One Stubborn Spot to Design

aloha2009February 21, 2011

We are struggling with one last very important area of our design. It's a fairly large area in comparison to the rest of the lot but seems to have no use.

We want NO grass

We have a beach with seating for 10+, a patio that will accomadate another 10, and a firepit area that will accomodate another 6, and yet another small area that will accomodate no need for extra seating.

It's just my DH and I dot not need for play equipment (swings, trampolines, etc).

No desire to have to fuss with a fish pond when we have a no maintence lake to enjoy.

It does need additional stairs (has , needs about 8 more steps) coming from the upper terraced level (which will be almost all xeriscaped). When you arrive at the bottom of the steps, a branch needs to be made to the patio (which will encompass to end of deck post) and another needs to be able to go directly to the lake.

Though we are xeriscaping the backyard, it will be lush with LOTS of plants. We are restricted though with all vegetation must be 36" or less within 30' of the lake (can't restrict neighbors views). For myself this makes it tough to do xeriscaping right. We have dry stacked walls that we are leaving except for adjustments on the forefront wall where it just "dies" off. The rocks on the right of the pic by the sand is the lot line. About 40' is the steps

We can't decide on walkway material. The upper portion will be a woodland feel, which makes us want a crushed gravel, but that doesn't seem the best for steps nor close to the sand. Boardwalk seems too formal and doesn't do curves. The boardwalk would not be good for the "woodland" area but much better for by the beach. We're trying to keep the costs in check and would prefer no more patio but if it really seems to make it all come together we are open. I'm about to hire a landscape designer but I have two brothers out of state who have done extensive outdoor work and they haven't been able to come up with anything either. I'm desperate to get a patio installed as all we have is dirt and mud by the house, but I dont' want to spend the money and it not work for this stubborn spot.

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What direction does it face, is there a door or stairs out of the picture? could you post a wider or another pic of what is to the left outside this shot?
Where would the 30' feet line be? maybe the far end of the deck?

I think the area has a lot of potential once you get past what you dont want to use it for. The retaining walls and the low wall at the edge ot the beach are very attractive. A 36" height restriction is not that limiting; as you probably wouldn't want to plant anything to high there either.

Where is the dirt and mud next to the house that you are referring to? under the deck? also what are the main views YOU have towards this area? from the deck? from the windows? probably the view above is not the main one that you look at - but it may be the most important view to you in the same way that people like their front yards to look attractive from the street.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 11:08AM
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Drtygrl, thanks for the quick response.
The picture is taken looking South (lake is the backyard) Stairs are in between the walls just prior to going to upper level.
I included the overall backyard from last summer. We're installing a walkout 8' door in the middle of the house, where we will install a large patio.

30' is about the furthest deck post back.

I too love the walls. I think the layout could be wonderful, if this area would just "work". The 36" height to me is difficult as I like to xeriscape with various plants, rocks and trees (which trees would be out of the questions).

Dirt and mud is under the deck (where patio will eventually go).

This "trouble" area will be seen most when coming down the steps toward the lake, and sometimes coming out of the lake.

The house is all about the lake, from deck, windows, even the staircase. All the other areas throughout the yard seem to have a purpose but this one. It doesn't have to be spectacular but I don't want it to be a distraction an afterthought (especially considering all the time, I've already put into it).

Sorry for my negativism, I've hit my frustration level after many, many months. Thanks for your interest!

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 11:36AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

For your walkways, I'd go for a mixed solution: closer to the water, stone paving (to match your lovely walls). Back from the lake, the crushed gravel you're thinking of. [Because the stone paving would match the walls, it doesn't count as an additional type of hardscape, though the crushed gravel would, unless you're already using it elsewhere.]

I'm not a pro, so I don't know how feasible or practical the stone paving would be near the lake, or how costly (especially since we don't know how much area this will cover).


Re. the height issue, I'd keep most of the landscaping significantly lower than 36". Having a noticeable differential between the lower plantings and the occasional 36" you're allowed will emphasize the height of the taller plants.

Are you allowed to add height by including decorative elements, lighting, and other non-plant items?

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 12:04PM
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I'd use woodchips for the walkway material -- they are extremely appropriate for the more woodsy area of the front (much more so than crushed rock) and will transistion well into a more beachy setting. And very durable.

Provided you don't intend to do any more additional hardscaping, then I'm not sure what else is holding you up - you just need to work up a planting plan. I assume you already have plans outlining the new patio, etc. Use these as a base to work from. There are scores of suitable xeric plants you can use (especially for zone 10) and many will stay well below the 36" limit. And you can certainly toss in a few landcape boulders if you like - they shouldn't pose any height issues. Ornamental grasses and sedges, sedums and succulents, bush salvias, agastache, groundcovers......just lots to choose from. If a lot of ground to cover (hard to tell from pics) you may want to consider incorporating a dry stream bed as part of the plan, ending in some sort of low, recycling water feature by the patio. Dry stream beds are very xeric in character, great to plant alongside, very low maintenance and a recyling, self-contained water feature requires only the addition of water from time to time and is a refreshing and soothing focus to a small garden, lakeside or not.

I have to wonder about the height limitation -- a limit of 36", especially in the area between the house and the lake, seems very arbitrary. Any view blockage is already pretty well defined by the house - THAT certainly exceeds 36" - so what's the big deal? And 36" is really short, as well....seems like one could bump that up to 5-6' easily and still only affect the views of small children or very short people.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 12:25PM
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The crushed gravel may be used on the top portion. My DH doesn't want to use wood chips since some may go barefoot and get splinters.

Forgot to mention there is a 10' easement from the lake which is protected for neighbors to walk around the lake. We are in zone 5 (zone 10 would be a dream!)

I like the idea of using the matching wall stone on a flat surface...but how would it be incorporated?

Missing, I see what you mean by too many heights being a distraction from "the main event", so I'll keep that in mind. We can't put anything permanent that's over 3'. We were thinking of placing a movable swing (I know more seating but as I'm said I'm stuck for ideas).

Gardengal, the problem I can't seem to get past is the walkway/path/patio from the steps to main patio and steps/path/patio to lake. We too have thought about the drycreek bed but again, don't know how to fit it in. One of the neighbors has a wet stream and it seem out of place with the lake. It just doesn't seem to flow on paper for me. I know what you mean by the height restriction being our house and deck are more in the way then most plants and small trees, but we have to get this approved first and there is no way they will waiver much if any.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 12:54PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

aloha2009, re. the flat stone paving in my previous post: I posted before I saw the second photo and the info about the lakeside easement; I had only the vaguest idea where you wanted the hardscape.

Besides a path from the new stairs, I was assuming you wanted some of the hardscape (whether patio, walkway, or lake-edging) along -- or near -- the lakeshore. Not knowing much about your lake, I was postulating that the lakeshore might be muddy (whether swampy or simply messy) or prone to flooding or eroding, and that the solidity of stone paving would have advantages over loose gravel. [I'm in mountain foothills, and have a creek with a mind of its own.]

(I'm still not entirely certain what/where the hardscape's supposed to be, other than the patio under the deck, and a path from the new stairs.)

Your stone walls seem very even, so perhaps that same stone could be used for the patio.

Non-permanent tallish stuff: A nylon spinner atop a 4' or 6' pole. A couple of seasonal bird feeders. Garden torches. None of them are permanently installed; if the lake police give you flak about leaving them in the yard year-round, then take them indoors during the winter (maybe during the summer for the bird-feeders). Put the torches out only when you have parties or dine on the patio. If necessary, keep records as to when you put the tall stuff out in the yard.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 2:57PM
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I didn't want to get wordy and I think I missed explaining exactly where I need the help.

I need the area from the bottom of the steps to the beach and from the deck posts to the neighbors on the right (22'). I need walkways, height changes transitions, something to be of interest for what actually is about 60' (not the 40' I said from my waning memory) from lake to steps. A sizeable area (for around here) but with elevations, traffic and restrictions I'm not sure what to do.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 5:32PM
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And I'm not sure there's a lot more that can be done for you from this source. It's difficult to see exactly what you are working with based only the photos. Elevation changes, hardscapes (current and planned), easements and planting restrictions would seem to indicate that an in-person, onsite consultation would be more appropriate and generate more usable suggestions. If you like the element of a dry creek bed, a good designer should be able to work it in.....the changes in elevation may even make it more suitable and it certainly lends itself well to xeric plantings.

btw, the assumption you were in zone 10 came from your posting sign-on. The space between your username and MyPage profile link is typically for a location/hardiness zone (mine is Pacific Northwest, z8). If located in zone 5, it should read 5 rather than 10. You might want to correct that, as it leads - obviously - to confusion :-)

    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 7:59PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Any reason you can't just plant it with a ground cover plant? If you don't want to use it for anything, you just need something that requires as little maintenance as possible, ideally less than grass I guess. What about creeping junipers, cotoneaster, irises... anything that will gradually fill in and prevent weed growth.


    Bookmark   February 21, 2011 at 11:53PM
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I think just leaving it grass or easy groundcover is the way to go. When you have people in all the seating areas, you can use the spot for a rousing game of croquet.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 1:15AM
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I would extend the patio so it meets the new stairs, and add another set of stairs leading from patio to lakeshore. (you'd lose part of the middle retaining wall's height doing this).
Wooden decking is probably the least costly option for doing that, and also barefoot-friendly. If you chose stone, it would mean a lot of filling in, plus a new retaining wall at the edge of patio.
Possible mass plantings of: sunny areas - reed grasses, groundcover roses; shade - persicaria, astilboides or petasites.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 4:00AM
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wow, thats a lot more info - thanks!

we all assumed you were zone 10 because of the 10 after your user name combined with the "aloha" name. I actually can help a lot more with zone 5 - since its the same as my zone.

I think it would be nice to plant a japanese maple on the top terrace, about 10 feet away from the house. i would under plant it with a couple of low shrubs, maybe spirea or rhodie to camoflague the air conditioning unit.

If its possible I would put similar(to the upper set of stairs) stairs that start at the rise of the second terrace down to the level of the base of the second terrace. I would not put them directly in line with the top set of stairs, but offset to the right of the picture so there is room for a planting bed between the stairs and the wall. between the two sets of stairs it would be nice to have a stone or peastone walkway. from the bottom set of stairs to the side of the wall on the beach i would do a casual path of large stepping stones.
Since it is north facing and it seems to get a great deal of shade from the tree on the right, I think you will need to stick with shade to part shade plants. a nice combination of hostas, astilbe, japanese yaku grass, maybe some low growing shrubs like spirea goldflame.
I am going to try to post a little sketch of what I am thinking later tonight...

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 6:09PM
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Heres my idea - I am sorry I dont know how to post right to this page.
Beautiful house by the way- where are you located?

Here is a link that might be useful: sketch

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 7:20PM
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Drtygrl. Thanks for taking all that time to sketch the area out. I wish I had your talent to sketch, especially in 3D. I love the idea of breaking up the steps into 2 "runs" instead of one continuous one, this will seem much less intimidating to climb up...especially when we get into our 70's and 80's (only in our 50' but this is our retirment home). The maple tree does not provide any shade for this area, so it's pretty much all sun till late in the day. I like the idea of the japanese maple (one of my favorite trees)...they can be delicate trees, so I'm not sure. I wish we could grow Rodedendrums. We used to live by Seattle and they were so abudant...spireas will have to do.

FYI, when you want to post a pic directly, just copy the html ID for your pic and paste that address directly into the message. You should see it when you preview your message.

DH just scanned in our photo from (that I just recently found out about from this's free). It does have it's limitations so I had improvise on a few things. The overall house picture came out better so I figured I'd post that. Shrubs and flowers were the best I could come up with, but gives you a general idea...please let me know if something seems WAY off. On the deck post are vines (not trees).

For those that have used, I'm having troubles retrieving anything I saved. Any help would be appreciated. I also had to do a work around to get it printed...using their print function, I used a TON of ink.

Thanks for everyones help, the response has been incredible!

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 9:25PM
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Besides posting the picture, I forgot to explain what we're looking at doing now.

After seeing how much hardscape we needed between all the paths, we figured we'd only have to add just a little more and we'd have another spot to sit. I know, I said I didn't want it, but it does seem to fit better and it shouldn't be that much more being it was such a large intersection anyway. It will balance the areas out over the yard too.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2011 at 9:44PM
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I do believe arborvitae is over 36 " tall. As the spruce will probably be.

I dont really like it when the rules of the game change in the middle of the game. There were a lot of rules in this game, and I was just trying to help. No big deal though - good luck!

    Bookmark   February 23, 2011 at 7:25AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I have to agree that the plants you've sketched into this plan will contravene that 36" rule.

But even if that rule didn't exist, I'm not clear on why you would want to close off the deck and the other seating areas from the lake with a wall of evergreens, which this arrangement will undoubtedly become quite quickly, and messy vines. If I ever saw a setting where a mostly low-growing herbaceous planting is called for, this would be it. My guess regarding zone 5 is that a fair bit of your enjoyment of this space will be via looking out windows and enjoying the light that comes into them.

What I'm sensing here is a bit of a stand-off between DIY and hiring a designer, and also, confining your options to within the confines of what you can sketch on the computer. We had a thread recently where someone else was keen to use photoshop to imagine something that could be quite easily accomplished with either the mind's eye or a pencil, but where photoshop could only provide an inferior result.

In the first instance, DIYers often feel they must be able to figure out what they want before they hire a designer, I think those of us who are DIY to the bone often don't recognize that there is a set of design ideas that you might simply not have, and yet be in need of. DrtyGrl has given you a glimpse of what that might look like. You sounded very frustrated when you first posted, so if you're going to hire a designer, why not use them to ease that frustration? Use their ability to see more options than you can (and they can, that's why they do this for a living :-)) rather than constraining them (just as you've constrained yourself) by feeling you have to be able to tell them WHAT to design before you hire them?

In the second instance, I get the sense you've compromised yourself into a seating area you don't need or want because it's something you can sketch into your program and it's something you can think of. That doesn't make it a good idea. I think it would be far wiser to give yourself something nice to look at while you sit in any of your other seating areas. Again, a pretty good option, what DrtyGrl has posted - no wonder she does this for a living :-)

Finally, I'd strongly suggest railings on those stairs.


    Bookmark   February 23, 2011 at 2:09PM
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The arborvitia will be about 50' from the shore line so no problem there. The first row will be short bushes/flowers (just possiblies like iris, daylilies, tickseed, bulbs, mums). The evergreens will just a tad higher spaced here and there. There quite a bit of area to xeriscape, so I'd like to do a mix of a few evergreens. We will keep them low enough to be able to sit and look out, but give a feeling of coziness. The envy of our neighborhood has an oasis of planting which include the vines growing up the posts. The area of the main patio as you can see does not have vines to inhibit views. I will likely be using clemetis (this was the best had). The "star" landscape, the owners designed it themselves, where many other had professionals. I wish they had time to critique my layout.

Karin1, once we conceded to having the extra patio it all seemed to "fit" where before it felt that we were trying to shove a cube into a round hole (or whatever that saying is). We've been told by more then one neighbor you can't have a big enough patio and that several wish theirs were larger (and they had big patios).

Drtygrl's design was very nice, but it did miss an important link and that was a connection to the additional patio under the deck. All my designs too just seemed a lot of walking to get anywhere. With one of MY designs, we were going to make some type of forking in the area in question and lay a very small area under the West part of the underdeck. This would have meant maybe an additional 2 seating spots and a lot of extra grading etc. Eliminating this and just making a walkway from the main patio to the new west patio it will be about the same amount of walking as there was before but breaking it up with a nicer patio area. We will use close to the same amount of hardscape but just better utilized.

Before I came up with this, I had called around and now have 2 appointments next week for designers to come and take a look. I'm still very open to ideas, but I'm feeling a little guilty for having them come, as I'm not expecting them to come up with anything better, but I might be surprised. Neither one of them are charging but just like this, I hate to drag others into if I could come up with it on my own. Truly I'm sorry for changing the criteria on you in the middle of the thread.

Though I'm not a professional by trade, I have desgined wonderful things before (all flat pieces though) and helped others. Our previous home we bought from a landscaper but we made several large changes afterward and others were amazed. Many people told us they went out of thier way to take walks to check out our front yard. I don't have a license, but I do have a good eye.

I'm sorry for taking your time but I just didn't know what else to do. I've been thinking about all this since last summer and still hadn't come up with anything. Maybe it was garden therapy or what not, but just going through everything and explaining things made my light bulb go on.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2011 at 11:10PM
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Thanks KarinL you said it! - I learned a lesson here. :)
eye roll.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2011 at 7:27AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think Aloha's remarks do reflect a common experience, one I've had myself, where explaining your problem to other people actually kickstarts the process of solving it yourself. One of my university profs once said that there are people who think to talk, and people who talk to think. Although most of us would like to think that we are the former, and that every word that we utter thus constitutes pearls of wisdom, the reality is that most of us work things through by talking about them, so that most of our verbiage is work in progress.

I've also had DrtyGrl's experience of trying to help only to have the OP do a 180, as I think most of us have. I don't think that should discourage us from trying to help, because we enrich our own capacity with every problem we contribute to solving. I think the take-away lesson is not to not bother helping, but rather to not become too vested in the solutions we propose. I know that's easier said than done.

But it's also a reminder that it's probably a much better approach to assist and enable people to solve problems for themselves than it is to propose solutions for them. Not every OP will engage for that approach, so sometimes OPs get frustrated by it, but the alternative is responders feeling taken advantage of for having put in the time and energy to help. It can be a bit of a no-win, but I think in this case it evolved without malice and everyone came away with something positive.

And for the forum as a whole, I think there was an opportunity for others to learn from the process. There are probably several people who have never posted using the info in this thread to solve their own problem areas.


    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:07AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

There are probably several people who have never posted using the info in this thread to solve their own problem areas.

I particularly enjoyed drtygrl's remark about off-setting the stairs. Not that I have any stairs to offset -- or even prospective stairs to offset, but it's an idea to keep in mind. I have paths that could be offset....

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:47AM
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There are two reasons to offset the stairs - one is that it is safer the other is that it makes the stairs about the journey not the destination. Paths that meander make you appreciate the process of walking the path. If aloha landscaped around the stairs, offsetting them would slow people down to admire and interact with the landscaping rather than just passing through it.

A lot of what I do as a professional is listen to peoples desires and ideas about their landscapes and then use my knowledge and experience to propose an idea that I feel best accommodates those desires. It is rarely what I would do with the property if it was mine, it is an interpretation of my understanding of the home owners goals.

In this case, I felt like we all had a pretty good idea of what the OP was looking for - there is a ton of information on this thread, a lot of it about what the op didn't want, but that is informative too. I dont usually jump to throwing out a plan or sketch - mostly because I dont like to give away for free what I can make money doing! :) There was something about this situation that just seemed straight forward and easy and that the OP was really struggling with what appeared to me to be a beautiful property full of promise. It wasnt that ALoha didnt like the idea I proposed - I really dont care about that - it was that in the plan aloha proposed all the things that were to be accomplished were eliminated in favor of another sitting area. And that the Aloha was not looking for any more input .

But like I said its a lesson learned. If it would only stop snowing here I could get back to really working!

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 7:51AM
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I had a landscape designer who had a fairly extensive porfolio (major reason as to why I called him). Between the both of us we brainstormed an idea I like a lot.

My suggestion was to place the patio down close to the level on the beach. He took that another step to include a sitting area/retaining wall which would give it a sunken patio area. I like the hardscaping aspect of it, but it gives me another large area to xeriscape. With having it further back from the lake though gives me a lot more options. He was extremely professional and has an extensive background. He bid the design at $300 which includes ONLY the hardscaping (thats all I need). I am to pay 1/2 prior to measurements and the other 1/2 after the final design. That seemed reasonable. Just curious, how much does something like that usually run?

    Bookmark   March 3, 2011 at 8:46PM
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still struggling

    Bookmark   May 23, 2012 at 9:02AM
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Limb that tree at the of the hill.picket fence w/2x6 toprail per inko,s at top of retaining wall,and call it done.pulling the trigger on any project is where the issue seems stuck.overthinking and searching for the "perfect" design can lead nowhere.good luck

    Bookmark   May 26, 2012 at 6:00AM
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