Category Archives: The Garden Experience by Brad Groff

Where do I start with a Pool Project?

Here is the pool project I promised you. This client asked me a common question, “We want to build a pool, but when do we get River Valley involved.” My answers was NOW. Most people don’t realize how much everything intertwines. People often fail to contact a landscape designer or architect early enough. Most commonly we find someone builds a house and puts in there walkways, driveway, and sometimes a patio then calls a landscape company. The problem is these things are all put in without any forethought to what is next. We often find walkways are too close to the foundation of the house. This limits the choice of plant material and/or increases the maintenance these plants will need. You would be amazed how many more choices we have by just adding 2 or 3 feet.

Another mistake is calling the pool contractor first. Their knowledge is often limited to the design and construction of the pool itself. They usually site the pool for what is easiest for them and not what makes sense overall. I am a strong believer in one should contact a designer before a house is ever built or purchased. A designer can see past what is there and see what could be. I could go on and on about the savings with a well thought out design. The savings even magnify when landscape construction is done simultaneously with the construction of the home. It looks like that is an idea for a future post. When designing my house I had them add a wrap around porch. We added, moved, and deleted windows and doors to improve circulation from the inside to outside. These are decisions that can’t be made without a vision for what is unseen.

This first video shows the process from start to finish. If you enjoy seeing before and afters, I think you will love this transformation. I will mostly mention things you may not pick up in the video. We started working on the design concepts in late fall of ’07. We sat down with the couple to take inventory of what they were looking for and how they plan on using this space. I find a lot of people have a limited idea of what they are looking for and how to communicate it. This is at no fought of the client, it is the designers job to dig deeper. A good designer will listen, but a great designer will hear the difference from what the client is saying and what they mean. Most people don’t realize the possibilities of their project. A well experience designer should be able to guide the client through each step of the process. This client had a good idea of the end goal, but needed help on getting there.

After getting a good feel of what they were looking to achieve, we took measurements and elevations. Elevations were very important on this project. We were dealing with a side sloping yard with a daylight basement. We also were restricted by a sand mound on one side, the reserve on the other side and an easement in the back. Our pool fencing could not not have been moved more then a foot. Although we were restricted side to side the real challenge was the elevations. I felt it was important for the pool house elevation to feel like it was the same elevation as the house. River Valley set all the elevations for this project. If the pool was just a couple inches higher or lower it would have restricted the circulation around the pool deck. By pouring a concrete wall on the lower side of the property, it allowed us to maximize the square footage we had to work with. This wall was raised up past the pool elevation to eliminate the need for fencing on that side of the pool.

The pool has a sunbathing shelf, a sitting bench running along one entire side and a diving area. The far wall helps nestle in the pool and imply a room inside of a room. The upper pool house terrace is the main entertaining area. It includes the pool house, outdoor kitchen and the hot tub. The original pool house and outdoor kitchen designs were done by River Valley. We then called in the original house architect to redesign the pool house and outdoor kitchen.

All the walls playoff of the house’s architecture. We used a combination of stucco and stone veneer to acheive the continuity. It took us awhile to nail down the patio surface. We considered concrete pavers, stamped concrete and finally decided on a Travertine stone. Travertine most commonly is beige in color. The house was made up of brown tones, so Travertine was very easy to introduce.

River Valley also designed and installed all the outdoor lighting. Lighting extends the usability of any landscape into the evening. I often say you get the biggest bang for your buck with lighting. This home owner complimented things along the way, but nothing like the first night the lights were on. He called me that night and said, “You gotta get overhere and see this.” I put the kids to bed and headed over. It always amazes me each time I go back and see projects at night. I have done lighting so many times, you would think I would know the impact it makes.

This video is from our clients perspective. Hope you enjoy.

Garden Art???

A lot of people ask me what does a landscape designer do in the winter? My response is usually a lot of planning for the spring. My planning is mostly consumed as the co-owner and not as the designer. I prefer spending time working on designs, so we are ready for the hectic spring. Next week I will feature a pool project. Check in. This is a must see project. We actually started the design process in the fall of ’07 and had them swimmer for the summer of ’08. It is never to early to start planning.

This winter has been a little different. I spent the last couple weeks painting a mural in my basement. I love to put a creative touch to almost everything I do. I designed the layout of my basement and some day will post that as well. I have always been intrigued by painting and never made the time to take it up as a hobby. This was my first painting and I found it very interesting to learn how the different paints respond to different brushes. The mural is in my kids play room which will most likely turn into something else some day.

Spending years coloring drawings, I natural was drawn to a landscape scene. I love the sense of age stone walls bring to the landscape. The containers sitting in the window sills show someone has taken ownership of this old stone ruin. Leaving the grasses to grow in front of the wall is demonstrating design constraint. The simplicity of the nature allows the wall to speak for itself. As designers, we often fail by trying to add vs. letting along. We need to ask ourselves are we really enhancing the view, the space, or the function by adding more.

I’m not sure when or if I will ever do another painting like this. I guess time will tell. I’m sure I will continually make touch ups or improvement as time passes. Maybe I’ll follow my own advise and let alone what is already finished…

Week Three: Getting so so Close.

Wow what a change this week. That is how a lot of projects go. You don’t see much happening and then all of a sudden instant change. I think this is the cause in so many hardscape projects because so much goes into taking measurements, shooting grades, and preparing the base. These are things you may not appreciate at the time a project is done, but it means everything when you look at your projects durability.

I said I would go over some smart design choices that saved money and also extended durability. One smart design choice was the location of the grill and step. The upper patio will serve as a grilling station and a transitional landing for the lower dining area. Keeping the grill on the existing concrete pad helped save cost from pouring more concrete or digging footers. We were able to frame right on the concrete pad. Having the grill at the far side of the patio helps give a cozy nestled in feel.

The existing concrete size was perfect. We did not feel the need to extend the upper level out at all. This saved the cost of adding block work that would have been needed if we were to extend out the upper patio. We chose to face the existing concrete to match the stone on the grill. The stone does a couple of things. First, it brings continuity. Secondly it brings durability and stability to the step elevation. The alternative would be to face the step with a decorative block. I didn’t like that idea for one main reason. It would be very hard to ensure the block wouldn’t settle at least an 1/8″ over the next ten years. When this happens the top patio and the step will no longer be level causing a trip hazard. As we have it, if the lower patio settles an 1/8″ over ten years, you won’t notice the step is now 6 1/8″ instead of 6″. Finally it was less expensive and faster to install.

We now have everything finished except the lighting and some plantings. I’m looking forward to getting the boxwoods in. I think they will really help form the space. I think if we get about two or three nice days we will be able to finish. I wish I knew when that would be. I’ll keep you posted.

Week Two: Another wet week and getting colder

Well, you never know how much work you are able to get done in December. We were able to get a little farther this past week. We got rained out one day and froze out on Friday. It looks like we might have some warmer weather to start off the week. Let’s hope it stays dry before the colder temperatures come in toward the end of the week.
Better picture of the concrete backer board in place for the grill.

The remaining portion of the concrete was removed and faced with stone to match the entire step.

Two things in this picture. Yes we have things staged in a very tight space. We are trying to minimize the area we are tearing up. Second notice the use of string lines to ensure the walls are running at 45 degrees to the house.

The free standing wall is almost finished. Next week I’ll probably show the impact the wall makes from a spacial design perspective.

Week One: Patio, Planting, Grilling Station and Lighting Transformation

We had some tough site conditions for our first week. I think we where able to give our client a good visual of the upper and lower spaces. Brian started constructing the shell in sections at our shop on Thursday. Although the rain stopped earlier than expected, we would have done more harm than good working at the site. This prep work allowed for quick installation when we arrived Friday morning.


Friday we cut openings in the concrete to allow access for the electric and gas lines. Trenches were also dug to run the lines back to the house.

The Grilling Station was fastened into place. Tar paper and most of the wire mesh was applied. Some of the concrete backer board was installed to protect the framing from the heat of the grill. Two air vents were cut in to the backside to allow more heat to escape.

Boulders were set in place at the lower corner of the basement to retain the slope. The boulders stopped here to allow for stone slab steps to be installed at a later date.

This picture begins to show how we cut off the corner of the dog training area. This was first done because of a miss measurement, but I think it will actually integrate the two areas nicely. When the free standing wall is built it will tie together even stronger.

Patio, planting, grilling, and lighting

Oops! I have to confess. I made a mistake when measuring the property. You can see in the photo to the right how our wall is going right over the corner of the dog training area. I talked to our client about the options and we came to a conclusion. We will cut off the corner of the dog training area by about 5′. I think this will work well and not compromise the integrity of the design.

The past two days we were able to get a lot done. We have the patio excavated and the stone base started. The downspouts were extended and backfilled. We got measurements of the grill today, since there is rain in the forcast for tonight and tomorrow. This will allow us to start constructing the frame tomorrow at our shop. Our goal is to have the grilling station set in place for the weekend. This will allow the templating for the granite countertop to be down early in the project. Hopefully the countertop can be cut while we are working on the rest of the project. Having the grilling staion set in early will also allow flexibility in the schedule for the electric and gas lines to be run.

Turkey & Tranformation, neither were dry!

The Turkey and Thanksgiving were great. I wish I could say the same for the start of our transformation project. We got about two hours in today before it started to rain. Welcome to the world of landscape contracting. We did get the patio sprayed out, some elevations verified, and the paving material delivered. The grill will be delivered later today. We will use the rest of today to get the framing materials for the grilling station.

Hopefully it will stop raining soon and we can have a better day tomorrow.

Turkey then Transformation

In this next project, I will share some design and construction secrets to create a successful living space. How you experience the garden is dependant on a lot of things. We often think it is about what we see, smell, and sometimes hear. This is true, but we would miss the ultimate goal if we don’t take into consideration how those things make us feel. This is why design is so very important. It is one thing to have all the elements, but it is how the elements are position that can make a space inviting or not.

We will also look at the function and the scale of this project. Both are extremely important. They can often make sure we are designing what we need and not over designing a space. Designing with these factors in mind also help to maximize the project, keeping it in budget.

Finally look at some design choices that relate to the construction of a project. Sometimes there are subtle design choices that can make a big difference. Smart design can reduce your installation cost and the longevity of the installation.

Stay tuned and we will expose some secrets to The Garden Experience…

A Fall Combination

I just had a great discovery today. One of the best parts of my job is going back and looking at landscapes we have previously installed. I like to do this for many reasons. It is a great way to keep in touch with my clients. I often take pictures to update our marketing efforts. And most importantly it is a way for me to continue to learn what works and what doesn’t. I have been doing this for almost 20 years and I still get excited to see something coming together.

Today I stopped by a property to look at replacing a tree that was dying. I took this opportunity to look a round. I found a great combination of Lamiums and Hellebores. I never would have thought about using them together. I think this is one I will use in the future.

Coming Next…
I was previously wrong that the installation of gardening is coming to an end. We are starting a new project on Monday Nov. 30th. I will post the process of this project from start to finish. The project consist of: patio, walls, planting, lighting and a small grilling station. Stay in tune.

Is the season coming to an end or just beginning?

As the garden season is coming to an end for some, it is just beginning for others. I’m not talking about different areas of the country, but right here in South Central, PA. Now is the time to quickly put in any flowering bulbs that you have forgotten to do. Now is the time to start thinking about what additions or changes you are going to make for next year’s garden. Did you make notes about the disappointments you had this year? Take time now to make your list while it is still fresh in your mind. I know I have a couple I need to address. My containers on my columns as you enter down the drive need more bang. I’m already starting to research what to use.

Now is a great time to notice what still looks good. I have talked to many people who feel they are tired by now and have given up for the year. I agree partly. I would much rather design for spring, summer, and fall. That is when we spend most of our time entertaining, playing, and working in the garden. What if you could have things in your garden that looked good then and are still hanging on now. Some of my observations are: shrub roses, redtwig dogwoods, winterberry hollies, purple beauty berrries, and even some Virginia sweetspire are still looking great. I have some of these in my garden. I just need one more year to be able to take cuttings from the redtwigs and the winterberries. This will be perfect to add to the containers I mentioned earlier. I may even be able to replace the hydrangeas I have inside. I took some Annebelle Hydrangea cutting to put in a vase for an event we had in Aug. they still look great.

Now is also the time to consider whether to tackle the project yourself or hire a professional. I find it interesting working with people on their garden spaces. Everyone is so different regards to their involvement in the process and the final product. I love listening to spouses talk back and forth about what they want to see and experience. Sometimes I think I should have minored in counseling. Some day I’ll write about how to find a contractor and what type is best for you. For now, start interviewing landscape designers if you are unsure if you want to tackle the project yourself.

Finally, start planning next year’s garden now to fully enjoy the experience.