lush plantings and large trees, maintenance is extremely important.  

A good bit of the space is covered in lawn, so I made it clear to the homeowners that if they wanted it to survive and look good, they needed to arrange for regular pruning of the tree canopy to enable sufficient light to filter through to the ground to sustain the lawn and other sub-canopy plants.  I alerted them as well that regular maintenance would be needed to keep plants from taking over and disrupting the lighting system.  

To keep our own handle on the process, we’ve arranged to go back twice a year to detail the garden, do some judicious pruning, replace plants as needed and generally fine tune the entire environment.  At this point, nearly two years after the installation, the clients have done a great job keeping up on the maintenance, and the yard looks even more beautiful than it did at party time.

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Much of this rigging had to be kept in mind from the start of the construction phase, of course, and we did all we could to cover all eventualities.  We ran electrical, irrigation and drainage lines under the new patio at the front of the house, for example, just in case.  And it worked out well because we set up several ceramic pots on the patio and ended up inserting plants, watering systems and lights into them.  

While we worked with great speed, in other words, we also maintained a focus on subtle details that took some planning and coordination and, we think, added immeasurably to the overall ambience.  The lighting system, for example, lends depth, texture, focal points and a high level of nighttime safety to the composition in ways that lead the eye throughout the garden space.   

Looking over the completed project, there’s a remarkably strong sense of visual continuity combined with the feeling that you can travel easily to any point within the space and find any number of restful locations.  I’m particularly proud of this:  The fact that the garden looks good from every angle and offers visitors the opportunity to get “lost” in the space is most satisfying – and quite romantic.

I still can’t believe that we finished in time for the holiday party.  My husband and I were invited, and I was delighted to return to the site to experience it as a guest rather than as a time-pressed contractor.  Believe me, it was quite a contrast to the stresses I experienced during the installation process.

It rained gently the night of the party, which kept the guests from spending too much time in the garden.  I was secretly glad, because it was all freshly planted and I’d been concerned about everything getting trampled.  That didn’t happen, affording me some extra sighs of relief.

As I stood there surveying the scene, I couldn’t help sensing the irony of it all:  Here was a perfectly peaceful space that had just gone through the most intense, frenzied sort of creation imaginable.  Now, what remains is a pure expression of calm – but I’ll always know better!  

 

Colleen Holmes is president of New Leaf Landscape, a full-service landscape design/construction firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif. A landscape designer with more than 30 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 and now focuses exclusively on high-end residential projects including a number of celebrities’ homes.

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