Small Landscapes Before and After

Landscape designer Craig Okerstrom-Lang shows us how small can turn out to be huge, and make a major difference to your property.

Since starting our firm in 1990, we have designed and had built many different types and sizes of landscapes for our residential clients. We also design for commercial and institutional clients. While the larger projects pay the bills, so to speak, and these residential projects are typically lower in scope and budget, they are frequently challenging to get built for our clients, and the impressive difference between before and after justifies the effort.

For some of these smaller projects, we complete them on a fixed fee, design-build basis. I get out there with my assistants and subcontractors and we get our hands dirty. We hire licensed and insured subcontractors for any heavy work (removals, soil prep, larger trees, tree work, etc).

Here is a sampling of these residential projects.

Nina’s Garden, Pontoossuc Lake, Pittsfield, MA

Our clients own a condominium that was built in the early 1980’s. They use this during the summer months only. While the architecture looks and feel very current, the landscaping is a bit overgrown. The garden area we updated is at their front door.

Their sitting and TV room looks out onto this east exposure. But due to overgrown shrubs and the large Blue Spruce branches, one could barely look out this window. Plus, the soft, eastern sunlight was blocked.

Nina’s original view. looking out at shrubs and a big blue spruce. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang
Overgrown shrubs blocked the view from Nina’s front window. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

We proposed the following improvements to Nina and her husband:

• Limb up the Blue Spruce 8-9’ so they could look out and under this tree.
• Remove ALL the overgrown landscaping in front of the unit. There were 3 large, overgrown Rhododendrons that we removed. We found a few Astilbes, a nice clump of Daylilies and one dwarf ornamental grass and re-used those in the new layout. We used a mini Excavator to remove all the roots and loosen up the soils.
• Add all new summer flowering shrubs and perennials and mulch the bed.

The removals and tree limb up took a half day to complete by our subcontractor, Butternut Tree Service. The new plantings (from Whitney’s Farm, Lanesboro, MA), trucking, mulching, lawn repair and cleanup took another day by myself.

The blue spruce after trimming, with shrubs removed. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

The new plantings added were 5 new shrubs and 2 ornamental grasses:

➢ Hydrangea ‘Bobo’: white flower July-August; considered a dwarf shrub.
➢ Hydrangea ‘Bombshell’: pinkish-white flower in July-August; considered a dwarf shrub.
➢ Hydrangea ‘Invincible Spirit’: true pink flower with flat head in July-August; very different looking from most Hydrangeas; keep pruned for shape.

➢ The Hydrangeas are fragrant, great for cutting as fresh or dry flower arrangements. They will need regular cutting back in late March to keep them at a lower height. By pruning them it forces the flowers to fuller and denser.
➢ Physocarpus (Eastern Ninebark) ‘Amber Jubilee’: deep brownish-burgundy leaves, unusual small rounded flower. Grows slowly with arching branches and was used to screen the AC unit. Will need to prune just after it blooms to keep height down for this garden.
➢ 2 – Itea (Sweetspire) ‘Henry’s Garnet’ pretty-pendulous white flowers in June-July; “a Butterfly plant”; scarlet fall color; slow mound like-growing habit.

Ornamental grasses installed in the background (2 total):

• Panicum virgatium ‘Shenandoah’: ornamental grass that grows to 4’ tall max; unusual striped leaf blades with burgundy, light green and dark green colors. Placed just in front of window so owners can see their flowering stems (or inflorescence) sway in the breeze.

At last, the window is unblocked and the approach to the house is more open. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

Some of my favorite perennials were installed in the foreground (16 total):

• Anemone ‘Robustissima’: beautiful pink-white blooms in August; good massing plant; likes partial shade and sunny locations.
• Anemone ‘September Charm’: same pink-white blooms but in September.
• Aruncus (Goat’s Beard): Creamy white flowers in very showy display in June. I use these as “exclamation marks” in my landscape design.
• Heuchera (Coral Bells) ‘Plum Pudding’: Burgundy-silver-grey leaves, small pinkish flowers in June; I use mostly for their leave texture and low growing height.
• Lamium ‘Anne Greenway’: Light green-silver and vanilla leaf color, pink flower. I use these for their low growing height and vigorous growth habit. Lamium seem to handle all conditions of sun but like well-drained soils. Alternated these with the Heuchera as a border.

Stockbridge Deck

Our clients asked us to design a new backyard for them, which consisted of the rear deck and all lawn. We created a Master Plan. Phase I, or the first project, was to replace the existing deck on the house. They wanted a more contemporary looking deck and stairs that provide the main access to their backyard from the upper family room.

Our clients were very involved with the design, the final materials, colors, theme, etc. I acted as the master planner and plantsman. They obtained all the pricing for the carpentry work. We installed the landscaping.

Stockbridge deck, before. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang.
Closer look of Stockbridge deck, before. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

The new deck design uses the following elements:

• Deck uses the existing pressure treated structural system (which was in excellent condition), so the deck size is the same.
• The stairs were shifted to be a crisscross (versus straight down). For ease in going up and down, a midway landing was added.
• Steps/risers are 5” tall and the treads are 14” wide. This is my favorite combination for any stairs, even stone stairs. Easy to use for all ages, especially in bare feet.
• Cable railings for more open views through to the backyard.
• Dark grey composite lumber decking and treads. Pressure treated deck posts are clad in white composite lumber for contrast and to tie into the house trim color.
• Instead of traditional deck skirting to screen the lower level, we used horizontal sections of the dark decking composite wood. It creates a nice modern contrast to the traditional home finishes.
• Small downlights from Lenox Lighting built into the horizontal deck and house skirting.

Stockbridge deck, after. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

A sitting terrace was built on the ground level using the new Unilock precast pavers that look like granite pavers. Two different ornamental grasses (Zebra 7-8’ tall and ‘Shenandoah’, 4’ tall were mixed together along the base of the deck and the newly skirted family room (right hand side of deck).

The deck furniture and built-in large shade canopies are from Barrington Outfitters, Great Barrington.

Stockbridge deck,leading down to new patio and deck chairs. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

The space below the deck and family room is used for storage and has a sliding barn door for access along the side. It was skirted with the horizontal composite lumber.

This project was built by a local carpenter and his crew, who obtained the building permit for the work. It took about 4 months to complete, with other carpentry work added to the project.

Ruth’s Garden, Otis Woodlands

The home is located amongst the dense, native woodlands that Otis Woodlands is appropriately named for. And the Homeowners Association has vigorously protected these woodlands for privacy between the homes and lake.

The upper deck and rooms of the house look down to the backyard garden. The lower level of the home has a large deck that is accessible from the lower rooms. The rear of the house faces east, so it is pretty shady. The decks get sun for half the day.

The woodlands are mostly Hemlock, Red Maple and Silver Birch trees. A lush layer of native Laurel shrubs and Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) are in the understory right against the garden. The was no garden in the backyard along the deck; just bark mulch. There were a few groups of large, singular Hostas tucked off in the corner. But basically, the entire area was bark mulched.

The original view. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

Ruth is the horticulturist in the family and her husband is “head of maintenance”, so to speak. Per the initial meetings with them, they wanted their new backyard garden to have some of the following features:

• Add summer flowering shrubs and perennials for color.
• Move the existing stone bird baths and sculpture into the new landscape design.
• Create a pathway thru the garden for ease of maintenance and interest.

More of the original view. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

Some of my ideas included:

➢ Add some of the newer varieties of Dwarf Hydrangeas for summer color.
➢ Split the large Hostas and Daylilies into smaller clumps and use these for edging along the pathway.
➢ Initial pathway idea was to install a crushed stone subbase and then place irregular bluestone on top. The bluestone ended up being too expensive, so we left the crushed stone for the path.

The design ideas were described in our cost estimate (no plan needed).

Planting the garden. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

So, on a rainy spring day, Dick King (King Richard Property Management) and I prepared and installed this garden project. All hand labor and used Dick’s rototiller.

Ruth had already installed her favorite annuals in their large containers. We moved them around from her perch on the upper deck.

Their caretaker installed the crushed stone walkway. The end results speak for themselves.

Ruth’s garden after, here and above, Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

Arbor & Fence Garden, Great Barrington

For the home where my wife Annie Okerstom-Lang and I live in Great Barrington (built circa 1849), we designed and built a fence that replicated the one at the original Norman Rockwell Museum on Main Street in Stockbridge. This garden area is on the eastern side of our house and is in partial sun. I built the fence with a friend out of pine and pressure treated posts in 1992. We added the arbor in 1996 with climbing vines in the middle to act as a “gateway or portal” into the garden.

We have removed the Linden trees that you can see on the right-hand side (too large and too much shade). Our original Tree Peonies, installed in 1992, are incredible and produce magnificent flowers in late May. To the left-hand side is a Common Lilac (deep purple) with a Tardiva Hydrangea growing amongst it (an English Gardening technique I hear). It sure has interesting textures.

The “before” fence, built in 1992, and the arbor built in 1996. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

To the right-hand side is a dense Hemlock privacy hedge with two very large shrubs book-ending the fence: Variegated Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus) and Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Wonderful leaf textures and fall color for both. The Buckeye has incredible white bottlebrush flowers that are 8-12” long in late July. Both shrubs like to grow under the canopy of other trees and here they are tucked into the Hemlock hedge.

Through the years, our climate was not kind to the wood structures. The fence pickets rotted at the bottom. It was very difficult to paint, due to all the plantings we installed on each side of it. Plus, our lawn mower, Pat Goff, could not drive his mower through the arbor opening.

We designed a new fence and arbor using a PVC fence system. It was fabricated and installed by All American Fence in 2006. The Arbor is 60” wide and Pat is happy. It is now 12 years old and still holds its color and form.

The “after” fence and arbor, installed in 2006. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang.
The “after” fence and arbor, planted with roses and clematis. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

I have been growing 3-4 different species of Clematis on the arbor since 1996. The June and July blooming Clematis complete the Roses. We saved them when we installed the new arbor. We added 3 different climbing roses. The most successful has been ‘James Galway’ that we purchased from mail order from David Austin Roses.

The challenge with the Roses is that Japanese Beetles just love their leaves. But we get the flower and their fragrance to enjoy. The Clematis leaves and flowers fill in the voids that the Beetles create.

We added 2 Bobo Hydrangeas, on each side of the Arbor in 2015, amongst the Tree Peonies and Nepeta. They seem very happy.

The 2017 images show how Clematis Montana, once established, can just take off. This was shot in September when they were in full bloom; it was incredible! We even had some of the climbing Roses blooming at the same time. We use a tropical climbing vine, Mandevilla, for the two front columns; these grow to about 6-7’ each year. They like lots of water; it helps that we have an irrigation system (highly recommended).

The clematis in 2017. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang


A closer look at the clematis in 2017. Photo:Craig Okerstrom-Lang

Many of our plants come from Ward’s Garden Center and from a few other regional and mail order sources.

I am the gardener for our ½ acre property and it is a pleasure to design and work in. It has always been a bird-friendly space. I hope all of you can find joy and peace in your own garden.

Our design studio has always been in downtown GB. We are located above Hammertown (the former Harland B. Foster Hardware store) and across from the Berkshire Coop Market. Stop by and say hi.

2 thoughts on “Small Landscapes Before and After

  • The landscaping here is very conventional and lacks natives and looks like plant plopping.
    No sedges, no swathes of nativegrasses and hostas to feed the deer.
    Hydrangas a cliche, sorry but this does little to support the movement to healthy landscaping

  • Linda,
    Thanx for your feedback…you should take a tour of some of our other installed and mature landscapes to see native landscapes on our web page.

    This article was intended to show how smaller landscape projects could be transformed; some on a very modest budget. We have designed (& are designing) very extensive designs for our clients. As a Landscape Architect, I utilize both hardscape and landscape to create our spaces. Some incorporate native plantings. But not every client wants that look and environment.

    Hydrangeas are extremely popular plants to use in our region due to the multitude of flower color opportunities from July thru mid-Sept. Plus the deer do not feed on them, yet.

    Due to global warming and the extensive use of salt for snow and ice control, there are unfortunately many native species of plants that are suffering and should be sited and planted very carefully with this in mind.

    Our beautiful native Ash trees come to mind with the Asian Horned Beetle attacking them. In Michigan, my home state, the Ash trees forests are maybe 5% standing. It is a devastating scene to behold. We can expect the same to hit the NE and the Berkshires (it is already here).

    For this reason and other native trees species that are in decline, especially with shade trees (that will hopefully have a canopy spread of 40-60′), I always mix native and non-native trees.

    It is a trend many large cities are adopting.

    Please offer to write your own article about garden design – it is always good for folks to understand there are many-many differant ways to do landscape design. That is the beauty of this profession. The Edge would welcome your article and thoughts!

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