Long before the Japanese maples and flowering shrubs and colorful accents, a garden design needs to begin with the hardscape elements to ensure a successful landscape that works functionally for the homeowner. These may include a patio or deck for outdoor dining and entertaining, a stone seat wall or doublewide steps to accommodate additional guest seating, a network of pathways to facilitate traffic flow in a larger garden, or a water feature to enjoy the sound of running water.

Fire pits add a central element to a backyard patio

Details Landscape Art, a boutique Sonoma County landscape contractor owned and operated by Scott and Travis Bradley, has been installing distinctive landscaping throughout the North Bay and Napa County since 1991. Their patio and walkway designs usually begin with size and shape, reserving the choice of surfaces for later in the design process. Issues to be addressed at this point include family size, number of guests to be entertained, and location of specialty features such as a spa, a fire pit, or an outdoor built-in cooking area. “We try to think outside the box,” says Scott, “and come up with unusual shapes and locations or maybe multilevel areas that add interest to the feel of a landscape. Gone are the days of the rectangular slab poured adjacent to the rectangular house. We may recommend placing the patio some distance from the house, maybe secluded in a grove of trees, with a connecting walkway from the back door out to the patio. Or possibly a split-level patio to accommodate a sloped area.”

In a well-balanced design, the patio is laid out in conjunction with other major features including the lawn outline, perhaps a waterfall and pond, masonry such as decorative stone walls or retaining walls, and large specimen trees. The next step is to choose a patio surface. Details offers a variety of products: exposed aggregate, stamped concrete, stained concrete, brick, tile, and flagstone. Some of the newer preferred materials available for decks (instead of high-maintenance redwood or cedar) are the exotic hardwoods and a composite material called Fiberon. There is a significant difference in cost among all these surface choices and Details will help recommend surfaces based on both aesthetics and budget. “We would never recommend compromising the size and function of a patio and walkway to upgrade the surface choice,” says Travis. “The patio must work for the homeowner’s intended use. If it’s not the right size and shape, it doesn’t really matter how beautiful the surface is.”

Stamped concrete patio, framed by a ledgestone seat wall, steps down to and contrasts with a Fiberon synthetic deck

Stamped concrete patio, framed by a ledgestone seat wall, steps down to and contrasts with a Fiberon synthetic deck

That being said, Details Landscape Art is well known throughout the North Bay for exquisite flagstone work. Projects have included almost every variety of both Arizona flagstone and Connecticut Bluestone, multicolored flagstone mosaics, and some exotic products such as Canadian Chocolate, Dakota, Colorado Buff, and Iron Mountain. Scott says: “There are many flagstone color choices available and many surface options other than flagstone. We are careful, however, to coordinate the hardscape elements and avoid mixing too many materials. The patio surface must look good with any wall stone or other masonry. And we use indigenous Sonoma fieldstone to build natural-looking water features. All the materials on a job must look good together.”

Once the “bones of the garden” are in place, Scott and Travis become exterior decorators, fleshing out the hardscape elements with trees and plant material, mixing heights, textures, and bloom seasons to ensure a vibrant, interesting garden all year long.