Category Archives: Materials Information

Can You Pour “Dry” Concrete?

In constructing new fences, we are often slower than fence companies in our build-out. We take our time with woodwork, making sure our piers, connections, fence panels and gates will last. One technique that some fence builders will use is to dry set their posts. Essentially, they dump in sacks of dry ready mix and wet them in the post hole. They will tell you there is no difference in this method and wet mixing the concrete in a mixer or wheel barrow and pouring it in the hole. This type of technique and other time savers is how they can build faster and cheaper than we can. We have always been skeptical of dry setting fence post piers, but never had directly compared the two methods.

This video from Bart Komar at the YouTube channel the Komar Project compared wet and dry pours and their overall durability. It was no surprise than dry pouring concrete is not as hard or durable as a properly mixed batch.


Great New Porcelain Bluestone Options

The world of paving and flooring keeps making technical leaps forward. Most people are familiar with a new generation of interior manufactured flooring that looks better than older materials and is more durable. The same advances have been happening outdoors as well, with a variety of new porcelain paving materials. Some of the best looking porcelain pavers we have seen recently have replicated one of our most used and favorite materials- Pennsylvania Bluestone. The amazing thing about these products is that they actually image real bluestone to then create a facsimile of the material. Advantages include better material consistency, lower cost, and stain resistance.

Kronos Full Range Bluestone Porcelain Tile from a recent install

In this video visit to one of our local suppliers, Bay Area Bluestone, we review porcelain Bluestone options from Kronos and Landmark.

Should You Install Weed Fabric for Your New Landscape

Nothing is worse than a newly installed landscape that is quickly overcome with weeds with the arrival of the spring rains. One potential solution is to install weed fabric under mulched areas to reduce weed growth. Weed fabric is typically a spun polycloth that allows water to pass, but limits weeds. We don’t typically install weed fabric on our projects, but it has its uses and applications.

Here are some Pros and Cons of weed fabric:

Pro: Reduces weed growth
Con: Small weeds can grow on top of the cloth

Pro: Reduces need for hand weeding or herbicide.
Con: While not very expensive, the cost of weed cloth can add up over large areas. Weeds will grow next to plant crowns where fabric windows are cut for plant installation.

Pro: Can help control weed prone areas like rural installations
Con: Can pop-up over mulch with time and must be cut to install new plants

Pro: Segregates gravel mulches from soil
Con: Adds expense, but this is one of weed fabrics best applications

Alternatives: Good alternatives to traditional weed cloths or fabrics are increasing the depth of mulch layer or using a sheet mulch cardboard to reduce weed germination.

Davey has a good blog post with some additional pro’s and con’s

Corten Steel- A Modern Look to Retaining Walls

On a recent project we were discussing using Corten steel wall to create and interesting modern look for an Eichler home. Corten is a really visually interesting material- a special type of steel than forms a layer of rust and gives a unique look for landscape art and retaining walls. It’s expensive, but can make a great accent for modern gardens or in areas where the thin look of a steel sheet provides design interest.

Browse Home Office Products on Houzz- For Example:

Here are some great ideas on Corten walls from Houzz, which is wonderful place to look for precedent images and inspiration

Low Voltage Lighting- Another Dimension to the Landscape

Low voltage landscape lighting is one of the most impactful accent features to give that wow factor to your garden. With the newest generation of LED fixtures, there are more options than ever for lighting paths, trees, wall and steps.

Our clients consistently comment that adding lights brought depth to the garden at night and the feel of the landscape inside.

Our favorite lighting manufacturers are those with professional grade landscape lines- FX Luminere, Vista Lighting and SPJ Lighting.

This shot from in front of our office shows our sign (lit from above) with Icelandic poppies in the foreground.

As an aside we just got a new Nikon D3200 digital SLR for our office, which captured the shot above. We were early adopters of DSLRs with an old Nikon D100, and there is no comparison with the newest cameras. The image quality and quality in low light (as shown in the hand held shot above) is amazing. The auto mode on the camera is pretty impressive as well for those who want great quality, but be able to point and shoot.

Exotic Landscape Fixtures from Hinkley

Hinkley is a less often specified light by most designers and landscape architects, but they have a very unique line of low voltage landscape lights that are more cost competitive than other boutique outdoor lighting brands (Hunza and BK we are talking about you).

Hinkley is not commonly stocked by local suppliers but good deals are available online. Here are some of their eye catching fixtures:

A Different Style of Paver

For most residential paver installations there a few usual suspects that are installed from manufacturers such as Calstone, McNear, Belgard and others. While there are lots of nice styles from these manufacturers, sometimes a different look is desired.

Wausau Paving specializes in pavers that are better suited for modern projects or commercial applications, but for some installations these pavers would provide welcome relief from the usual suspects.

Image from Wausau Paving Website

Picking the Right Concrete Color

Picking the right colored concrete can sometimes be tricky. A few things are important to remember:

  • First, just like picking paint colors, remember that colors can sometimes look different when applied over a large surface or area.
  • The concrete color should tie to into the scheme for the overall hardscape, landscape and architecture.
  • Colored concrete is a variable product that can vary depending on a number of factors when the concrete is mixed and poured. Some color variation is normal.
  • Like all things outdoors, colored concrete will fade in the sun over time.

Davis Colors has a nice website showing sample images of its various concrete colors that can help make visualization easier.

Water Bowls- Interesting Accents for Fountains

Spilling water bowls are a unique way to incorporate fountains into pools, on top of pillars or in other applications in the landscape. A couple of interesting sources for these:

Grand Effects has a Plantier that incorporates a planter and spilling water bowl for eye catching results.

Fountains Unique also has an interesting line of spilling fountain bowls and many other wall and freestanding fountains that are worth a look.


Decomposed Granite Problems

A few weeks ago I was headed to a consultation for a client who wanted a decomposed granite patio installed.  Earlier that day, I passed a front yard that was a classic example of some of the problems with decomposed granite installations. DG is a great material, but it is important to understand its limitations and maintenance requirements to keep it looking as good as the day it was installed.DG1.JPG
Decomposed Granite’s Problems:

1- Rain and DG: DG is a combination of small pieces of granite gravel, and granite fines (basically granite sand). The fines is what allows DG to compact and makes it well suited for paths. The fines however, have a tendency to get muddy in winter. This is something to consider when designing paths that lead into a home, or something to be aware of with dogs and other pets that make leave DG prints inside.

2- Shady Areas and DG: Because DG has fines material and gets muddy, it also can grow moss or weeds that keep it from looking its best. Again, DG is not a maintenance free material like a concrete walkway. It needs to be raked to remove weeds or moss, and may need to be redressed with a little bit of new material and periodically recompacted.

3- Drainage and DG: Ideally, DG paths should be slightly crowned to make them drain better and prevent areas of standing water. DG paths also must be installed away from drainage flows like downspouts and dripping gutters and rooflines that will wash away the material.

We have written extensively in the past about the different types of DG and its properties- read our past blog articles for more information:

Decomposed Granite Types
-Is Decomposed Granite the Best for Paths?

-Our Portfolio of Pathway Installations

Italgreen- An Environmental Option for Synthetic Turf

With the increasing options available with synthetic turf, and the environmental benefits of not requiring watering, mowing, or fertilization, more people are considering synthetic turf alternatives. Italgreen is product now being carried locally that combines the benefits of removing natural turf, with an environmental material construction. Many of the current synthetic turfs combine various types of plastics to simulate a natural grass blade. There are some environmental concerns (most specifically with lead- see this Chronicle Story) with the long term effects of leaching or runoff from these products.

The manufacturer touts a number of benefits to their product. This type of turf has is constructed of a more environmentally friendly yarn construction, instead of plastic based blades. It also uses an organic granule infill instead of recycled rubber infill pellets. The results are a non toxic material, with better heat absorbtion and a softer feel.

Great Energy Saving LED options for Low Voltage Lights

As energy conservation and efficiency become more and more prominent issues, there are increasingly alternatives for low voltage landscape lighting. Vista Professional Lighting, one of the widely available low voltage landscape lighting manufacturers we use, has a great variety of options for lamp types, including LED bulb options. LED are a great alternative to halogen, xenon or other bulb types. Like the more and more common compact florescent bulbs (CFL) used indoors to replace the standard filament light bulb, an LED fixture can use 75-90% less energy than a conventional lamp for the same light output. LEDs also have the advantage of a much longer lifespan, 5-10x longer than other lamp options. These fixtures can be more expensive, but the benefits of increased life span and reduced energy consumption help mitigate the initial cost of the fixtures.

For more:
-Vista’s LED options

New Stricter Rules for Fireplaces

There was an article recently in the Chronicle detailing the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s new set of rules design to limit emissions from wood burning fireplaces. While outdoor cooking itself is not directly regulated by this rule change, many municipalities have recently made the requirements for outdoor fireplaces more strict.

Provisions of the new rule:
– Limits excessive visible emissions from wood-burning at all times.

– Requires cleaner burning technology such as EPA-certified
wood-burning devices, pellet stoves, low-mass fireplaces or masonry
heaters in new construction or when the stoves are sold, resold or
– Prohibits the burning of garbage, plastics, chemically treated
wood, waste petroleum products and other inappropriate materials.
– Requires labeling and disclosure of the moisture content on wood
sold for use within the nine-county district, including instructions on
how to dry the wood if it has a moisture content greater than 20
percent by weight. Sellers of seasoned firewood must properly label it
as seasoned.

Fires used outdoor for residential cooking won’t be regulated.

For More:
Bay Area Air Quality Management District

Electric Patio Heaters with Style

The Chronicle had a small article over the weekend about an interesting electric patio heater with a style different from the typical stainless steel gas patio heaters. Blue Rhino, who will probably most familiar to people as the company that does propane tank exchanges for Barbeques, has a new line of the electric heaters coming out soon that give another option for outdoor heating when gas may not be practical.

Blue Rhino’s New Orleans patio heater. Photo courtesy of Blue Rhino Global Sourcing Inc.

Selecting a Landscape Light- Which Brand?

Selecting the right landscape light can put a great stylistic accent on a finished landscape. The question becomes which of the many brands of light to select. For our projects we mostly use two manufacturers, FX Luminare and Vista Professional that provide a broad range of landscape fixtures. There are many different manufacturers that offer differing styles or niche products for specialized applications. Here are a few different options for landscape lighting:

FX Luminere: A great selection of high quality copper landscape fixtures. Classic landscape styling and application types.

Vista Professional: A very wide selection of styles, applications, finishes and bulb options including LED landscape lights

Hadco: Specializes more in commercial lighting and fixtures, but does have a residential landscape line tending toward more utilitarian and modern styles.

Unique Lighting: Low voltage landscape fixtures with Brass finishes and craftsman inspired styles.

Kichler Lighting: Makers of light fixtures and landscape lighting fixtures. Landscape line has more variety and ornate and custom fixtures for specialty applications.

Lumiere Lighting: Line and Low Voltage fixtures by this Cooper Lighting subsidiary. The Lumiere line features sleek, modern fixtures in different metal finishes.

BK Lighting: Featuring modern styles and customizable options with many different bulb options.

Hinkley Lighting: Beautiful detailing and metal finishes are available in their landscape line.

Fire Accents for Waterfeatures

Garden Design Online had interesting post about Fire by Design, a firm from Las Vegas, that specializes in design and component systems for remote controlled fire accents for water features and other landscape applications. We have also seen an increased interest over the past 5 years in inclusion of fireplaces, firepits, and outdoor kitchens as the most popular landscape accent items.


Aaron Smith Woodworking and Furniture

I wanted to put in a plug for a fellow San Luis Obispo Alum and amazing artist and woodworker from the San Diego area Aaron Smith. His furniture out of beautiful natural woods like California Walnut have an interesting and dynamic quality that are definitely worth a look. He’s open to commissions as well, so who knows, maybe he can be convinced to create a unique custom outdoor patio seating or table for the garden.


Images from Aaron Smith Woodworking Website

Bruce Gray Sculpture Follow-up

Here is a follow-up to a post on an Outdoor sculpture we were working on in the spring. The sculpture, by Los Angeles artist Bruce Gray, is stainless steel with magnetically suspended cables. We mounted the sculpture onto a basalt pillar for a striking garden accent. Here is a full description:

This is a
stainless outdoor version of “Suspension.” It is made all in stainless
steel, and the magnets on the frame and cords are bolted through for
permanent bonding. Those are high powered industrial rare earth
neodymium iron boron magnets on the ends of the cords, and also on the
frame of the circle, to hold the magnets in place by magnetic force
alone. This version has a solid stainless rod on the bottom to be
mounted into a chuck of basalt rock that has been acquired by the
client. (24″ x 24″ x 3″ plus 5″ mounting rod)


(Client Photo)

Unique Outdoor Furniture- Design within Reach

Finding the right type of furniture, planters, accents and other garden knickknacks to set off a landscape design can take a great design and elevate it to another level. For gardens with a modern style, Design within Reach (DWR) is a great resource. They have a wide catalog of outdoor furniture and planters with a clean modern design aesthetic. Some of it is quite unique and almost over the top- great for adding a touch of whimsy to the garden.

Images below: Outdoor dining table with benches, Large plastic chair and modern ottoman.

(Client Photos)


Interesting Garden Sculptures- Bruce Gray

We are working on a current project where the client found an interesting magnetic metal sculpture to be integrated into the garden design. The
sculpture, done by Los Angeles sculptor Bruce
, uses high powered magnets to suspend cables in a stainless steel hoop.
Gray’s work, featuring an assortment of metal creations is worth a look- it has
appeared in various television shows and movies.


Image of Suspended Metal Sculpture from Bruce Gray

Colored Stamped Asphalt

There are a wide variety of options available for driveway paving. These can be a traditional plain concrete or asphalt, or a host of derivatives- decorative finished concrete, stamped concrete, pavers, and resin bound permeable earth pavements are popular alternatives. Colored stamped asphalt is another option when looking at paving options. Similar in appearance and pattern availability to stamped concrete, stamped asphalt is created with patterns that are pressed into the asphalt, and then coated with an acrylic color coat. The result is a fairly cost effective twist on regular asphalt. Patterns and colors are similar to concrete stamps, with brick, stone and paver style patterns available.



For More:
Street Print- for colors, patterns, examples and more information

Prefabricated vs. Custom Trellises and Arbors

The Garden Design Online blog had an interesting post on some different styles of prefabricated trellis and arbors. We have always had mixed feelings about these. While in many situations they make nice accents for plants to be trained upon, they don’t have the substance and construction to make a focal point in the same way a custom build arbor/pergola/trellis does. On the other hand they are a much more cost effective way to add a vertical element or accent to the garden.

The larger kits available for bigger structures have always been a bit subject as well. Frequently these are white vinyl and can’t match the detail or look of wood. A solution for something ready to assemble on-site maybe a custom woodwork shop like Charles Prowell Woodworks that ships nationwide.

Image from Charles Prowell Woodworks

Current Project- Heavy Timber Custom Arbor Structure

For More:
Matthews Four Seasons Wood Garden Accessories
Our Portfolio of Custom Woodwork

Bulk Materials Billed by the Pound

We got a flier in the mail from a local materials supplier, stating that they were changing billing methods for bulk materials (gravel, sand, soil, bark). Instead of charging by the traditional volume measure of cubic yard, they were switching to a Loadrite system, whereby as materials are loaded with a tractor they are weighed by the pound. On the face of it, this seems like a good thing, using the old system, depending on the tractor operator, you could receive a lot more or less than a cubic yard. The supplier touts improved satisfaction and quicker loading.

After thinking about it for a while, one critical problem seems to arise- what happens when the materials are wet and can weigh substantially more per cubic yard? I would guess that a cubic yard of sand that is wet could weigh at least 20-30% more than a dry yard of sand. Doesn’t that mean that materials will cost more in the rainy season and less during the dry months if they are uncovered?

Unless they have a way for compensating for this fact, this works out to be very convenient for the materials yard, while increasing the cost of materials.

Another Resource for Custom Gates

We recently received a flier from Williams Gate Works out of Santa Cruz, a maker of wood garden and entry gates. They specialize in mortise and tenon construction and have some interesting style prototypes to choose from. A custom gate can give that unique touch that really sets off an entryway- definitely worth a look.

Image from Williams Gate Works Website