RUBBLE PATIO, STEPS, AND RETAINING WALLS...
(permeable paving and dry stacked walls)
COOL GREEN FESCUE BERM
I have no idea what species of grass this is, I assume fescue. But, I said I would share some pics of our yard and rubble
work, so... this is the grass covered berm started from the two plugs we lifted from a gas station near LA in the 90’s. (we are
happy gardeners willing to propagate your lovelies unbeknownst to you and bring them to a new home!)
Below you’ll notice we keep a shaggy environment. For privacy and to counter heat gain. We prefer the chaos of nature and
tend to allow borders to dissolve. Due to potential reﬂected heat gain we’ve trained Jasmine to entirely cover the brick ve-
neer that faces the street. The green fescue berm is hidden below the mulberry tree and rosemary to the left of my truck.
ENTRY GATE AS
or, how portals are important in
design. It’s that personal contact
with elements such as hardware
that stimulates our sense of
touch. Or, aesthetics such as the
use of a reclaimed cast iron heat
grate that’s used for a peek-a-boo
opening in the gate, that make a
design stand out in our memory.
Crossing through the gate one is
immediately greeted with a cool
shady deck area just off our
kitchen. You’ll notice we’ve used
shade cloth surrounded by a tra-
ditional pergola style frame. Us-
ing 6x6 posts we create the im-
pression of a substantial struc-
The beauty of this shade cloth
option is that we can draw the
cloth back during the winter
months for solar heat/light gain.
This would not be possible with a
traditional pergola with a lattice
shade structure on top. There are
times when one may want that
Originally, when we bought the
house, there was a single deck
ﬁlling the entire area from the
kitchen to the master bedroom.
To create a sense of separation
and privacy, we provided an area
of contained Dolcis Bamboo.
This is the hot spot of the house.
Without these two tactics provid-
ing shade and privacy our back-
yard would be a solar oven!
LOOKING TO THE REAR
INVITING NODES OF
Exterior design is similar to interiors in
that one must create a logical path of
travel intersecting nodes of activity.
Shady spots, sunny spots, wet areas,
dry areas, steep terrain, level terrain,
they all have their unique functions and
solutions. It’s our goal to identify and
encourage the best from each.
Here we seem invited to sit in the sun or
shade. The really cool thing is that each
of these areas are subject to varying
climates at different times of the day/
season. The main design tool used here
is to allow the user to see the options in
order to be enticed to actually go and
use the space. Allure comes to mind.
Closer in, just beyond those pillows, is
our ﬁrst water feature. It is made up of a
pot in a bowl. Within the pot is a sub-
mersible pump that draws water from
the bowl via a tube in the bottom and
then overﬂows into the bowl. It was in
this setup that we introduced ourselves
to our turtle and koi.
Looking down at the feature we see duck
weed in it’s seasonal show of force. Some
don’t like the stuff, we do. We’ve seen birds
frolicking in the pot and we have also seen
some birds dipping in the bowl!
SHADY SPOT FOR MUGZ
Yes, build it and they will come... the cats,
too! This guy loves to eat grass. And, he
loves shady spots. Just thought to intro-
duce you to him.
A requirement for this style water feature.
This shot is from another season. Notice
the duck weed is gone and the water lily is
coming up. Must be getting close to
In this case, kinetic sculpture. This is a shot of John Tyler’s Thai Chi. This sculpture moves gracefully even during extreme
windstorms. It is quite amazing to observe. Beyond are our rubble walls and steps to the upper patio. Made of reclaimed
materials from a variety of jobs and places we include: urbanite (concrete waste), bricks, precast piers, bottles ﬁlled w/gravel
or sand, and purchased stones. The trick is to weave the materials together in a pleasing manner allowing plantings to play a
part, as well. Using earth as mortar, this is what allows plants to intermingle and ties it to the earth. Below is a detail shot of
a terra cotta saucer used for a bird bath. This style of water feature requires daily maintenance to assure there is fresh water
and no mosquitos. The birds use it year ‘round in our mild climate.
ON THE OPPO-
leading to the upper patio
we’ve created another set of
steps out of reclaimed mate-
rials and purchased stone. In
this case there was a minor
existing concrete rubble re-
taining wall at the lower patio
level. We broke out a section
to place recycled brick as the
ﬁrst riser nosing. This is
lower than the retaining wall
and in sequence with the
average riser height. It’s con-
trasting color calls it out as
the ﬁrst step appropriately.
Drought tolerant grasses,
creeping thyme, creeping
rosemary, mint, dierama and
agapanthus help to anchor
In the lower photograph we
see a detail of the reclaimed
materials at the upper patio:
precast piers, bricks, bottles,
and urbanite are the main
building materials. This patio
area is built-up ﬁll com-
pressed behind the rubble
wall. As we built the lower
course of rubble, we would
compress the backﬁlled earth
to an equal height using our
feet or hand powered tam-
pers to compress the earth.
Then, we add the next
course, more earth and
tamping, and so on. From
here we’ll begin work on the
ONTO TREAD #2 MOCK UP
after backﬁlling tread #1. Additionally, we
weave in the retaining wall that will support
the extension of the upper patio.
TREAD #3 AND RETAINING WALL
mock up are complete. Eventually, in the
cool of the fall, we will plant sun-loving,
rock-hugging plants that will help to tie the
system to the earth.
BACKFILL COMPLETE AT RETAINING
and steps ﬁnished. We now focus our at-
tention on the upper patio. The easy part!
BEFORE SHOT AT MID-POINT
Now we focus on this terrain to discover the
path of travel to the upper patio (still under
design/construction). This view is from the
UPON CLOSER INSPECTION...
we notice a native rush overpowering the
pathway and a steep incline to the upper
arrived at $10 per cubic yard from MMRRC
for Urbanite and $200 for approx 1/2 cu
yard of selected Old Town stone pavers
from American Soils.
WE BEGIN BY REMOVING THE RUSH
and mocking up the layout via string lines
and the riser heights via taped points on an
A COMBINATION OF CUT AND FILL
is used to achieve a planar surface for the
treads. We’re careful not to disturb existing
soil and we compress the ﬁll using hand
MOCK UP OF FIRST AND LAST TREAD
as a means of verifying riser heights and
alignments prior to backﬁlling tread #1 w/
soil. Our soil is of a high clay content mak-
ing it useful mortar.
THE UPPER PATIO...
WE EXTEND THE UPPER PATIO TO MEET
THE RETAINING WALL
and create an impromptu dragon ﬂy bench
adjacent tread #1. We will delay installing our
plantings until the cool of the fall. By doing so
we avoid potential plant loss and water waste.
We installed 1/4” inline drip tubing to feed our
patio ground cover, Dymondia margaretae,
during the dry months.
shows how we’ve tied the upper patio to both sides
of the property using reclaimed materials.
A close friend shared long ago the value of adding a
compass to a project design for orientation. It’s
always nice to know where one stands on Planet
OUR IMAGINATIONS FLOW
as we sort through materials and we
lay a radiating heart right next to our
magical dragonﬂy bench. Our neigh-
bor brought over 8 bricks left over
from their project. Another inspiration
from the gifted materials is a compass
rose. Everything seems to fall magi-
cally into place!
call for shorter daylight hours, cooler days, and potential rains. Now is the time to select ground cover and other plantings.
all drought tolerant species for our arid climate. Some are natives and some not. Drought tolerance will be the main criteria
in this area of our yard. Our long term goal is to bring in as many natives as possible attempting to create a zone of California
natives in the open space beyond our domestic garden.
WE CAREFULLY TUCK THEM IN...
for the fall/winter season. The drip irrigation is set to provide regular waterings to be turned off once the rains begin. The
cool of the fall allows for less watering than had we planted in the heat of the summer.
and using a similar technique, we decided to
create a deep shade patio under a stand of
liquid amber and oak. In this case the lower
light conditions and continuous leaf drop
from the trees would make using ground
cover difﬁcult between the pavers. So, we
will use a mix of different sized gravel be-
tween the pavers to allow water to seep in to
feed the tree roots and aquifer.
While building the upper patio we realized
how cool this place was as we took breaks
from the summer sun in this shady spot.
Contrasts in design, such as cool and hot,
play important roles as lures. By recognizing
these factors the designer can then provide
appropriate means of enjoyment. Here,
while some may prefer the direct sunlight,
others may want to relax in the cool shade
of the trees. Providing just enough space for
these activities allows more room for plant-
ing in the landscape.
PLACING THE PAVERS FIRST
Using sharp sand and 1 1/2” - 3” gravel as
base for leveling and setting the pavers ﬁrst.
FILLING BETWEEN PAVERS
Using 1/2” - 3/4” gravel next with pea gravel
over to allow water seepage and as a debris
FINISHED PERMEABLE PATIO SURFACE
Falling leaves and debris will be kept from
ﬁlling between the pavers by the pea gravel.
An occasional sweeping should be all that’s
needed to maintain the surface.
SO, HERE IT IS...
in all it’s winter splendor, our
summer shady spot lit up by
the low lying winter sun! It’s
awesome that things shift
during the seasons. Who
would have guessed that in
the winter we would be sit-
ting here to gain some sun-
With the hardscape behind
us, now we’ll focus in on the
plantings. We have plans to
restore this uphill area to na-
tive plantings. Recently, we
went to Bolinas to visit Judith
Larner Lowrey’s home/studio
to see her garden ﬁrst hand
and to pick up her newest
book “The Landscaping
Ideas of Jays” -a natural
history of the backyard res-
toration garden. Her ro-
mance with history and this
region has captured our
hearts. In her book she pre-
scribes a method of restora-
Over the next many years we
will continue to study, ob-
serve, and cultivate this ‘wild’
portion of the backyard using
her vision as guidance.
Without doubt, we are on the
brink of something wonderful.
We sense it even through the
violence represented in our
media. We seem to be ap-
proaching a tipping point.
Somehow our collective con-
sciousness will prevail and
we shall attain harmony with