As a Landscape Designer working in Vancouver, B.C. and the Lower Mainland for 20 years my vote is on preparing a Landscape Design.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with many, many clients and can safely say that every design is different.  That may seem a little odd to say. You might be thinking that there must be a lot of repetition.  Turns out that Landscape Plans are as different as the people requesting them.  That’s what keeps my work interesting.


Since your Outdoor Living Space is personal and involves a sizable investment you want to make sure that the finished product reflects your needs and wishes.  Sounds complicated.  So where do you begin?  I’ll start by saying that a good designer can help even those clients that have pondered difficult decisions for years without making progress.  Homeowners now have resources for inspiration difficult to access in the past.  Just mention the word Houzz or any property improvement show and you can be chatting for hours.  Ahhh, but the trick is to filter through the bombarding images and narrow in on key decisions and expand outward from there.


I love the practical decisions that have to be made.  They’re your foundation.  You have a set area to fill and guidelines unfortunately are a reality.  Think of the words, setbacks, easement, bylaws or engineering and you know that these issues will impact your decisions.  I’ve had numerous clients that desired 16’ high fences or screens to give them privacy.  As most Cities and Districts allow only a 6’0” high fence along a backyard property line that’s not going to work.  You have to get a bit more creative to solve these problems. For every landscape problem there is a solution or a reasonable compromise.  Okay, now for the list I like to cover while on site with a client during a consultation.









The following is an example for each point.


Wouldn’t it be nice to have enough space to comfortably entertain those 50 relatives or friends when they come to your home for a get together?  If you have the square footage this could be a reality that makes sense for your property.  Great!  Then the next topic might be… where to position this sitting area and at what level (e.g. deck, on grade, sunken area).  If space makes this impractical then we find that balance.  Maybe the answer is a permanent area to sit 8 or 10 and a built in sitting bench that can seat another couple of people when the gathering is larger.  Lawn area can also be used in a pinch.


You might be a sun worshiper or burn with a little exposure.  This may be one of the problems that must be addressed if you have a South facing backyard giving you full sun exposure. You probably need some built in shade.  There are many ways to do this.  There are giant umbrellas on pivot arms that give 12’ x 12’coverage, retractable awnings that open and close with a remote control and Custom Built Rooflines.  The first two options are easier as they are not designated as permanent.  I love designing Custom Rooflines because the possibilities are endless as long as You, the client, are happy and the City or District approve.


There are traffic pathways you will use every day from Point A to B.  This is where practicality and personality blend.  If you tend to have two or more cars parked in your driveway it might make sense to have a front walkway designed for access around mid-driveway length.  That 1’ wide strip of driveway left that you and your visitors negotiate to reach a walkway tucked close to house needs to be rethought when you notice guests are cutting across your lawn.  An average front walkway might range between 4’ – 8’ wide.  Scale of your home might be a factor or style such a geometric layout or a uniform curved walkway can influence the width.  Flow of traffic also refers to other less considered paths such as passage past a table on a deck when entertaining is in full swing.


Consultations can lead to some interesting features the client never knew they wanted, yet, once mentioned, become a necessity.  I was illustrating that a front walkway could have a portion modified to allow for a built in bench when he realized that we could further modify to allow for a bike cleaning station.  As an avid bike rider the process of finding a flat area to set up his bike after a muddy ride had always been an annoyance.  He had never dreamed that the landscape design could provide a solution.  If we can add a feature that makes your home feel right we should incorporate this.


The dreaded maintenance issue; this is an area that usually can be decided on fairly quickly.  Gardeners will gladly divide plants as required, prune deciduous shrubs, dead-head flowers, edge garden beds and hand pull weeds.  So many clients want a beautiful garden but know a High Maintenance garden won’t be suitable with their lifestyle.  I was having the maintenance conversation with a client and we determined that once the plants were established they needed to be low maintenance, but they did not want to compromise their vision.  I proposed that we prepare the design knowing they would need to bring in Maintenance Company twice a year at key points to prune their boxwood and Portuguese laurel.  The planting areas would be controlled sizes with plants that would fill in to shade the soil preventing weed seeds from germinating.  This was only a part of the solution yet the design was done to solve a problem rather than create future ones.


Style, Materials and Colour are such fun topics.  So many choices; it really is like being a kid in a candy store.  Every decision made helps to narrow the field.  For some homeowners, form and function come first.  I’ve worked with others where materials and style were the forefront consideration.  One such client was torn between their need for privacy and the need to have a European flair to their living space.   Once we’d determined that reclaimed brick and wood could be used in the key features she felt satisfied to move on to the ‘form and function’ considerations.


One of my best design tools is the ‘Thumbnail Sketch’. I find this tool really helps to solidify some ideas. Talk can sometimes feel like you are waving your hand around painting a visual picture you hope is understood.  But when you put pencil to paper, even with a very rough sketch, you can illustrate a potential location for that vegetable garden or maybe how a wood screen can be strategically located to provide privacy so you can step outside and enjoy that morning coffee even in your house coat.



We tend to think of retaining walls strictly for their function of maintaining a bank. This is what they were designed for but I’d also point out that retaining walls can become one of the feature elements of your garden for aesthetic value. If you are viewing the retaining wall from the base then we could discuss types of materials that add visual appeal such as large boulders, vertical rock pillars, stone veneer over a functional core filled block wall, architectural concrete walls or even precast retaining wall materials. If we are viewing the walls from the top plateau looking down we may notice that the walls have manipulated the former property grades and now the size of the living area above the wall is increased to the benefit of the size of the patio, lawn or garden area.

Most Lower Mainland, B.C. districts allow for a 4’ height wall before engineering of the wall is required. It is important to note that Vancouver, B.C. allows for a 2’ high retaining wall before a permit is required and Mission allows a 1’ high wall before a permit is required. Many of the districts require a 2:1 setback. If you build a 4’ high wall you need to set back 8’ before the next wall can be constructed. The safe bet is to check the bylaws on the district’s website before starting the design layout.

Choice of retaining wall materials can be made based on budget or theme of the design. For instance, contemporary designs have been very popular in recent years so the concrete wall seems to be a favorite among designers for the clean, precise look that this style of wall can achieve. These concrete walls might have colour added to the concrete before pouring, acid stain applied after pouring, forms that create a relief pattern in the concrete or remain raw with bubble holes or metal clip holes from the forming technique left. An exact opposite style wall, designed to add Old English charm may be a river rock stone veneer wall supported by a core filled block backing. This style of wall is reminiscent of the relaxed, informal setting of an English landscape.

Vertical height in a garden can be well used. You can even create vertical separation in a flat yard by using retaining wall materials to build a custom raised planter. A raised planter can be round, rectangular or freeform. Your only limitation is your imagination and the building specifications for the materials you choose. The affects you can achieve are limitless using retaining walls and should be an important consideration to your landscape design vision.