Designing by Theme, Part X

Welcome to April’s edition. This month we will view the backyard renovations completed in our NorCal with Asian accents themed garden, which is now in its second year of growth.

The yards that we renovate are typically 7 to 15 years old, having mature plantings and well-established shade trees. Unfortunately, “well-established” does not necessarily mean well-placed, particularly if the shade trees are too close to the lawn. Too much shade and surface roots wreak havoc on turf grass, as is apparent in the Before picture.

When a situation like this occurs, the client must choose between lawn and trees. If you want lawn, then some of the trees need to be removed. If the trees provide greater value, then the lawn area must be changed. In this case, the decision was not difficult. My clients had both reason and desire to create space for outdoor living and al fresco dining.

In order to convert the existing lawn area into an outdoor room, it was necessary to till the lawn and remove existing surface roots. Failure to remove surface roots before laying the patio would not make an immediate difference; but, overtime, those same roots would raise the flagstone, destroying both the beauty and usefulness of the space. While I never recommend removing tree roots unnecessarily, I do believe that it can and should be done (with appropriate care and precaution) when it will protect the new landscape design.

Since the decision was to preserve the trees, the plants selected for this area would need to thrive in shade. It is important to note that there are degrees of shade that must be considered. The best way to describe it is in percentages. Anything that is between full-sun to 30 percent shade is still considered a full-sun plant. Understanding that, it is not surprising that many plants that are labeled “full sun” do enjoy/ prefer a period of shade. Plants that thrive in 30-60 percent shade are those that live well in filtered light (versus much sun/some shade). Plants that thrive in 65-80 percent shade are fewer and harder to find. Only very specific plants can thrive in that kind of reduced light.

The backyard that we are discussing includes all three ranges. For this reason, the design was divided into light/shade zones to ensure that each area (percentage) of shade had appropriate plantings. In the second picture, the area between the home and the pool, the light was convivial for any number of plants, offering morning light and afternoon shade.

This light setting greatly broadens the palette of appropriate plants and allows for a depth of selection that included different blooming times, bringing seasonal interest to the garden. While the design opportunity was clear, this area needed a little screening from the morning July/August sun. The kitchen windows face directly east and are a “hot spot” during these months. Also visibility to the pool was a key factor to consider. A great small tree for such an area is Cercis Forest Pansy. Although this tree is slow at the start, it grows quite beautifully, with new growth showing in purples that fade to green as the leaf matures. This plant, as all others in this area was chosen with respect to the NorCal/Asian accents theme, but also to not interfere with the view of the newly established outdoor room or pool.

This backyard has a third, distinct area behind the pool that is shown exclusively on our YouTube video. So I encourage you to scan the QR code or to visit the VIMEO URL to further our discussion of our design challenges. On this video, you will also find our featured plant of the month, Prunus s. Snow Fountains, a serpentine weeping Cherry. Until next month, Good Gardening.