HM Interiors - Green Space
The Compact Oasis - Spring 2009
HOW TO GET MAXIMUM IMPACT AND ENJOYMENT FROM EVEN A MODEST GARDEN
Photos by Bpimaging
Many years ago, when he was still a green talent in the landscaping business, Haig Seferian headed to California to hone his craft. Spending a year at California Polytech for Environmental Design, he was caught off guard by the cost of left coast living. To help offset these costs, he took a job at a garden centre where he was thrown into the crucible by his boss: Seferian was asked to spearhead a landscape project in the foothills of Los Angeles despite having almost no grasp of the plant palette in that zone. By paying attention to design fundamentals and listening intently to what the homeowner was after, he managed to create a stellar project. The experience not only reinforced the value of landscape’s bedrock concepts, but also offered him a compelling glimpse of outdoor living – something Californians embraced passionately.
Enter homebuilder Ward Campbell. As President of Ancaster’s Starward Homes, he has staked out some forward-thinking initiatives of his own: Over four generations of home builders, Starward has established itself as a leader in energy-efficient R2000 construction, building around 8,000 homes in Southern Ontario. Seferian and Campbell have worked together repeatedly over the years, most recently in fall 2008 when Campbell invited Seferian – lecturer, author and principal of Burlington’s Seferian Design Group – to tackle an interesting challenge: Transform two small urban yards in the Avalon subdivision (near Garth and Garrow on Hamilton mountain) in a single day. The goal: Show homeowners how they could maximize outdoor living, whatever the space constraints. When he spoke with Interiors about these garden rooms, Seferian offered some tips on how to create a similar project of your own.
The Avalon design inspiration began with the architecture of the units. The homes are fairly close together and share backyards. The homes are quite spacious but the trade-off is that you have half the backyard that you might normally have in a home that size. We thought we’d create five model gardens, each specifically designed for specific demographics, customizable to the individual homeowner. We ended up building two of the concepts. The first was for a young professional couple with no kids, so the idea was to create a contemporary feel. The other was a young family that needed space for their kids to play. Ward Campbell basically said ‘Go to town. Because these are specific homes, we’ve got no benchmark or reference anywhere with them.’ His only comment was, ‘Make sure that whatever you design can be done with that fence,’ because when you buy a home, that’s the basic – it’s included in the price. So I sat down with my team and thought, let’s get creative with this. We thought let’s do something that not only can be adapted to this but anyone who has that fence – which is, I would hazard to guess, 80 percent of the population. We created a true backdrop that went right and hid the thing as one large panel, adapted it so that we could reuse the post and reuse the bottom section. The idea was to create a panel, frame it, and have it be like a wall in your house. We used a nice white stain; the intention was to make a backdrop. And then we thought, ‘Let’s have some fun.’
Let’s start with the contemporary area. Along the back, we planted some cedars, which will take some time to come in but which will eventually screen off the second floor of the neighbouring house. Because you have views coming down from the second storey windows from all the neighbours, the intent was to promote privacy with the furniture as well – that umbrella alone gives you the privacy you want, along with creating some nice shadows, which is also the point of the pergola as well. With the paving materials, the idea was to create two distinct spaces. Even though you were looking at 500 square feet, within that space you can still create spaces, even visually. Because of what’s happening on the ground plain, that starts to divide up that space in terms of the walkway and the brickwork. The columns for the pergola that came down, the bases we matched the same sort of stone, but it’s 18 inches high, so it acts like a little table, or if you have a group of people, someone can sit on that area. The idea of the barbecue was important, its proximity to the house – even in the winter you can slip out, use it and slip back in. And the plantings were very simple. By doing the fence white as well, any type of colour you do in front really stands out. That’s the focus.
Work Hard, Play Hard
The adjacent backyard was designed around children. We needed a family entertaining area and then a grassy area for the kids and their play equipment. So one of the unique things we did there was again, choosing the proper furniture with the umbrella so that you do have the privacy. The focus is the kids pretty much all of the time. There’s no time for maintenance. Because of the children, there has to be a bit of an area for play, and the plant material chosen has to be able to take a bit of a beating – kids trampling in it. So we spent a lot of time making the plant selection based on that, and showing some colour as well, so that the children can start to interact with the plants and gain an appreciation for horticulture.
The Evergreen Lawn
Keeping low maintenance in mind, we introduced a product – that green you see is artificial. This was a supplier of mine that’s been knocking on my door for years, and I’ve gotta believe in a product in order to use it. The family kept saying to me, “it’s so tight, do we have to get a lawnmower to clip that, can we cut it by hand?” So I called up my supplier and he had like 50 samples of different grasses, labeled Kentucky Blue, fescue, he had it all, from a bent grass for putting, right to a thick rough at a golf course. Very realistic. It’s all recycled material, and although you know it’s plastic when you rub your hand into it, when you’re walking on it, it has the same texture as grass – it feels soft. Preparation for it was very like preparing for an interlocking stone patio. You put a granular base underneath, there’s a geo-textile that goes down, then the grass, and it’s basically just nailed into the round. And because it’s on a stone base, you’ll never get indentations. You have a concrete base underneath and it’s slanted, so that any rain or snow that hits it runs off, so you have no puddles.
Bringing the Inside Out
When you’re preparing garden rooms – and that’s how you have to approach these spaces, design it as you would a room in your house. The floor? Paving. The wall? In this case we have our fence. The ceiling? We’ve got the pergolas and umbrellas. We did plant a couple of large trees in the childrens’ backyard to create some shade for the kids when they’re playing. What’s the next thing you do? You start to bring some furniture in. You start to add colour to your walls. Then come the accessories, the tchotchkes. You hang pictures, to make it comfortable, to suit your style and needs. That’s exactly what we did here.
A Solid Foundation
You have to look at designing your garden room as an investment into your property. Both of these gardens were built in a day, with professional help. It’s not impossible for a homeowner to do this. But think it out. When it comes time to sell the house, there is value in that garden. As a buyer, if I don’t have to touch a thing, if I can just move in, there’s value in that. Whatever money is put into these spaces is immediately retrievable. The rule of thumb that Landscape Ontario uses is 60-70% immediately retrievable on a well-done landscape, and that last 30-40% will come over time. I treat these as investments.
Irrigation and Illumination
These are low-maintenance designs. Aside from sweeping up leaves and making sure there’s mulch on the beds, there isn’t a whole lot to do other than enjoy it. We did install irrigation and lighting as well, and that helps achieve the low-maintenance garden. You can regulate the amount of water going in, the ground reaches a point of saturation. You’re far better off doing 15 minutes of watering, waiting an hour and doing another 15 minutes. With an irrigation system you can regulate that. You really only need to come on for 10 minutes every two days. Grass will require an extra five or ten minutes, so the irrigation is broken down into zones. But in these two gardens there’s very little water required. We hid the lighting up under the pergolas. The idea is not to have parking lot lighting, just enough to create some shadows because you can do something a lot more intimate with candles. We had candles and hurricane lamps set up for evening entertaining, which really sets the mood.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of preparing a design, whether a detailed rendering or even just a sketch on paper. You have to spend some time thinking this out, otherwise you’ll end up doing it twice. Some of these TV shows get you so excited that you head out to a big box store and buy your supplies, you come back and install it and think, ‘Why did I put it there when it would make more sense here?’ Really think and plan before going out and buying and digging both heels in. You have to remember that in a small space, every square inch is noticeable and important. You have to take advantage of every square foot. On a larger project, if something doesn’t come together, you can hide a lot of those errors. You can’t do that in a small space, and you don’t want to. You want to give the appearance that it’s larger than it is. Custom designing something will help you get there. Even if people are doing it themselves, before you actually begin, hire a professional and consult with them for an hour. Say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking, can you comment on it for me?’ It’ll be the best $100 or $200 you invest in this garden room. Think of spending $200 doing it right as opposed to thousands redoing it or doing it and being unhappy with the results. It just makes sense.
A little trick that I pass on with respect to furniture is to remember things like circulation. A lot of renderings will show chairs tucked in, which is fine for dining, but if you’re relaxing after dinner all of those chairs may be back from the table, and you still need room for people to walk around. So we’ve actually added four feet of patio space by thinking about relaxing. Think of your garden room in terms of a room in your house. Take the dining room as an example, and measure that room. When you’re sitting in the dining room, with those tables and chairs, do you have room to get around? Take that knowledge outside. If the room is 12 by 14 and you’re thinking ‘It is a little tight,’ you add on a couple feet outside. If you have the furniture, put it down on the grass and pull the chairs out. Walk around it. Get a feel for how big you think the patio space should be. Nine out of ten times, it’s bigger than you originally think it is. People tend to do things on a smaller level.
Keep It Simple, Seasonal
Keep the colour palette down to a minimum. You only need two or three colours maximum, otherwise you create visual confusion. Create groupings and time the bloom cycle to maximize benefits. And if you don’t know, talk to someone who does: ‘I want something that’s going to flower orange in this group here. And then as soon as that finishes flowering, I want this next section to flower red.’ Someone who knows their plants will walk you through the garden centre and show you your options. Then you can set it up so that as one planting dies, the foliage of the next is coming into bloom, and the next one and so on, popping up in colour one after another.
Your garden should have a different appearance every three months. There should be something there to look at from the window, which is your picture frame into the garden. Every season there should be something different in that frame. People like to say they have a four-season garden, but I rarely see it. In terms of plant material and four-season gardening, what you need to know is that there are evergreens (pines, spruces, junipers), broad-leaf evergreens (leafy plants like euonymus that hold their leaves all year round), deciduous shrubs (the ones that flower in the spring, and then their leaves fall off in autumn), annuals and perennials. Those are the groupings you need to know. You don’t need to know the world of plants in order to do plantings. The design elements and principals, these are what you do need to know. And if you don’t, call someone to help you.
Form composition is a make-it-or-break-it. Gardens are seldom wrong. The fact that you’ve tried something makes it right. Now comes the question: Is it good or bad? Form composition, these are the shapes that things take – the shape of the patio, the shape of the garden beds. Your ideas should come from the architecture of the house. We’re trying to complement the architecture of the house. The inside of one house had a contemporary feel – it was all hardwood, very horizontal, straight lines. We call this sort of look “modular” – all squares and rectangles, no curves. We extended that completely out into the backyard. Even the planting beds are all modular. Bring the design of the home into the design of the garden room and I absolutely guarantee that it will be good.
The neighbouring yard is slightly different. We had the modular patio with the curvilinear back yard, so we’re mixing the two. Modular and curvilinear together will work and be good.
A third option is angular. A lot of the time when you have small spaces, if you were to take a patio and turn it on a 45° angle, we’d call this a herringbone pattern. It creates the illusion of a wider, deeper back yard. But if you’re doing an angular garden, that means everything in the garden is angular. And all at the same angle – it’s not a Picasso we’re trying to create here. And the garden will work and it will be good.
The fourth is a real killer, and one that people tend to forget. Each of these – curvilinear, modular, angular – works on their own. Any two of the three will work together, but never have all three in the design for a single space. If you see a garden that doesn’t look so hot, stop and break it down, figure out why it’s bad. And don’t make the same mistakes they did. Nine out of ten times, I’ll bet that one of the reasons it’s not looking good is that they’ve introduced all three elements into a single design. There are few golden rules in landscaping, but you should think about this.
Making the Beds
Think groupings and massings when composing your beds. Get a grouping of one plant, a massing of another. For some reason, odd numbers tend to work better than even. Stagger plants; triangulate things. Think about how much maintenance you want to do per week. That will help when it comes time to plan your plantings. An English Garden could involve a minimum of six to eight hours a week in upkeep. Educate yourself. Know what you’re getting into. The last thing you want is to spend all this time and money, either on your own or through a professional, and then realize, this is a mistake and have to start fresh. These are the types of things we think about before we get into these spaces.
Small spaces are very, very delicate. You have to make sure that every square foot is designed. You can’t hide anything. The form composition certainly goes into the development of these spaces. What’s happening on the inside of the house we’ve pulled out. The colours are muted, the plants are in odd numbers, groupings and massings. All of these rules we’ve incorporated in these designs. And these are fundamentals – they’re incorporated in any garden you approach. The key thing is to really spend some time planning, and don’t do things haphazardly, however big the garden. We actually spend more time doing small gardens than we do big ones, just because of the amount of detail that has to go into these things.
A Growth Spurt
As architecture continues to develop and environmental technologies continue to develop, landscape architecture will only get more creative. It has come a long way and will continue to evolve. TV certainly has helped bring gardening to the forefront. Garden Architecture, which I hosted, was the first show to air on HGTV, and it ran for five years. Then I did Green Force, Best City Gardens – I’ve been a big advocate of education. TV shows on horticulture and real estate have helped people going out to purchase homes realize that curb appeal means dollar and cents. Even if that means on a minimum level if I can upgrade the level of landscaping, that’s going to be dollars and cents back in my pocket, just like a fresh coat of paint inside is value.
If you’re going to do something, do it right. Invest well and it’s an investment, not an expenditure. This generation we’re in now, the cottage up north may not be what we’re after. And demographics tells us that in the next 20 to 30 years, that whole boomer generation is inheriting trillions of dollars. A trend we’re seeing is people saying, I don’t want to spend four hours going and four hours coming back to spend 10 hours in a cottage. When our parents are gone, let’s sell the property, put an addition on the house, upgrade the landscaping to make it feel like a resort we enjoy going to as a family. But now we can enjoy that every night as opposed to looking forward to the weekend.
Outdoors Comes Into Its Own
I’ve been on this for years and we’re finally seeing it – the emergence of outdoor kitchens. We were just hired by a large company to design their stone products into outdoor kitchen products. To show people how simple it is to turn their paving product into something that you can make kitchens, columns, water features, retaining walls, free standing wall, et cetera. Which is a really fun exercise. It has come a long way and it’s only going to grow further. People are getting creative with it, whether it’s by themselves or in collaboration with a consultant.
A Lasting Value
One of my clients this year spent just over $600,000 on his garden. And at the time we were mid-project and walking through the garden on a weekly inspections, the guys are working, and he says to me, “I still can’t believe I’m doing this.” He’s in his 60s, and he’s asking me why am I doing this? I said “What are you talking about? Look around you at how beautiful it is. You’ve got the fireplace, the kitchen, you’ll be using it every night. And when it comes time for you to move, you’re going to get a chunk of that back. It’s an investment.” And then by the time our end-of-year inspection rolled around, we were almost in the exact same spot, and I asked the individual do you like what you see? Granted, it’s autumn and the leaves are falling, but that has a certain beauty. He said, “I gotta tell you Haig – four months ago, I was really having trouble swallowing the cost of what I was doing. But I’m so happy that I did this at the time I did it. Because if I had left that $600,000 in the stock market, it might only be worth $200,000 now. I invested $600,000, and I got $600,000 worth of landscaping. I actually did better than the market.”