Real Estate

Landscaping around the oaks

Homeowners in Vintage Oaks neighborhood add pool, turf and entertaining space to backyard

The previous owners of Jesse Johnson's new home told him they tried to put a pool in the back yard, but it didn't work out. About three years later, Johnson, along with his wife and two kids, decided to pursue the pool option again at the Vintage Oaks home in Menlo Park.

They started the project with a general contractor, and then sought the help of John Black, principal at Verdance Landscape Design in Palo Alto.

"He was great at pushing us on how we really wanted to use the space," Johnson said.

The giant oak tree also dictated how the backyard could be configured. The tree had some lawn underneath it, Black said, but to keep lawn under the tree required irrigation, which would shorten the life of the tree. Black surveyed the rest of the backyard, taking photos and measurements so that he could draft different options for the homeowners. This process started in May 2012.

Black wanted to give the family options that would solve the pain points they identified, such as lack of flow and entertaining space.

"The backyard style had really weird curves that weren't the same French Country style as the home," Black said, "and they were having to wedge five chairs into the dining patio area."

It took a little back-and-forth before the Johnson family decided on a design that had a pool, spa, arbors, outdoor kitchen, dining patio, play lawn, vegetable beds and a putting green.

The new pool and spa have become focal points of the family's backyard. The 5-by-8-foot spa sits above the pool and has a waterfall that cascades down a tiled wall into the heated pool below. A Pebble Tec finish covers the 50-by-30-foot pool, giving it additional texture, Black said.

"My wife really enjoys relaxing next to this water feature," Johnson said.

While there is no way to keep the pool free from debris, especially because of all the trees in the neighborhood, Johnson said the cover does most of the work and keeps the pool warm. When temperatures drop, Johnson said the spa can heat up in about 30 minutes.

Black surrounded the pool with low-maintenance landscaping and plants, such as rhododendron, viburnum, loropetalum and miscanthus grass.

"I come up with options for the homeowner to pick from because I want to let them be involved if they want to," Black said. "What made this project easier was having a client who cared and asked questions."

In addition to plants, Black designed cedar arbors into the landscape above the spa, back door, outdoor dining and kitchen, and at the end of the pool.

"The arbors make it feel more like an outdoor room and provide some shade," Johnson said.

The outdoor spaces feature Connecticut bluestone underfoot and K2 Stone veneer on the walls around the spa, dining area and kitchen. Black designed the space to fit the Johnsons' existing patio furniture, but replaced the portable grill with a built-in grill, storage drawers and refrigerator.

Around the corner from the grill, the family grows vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. The beds line a path that ends back at St. Patrick's Seminary & University.

"Our tomatoes go crazy in this soil," Johnson said.

In the other direction, a little strip of space holds a storage shed, putting green and a playhouse that Johnson is building for his daughter.

"The putting green came from the discussion about artificial turf up in the front of the yard," Black said.

The artificial turf discussion turned into a real play-space option for the family.

"A lawn would have been at odds with the heritage oak tree," Black said. "This made sense."

Johnson said the family has enjoyed the turf. They have it debris blown off with a blower now and then, and when it gets hot in the summer, Johnson gives it a quick spray with the hose. Otherwise, his son uses the space to practice his goalie skills in front of his soccer net.

"Before this, we didn't feel like the backyard was a part of our life," Johnson said. "Now we feel like we are back in a space that's part of our house."

To achieve the cohesive look, the entire backyard was demolished and graded. Johnson worked with Black and two contractors, which he said required a lot of juggling but that it was nice to get it all done at once.

"Permitting was the most difficult part of this whole process," Johnson said.

The family decided to add the pool back into the plan after demolition was set. They decided to move forward with construction anyway, knowing that permitting could take a month or so, Johnson said. In the end, it took about two months for all the permits because they needed to get an arborist report, dig a root trench, and install a temporary road and fence. Construction resumed in April and ended in September.

Black said all the final details were wrapped up by December 2013.

"When a client said, 'Oh my gosh, I love this space so much,' like happened on this project," Black said, "It means we succeeded."

Freelance writer Brenna Malmberg can be emailed at

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