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Mountain Landscaping

by H. E. Sappenfield
Mountain House and Home

Over the last 20 years, most of Colorado’s mountain towns have changed dramatically. Nowhere is this more evident than in its resort areas. Places like Vail, Steamboat, Aspen and Winter Park have become year-round destinations, and this has altered the function of mountain homes.

“Twenty years ago, people used to buy a house in Vail because they were coming in winter,” says Sherry Dorward of Sherry Dorward Landscape Architecture in Eagle-Vail and author of Design for Mountain Communities. “Now they’re coming in summer, and they want their homes to have outdoor spaces to enjoy.”

Building a home in Colorado’s mountains can provide challenges. Sites with tricky terrain”steep gradients, or natural features like mature trees, rock outcrops, water features, or drainage issues ” can be doubly challenging, but can also lead to inspired design, and a home’s outdoor living spaces should echo this inspiration.

Key is considering goals for your home’s outdoor living spaces, then creatively assessing your lot’s assets. For best results, this means including a landscape architect in the primary phases of a home’s creation.

“Sometimes I’ll get hired and the architecture is already done,” Dorward says, “and I’ll see ways that would have made it so much better if I’d been there right from the beginning.”

Once you’ve hired a landscape architect, there are still some fundamental considerations.

“When determining siting of the house, a civil engineer figures out drainage; a landscape architect can create natural-looking surface treatments to help water pass through outdoor spaces,” says Shannon Murphy of Shannon Murphy Landscape Architecture in Carbondale.

Snow loads in high mountains are of special consideration.

“On a house that’s on a slope, the toughest thing is to handle runoff when the house stretches across the contours; it’s creating a dam,” Dorward says. “It will be expensive to address that, but it’s essential. And it’s a lot more expensive to address it later.”

Site considerations

Key to a good start in this mountain environment is thoughtful construction which preserves the site.

“Site it right and access it properly,” Dorward advises. “On mountain sites, there’s not much topsoil, and the sub-soils aren’t fertile. Strip that away, and you have a devil of a time recreating land that can be re-vegetated. The same constraints that make a site tricky, though, can provide exceptional landscape design opportunities.”

Another consideration is building codes.

“In some communities there are restrictions on wall height and materials allowed,” says Megan Bemis of Neils Lunceford, Inc., a landscape firm in Silverthorne, CO. Once you know these factors, the assets of the site, the home’s architecture, and your goals for outdoor spaces, then design can begin.

“With your goals in mind, start paying attention to how different rooms and spaces make you feel,” Bemis says. “Inside, it’s easy to tell. A small room may feel cozy. Outside, the sky is your ceiling, but with plantings you can make it cozy.”

Just like architectural design is modified with levels on a sloped lot, so is design of outdoor living spaces.

“Often with a sloped lot, things aren’t all on one level,” Bemis says. “You end up with a series of outdoor rooms, like terracing, off the multi-level rooms of the home.”

Shannon Murphy takes this one step further. “On really steep lots,” Murphy says, “grade change can create very separate spaces. Outdoor rooms can become like steps, and the spaces in between those steps can be tall, vertical walls. These can be utilized as a feature, like a waterfall, so the wall itself is an interesting space.”

The edges

Murphy gives special attention to walls and steps, what landscape architects call “edges.”

“The way edge treatments are handled can set the feeling of a space,” Murphy says. “For instance, if grade change is handled quickly, or if it’s spread over space. A steep wall will have more of an architectural effect, where an incline spread out over a longer, wider space, say with a rock outcropping with other groundcovers trickling down through it, will feel more organic, more of a natural garden space. It depends upon what’s more appropriate to the house.”

For many homeowners bringing the outside in via windows and views is a goal, but for landscape design, bringing the inside out is integral.

“It’s fun to work with grade changes,” Murphy says, “from the residence into the site, and to integrate the two pieces together. Often, I’ll use the same stone as inside, but move from mortar inside to dryset outside, so that it feels more organic, more set in the earth.”

Murphy also works with edges between indoor and outdoor living spaces.

“Say there’s a one-foot grade change,” Murphy explains, “a step from an indoor living space to an outdoor dining space makes the rooms feel separate, yet you can see in between them. Then people can sit on the steps between the edges. Whether these are handled quickly or spread out over space also sets the feeling for that area.”

It’s also important to think beyond entertaining to times when you’ll be using outdoor rooms alone.

“Even for people who envision a lot of entertaining, remember you want to feel good if there’s nobody there but you,” Dorward says. “Smaller, linked spaces work well for entertaining, and yet still feel good when you’re alone. Changes in slope can be separated by low retaining walls which can be used to sit on, or serve food, and these edges can help give the space special character.”

Feel the View

Beyond the immediate space, Bemis encourages clients to think outside the box when it comes to views.

“The most immediate view may not be the one you want to focus on,” Bemis says. “Take a little time in that space, get a feel for it. For example, say you have a great view on a high plateau, and you want a pool at the top of it. The area gets a lot of wind, trees can’t grow with the wind, the sun beats down. In the long run, it’s not the best space. But if you look slightly to the side, you might find a unique view and a better situation with trees already growing there.”

When it comes to planting, it’s important to be realistic, and to take clues from nature in this high-elevation environment. Microclimates, created by situations as small as one sunny, sheltered side of a boulder versus another, are vastly important and must be considered when designing plantings. From pre-construction soils reports, landscape architects can determine if certain areas within a site may also need amendments, organic fillers, to strengthen the soil.

“Start small,” Dorward advises, “with the main goal to re-naturalize things. Over time, you can create pockets of more intensive planting. There’s no such thing as real low-maintenance here. As soon as you plant a flower garden, you have maintenance. Get the bones in first, the trees, the walls, the hearthscape ” what you need to enjoy the space.”

When selecting a landscape architect, local knowledge and experience are key. Consider samples of other work.

“Ask to be sure he/she is indeed a landscape architect,” Bemis advises. “Some firms have people who have been trained in design, but don’t have the depth of a degree. That makes a difference.”

Last, be certain your landscape architect is someone you enjoy working with.

“Make sure it’s a good fit,” Murphy says, “that they’re listening to your desires and dreams for that site ” that you can collaborate with them.”


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