Doing design is messy, chaotic and the solution is often found after taking many paths....and that's the way it's supposed to be.

This mostly comes because design isn't linear: it's iterative, following a twisty path of loops, side branches, false starts, sudden inspirations, reality checking, frustration, elation. Landscape design draws from sociology, fashion, individual taste, design trends, ecology, materials, idealism, psychology,  emotion, logic and whatever else falls into the pot while it's cooking. It can loop back to the starting point at any instant, or a sudden "aha" moment can crystallize everything into a clear, workable path.

Anyone who tells you anything else is made of wood and has a very long nose. There's no one, unique ideal design: there's a cloud of solutions that will fit your needs, that you'll probably love - and they'll all likely have some element of compromise because often you just can't build everything you would like (or afford).

Like hiking to that lake in the Sierras, there are many trails that will get you there - and it's much easier with an experienced guide. That's us. Guide, counselor, way-finder, fellow explorer. Someone who understands and has worked with all the interlocking systems that will form your landscape.

A journey from mud puddle to vapor to cloud to rain to rainbow

Having said the process is a mess, there tend to be similar stages. No two projects are ever alike - there are simply too many variables. The process can go like this... interspersed with scratched out lines, wads of paper, funny little sketches to see if an idea works, more wads of paper, and eventually something emerges, either spontaneously or after many dead ends and scribbles.

A Start

A chef might call this mise en place: putting all the elements together so you'll have them ready when you need them. Some of these elements, like a stock, contain sub elements. You might have a program, a wish list, some haiku about how you want to feel in your new space. Maybe you want it to be ecological. How? This is one of those things with sub elements: what's your soil, which creatures are in your area, what plants are available?

Is this too much detail? Yes. Better figure out where the patio goes before getting bogged down. Put the ecological research on the back burner. What about paths? Views? Existing elements? Anything you want to block? Where's the sun in winter and the shade in summer?

Am I modern? Traditional? Eclectic? Am I anything I want to define? How comfortable am I with change? What do I like doing out there? Am I bold chef, an occasional griller, a big fan of take-out? Am I solitary or gregarious? Is throwing parties (how big?) a source of joy or dread? What about my dog? Cat? Coatimundi? Do I like raccoons? Bees? Is that going to make me sneeze? Do I need to roll things around? Is that pervious? Will that material harm the environment somewhere? How much trouble is a fountain? Was that a hummingbird? What about that black phoebe? What’s a black phoebe, and does it matter? The Monarch butterflies are disappearing! I have to help!  

I need to see everything... or do I want to hide somewhere and be private? Are the neighbors noisy and obnoxious? What can I legally do to mitigate? Water is getting expensive - need to pick plants that aren't too thirsty. Is this base plan good enough to use? Do we have to check measurements? How high is the house floor above the patio? Can we add a new exit door here to open the house up to the landscape?

Will we ever want a swimming pool? How much does it cost in time and money to maintain a crystal clear pool? Is our fence good enough to count as a pool fence, or do we need to add that in, too?

A Step

Decisions made. A patio here, a shade tree (or should it be a structure?) there. Seating around the garden for different sized groups. A place for people to play music. Some vegetables. Rustic paths, nothing formal - but I want a modern look, somehow. Some sculpture to look at. Lighting so I can see it at night. I'm not that into cooking - a rolling grill that I can move around is good enough. I don't want to deal with a swimming pool. I want to sit in the shade and read a book from time to time where I won't be bothered.


I really like that black steel structure with the moveable fabric panels. So, no tree there.

Step back

An elderly aunt is going to come and stay with for a few months while they remodel her house. The paths have to be easy for her to navigate. Nix the cobbles! By the way, she’s bringing her pet macaw…


That air conditioner is in a bad spot. Move it!

Step back

It costs that much to move an air conditioner?


I went on a gardens gone native tour with the native plant society and found some thriving plants that I really like. They gave me a plant list, so we're good for plant selection from native plants.


The building materials store had some great things to look at, based on the sketch you drew.

Step back

My friend has a nook off her patio, better make mine a bit bigger.

Preliminary Concept

Eventually, a design emerges from the chaos. This is probably a largely subconscious process. All the information goes your head, you play with some concepts, put them down if they're not coming together and wait for your brain to process it all in the background. When it's ripe, the basic design will flow from brain to pen to paper. It's a marvelous thing. Forcing a design before your brain is ready is not, but sometimes it has to be done.

Design Development

That working concept that your brain miraculously produced still has some rough edges, and needs more detail. Is that modern galvanized hen house you drew available somewhere, or does it need to be designed and fabricated? Will the budget support that? You can buy a lot of eggs for that much money. Add details to the plan, sketch the place from some different angles.


The plan looks good on paper... but there are lot of elevation changes. Better build a digital model in SketchUp. Yep, that wall needed to be higher. Which tile looks good on the wall? Let's try... nope. How about...? Yes, that works - or no, I'm not sure so I'll put something generic to show it's tile and come back to it later. OK, the patio will be in the shade, but a taller shrub there will block late afternoon light... yes. better.


Here's what we've got based on the program... that's the patio, here's a place to read a book, the hummingbirds will like this, and you can see it from the kitchen. The circulation works like this... there are some herbs for grilling.

Design Development

Uncle Walther is giving you his old spa. Do you really want to get in that after...? Yes. Let's see where we can put the thing...


OK, the screen works and you can sit in the spa without everyone seeing you.

Working Concept

All the elements are in place! This is where things can be more linear. Unless…

One more thing…

I want the lighting to look like Star Trek. No, not those bang ‘em up action movies. The original series, where they went to alien planets and ate blue food in rooms lit in magenta, green and blue.

Technical Drawings

These take the concept to a level of detail high enough for someone to build the design. There's a schematic drainage plan, perhaps with elevations of decks and other elements. There's a layout plan with referenced details to build the structure and paving. The planting plan shows all species and where they'll go. The lighting plan specifies the lights. Notes will guide the irrigation installation.  

This is where we find out how to get that Star Trek lighting effect. Who makes this kind of lights? What are the options? Oh. You can change the colors with an app on a cell phone? Are the owners geeky enough to do that?


The contractor studies the plans, then decides how they'll be implemented. Contractors often come up with great ideas for simplifying various aspects of construction, or find acceptable alternatives with lower costs. Sometimes this leads back into more iterative loops - the process never really ends. This can be triggered by just about anything. Construction is an adventure!  Even with a great set of plans, issues somehow always crop up. HOAs can be strange, building departments can change requirements (and the information is often hidden somewhere nobody except the city can easily find it).


You're never done, really. Some plants will grow; some won't. Some will grow great one year and poorly the next - or the reverse. You may need to prune for shape as plants grow. The deck might need some kind of maintenace. You might find some new plant you really like. Your milkweed patch might spread. Uncle Walther might give you a trampoline...

Be Zen.

Or Tao or whatever. As the wise person said, the only constant thing is change. Revel in it!





If you managed to read all this on a tiny phone screen, congratulations!




copyright 2017 Luciole Design Inc.