There are several definitions for the word ‘retreat.’ One of them is “a peaceful, tranquil space where one can go to get away from it all.” That perfectly describes the Preston Hollow Retreat in Texas.
If you were to take a stroll through its grounds, meandering along its blue-tinted stone and gravel walkways, shaded by its many lovely, mature trees, you might wonder which public park you were in. If you did, it would be a huge compliment to the contractors who designed and installed its hard and softscapes, because that’s precisely the feel they were trying to achieve.
Small wonder, then, that the Preston Hollow Retreat won a Grand Award at the 2016 NALP (National Association of Landscape Professionals, formerly PLANET) Awards of Excellence.
It was bestowed on Lawns of Dallas, Inc., in the category of residential landscape contracting in the $100,000 to $500,000 range.
The retreat was the most recent addition to an ongoing building process; a landscape and hardscape that had been installed in stages, over a period of years, as different parcels of adjoining property were acquired by the couple who owned the estate. But you would never guess that by looking at the entire property.
Under the circumstances, one might expect a hodgepodge that wouldn’t quite add up to a pleasing whole. That’s what makes this achievement so remarkable.
The estate is a compound of four adjoining lots, with the main residence on the center lot. A pool house and maid’s quarters are on another lot next to it. The third lot contains a house where one of the couple’s adult daughters lives with her husband and kids. When yet another adjoining one-acre lot became available, the couple purchased it, expanding the total size of their property to more than three-and-ahalf acres.
That fourth parcel of land had a dilapidated old dwelling on it. It was razed, and the retreat, consisting of a two-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot guest house and four-car garage, was built. When it came time to landscape the grounds, the project was submitted for competitive bids.
Lawns of Dallas ultimately won the day. It probably didn’t hurt that the firm has a history with the couple. “They’d been longtime clients of ours, and still are,” said Lawns of Dallas vice president Neil Bales.
“But they did get a second bid when it came time for the landscape and hardscape installation around the guest house and driveway.”
“Since they’re loyal clients, I talked to them and explained some of the differences between our company and the others. They know that we price our work fairly, and they already had a great level of comfort with us, since we’d completed other projects for them on other properties.”
The Dallas landscape architectural firm Kevin Clark | Naud Burnett, Inc., was hired to draw up the plans. This company, too, had a history with the owners, having designed landscapes on other parts of the estate. The challenge this time would be to create something that would seamlessly integrate the newest addition into the rest of the property, without making it look like a tacked-on afterthought.
Everyone involved realized that the dozens of mature shade trees on the property—big, irreplaceable live oaks, elms, pecans and cedars—were the true stars. And preserving them was the owners’ biggest priority.
Shortly after the clients purchased the lot and tore down the existing house, Bales’ crews put in a temporary above-ground irrigation system to keep the trees watered. A local tree company was brought in to put temporary fencing around their trunks while the building of the guest house and garage was in progress.
“We wanted to make it so that the construction workers wouldn’t be able to park their trucks up against them, and compact the soil around the root zones,” said Bales. “That’s what really damages trees longterm.”
Rather than remove a large live oak, a breezeway connecting the new guest house and the main house was built around it. The blue-hued natural Pennsylvania flagstone it’s paved with was set on a sand base in order to allow room for the tree’s roots to expand.
Any of the big trees’ roots that had to be trimmed for the installation of the breezeway were hand-dug and carefully cut, a process that took two days. The stone pathway, with its embrace of this magnificent oak, is now the retreat’s most striking feature.
The neglected parcel had been overtaken by unwanted ground cover and weeds. Most of the weeds had to be pulled out by hand. After that, soil amendments and new compost was spread generously over the cleared ground.
Azaleas were chosen for many of the landscape beds. Why azaleas? “They were chosen because they grow very well in our climate,” said Clark, “but they hate our soil.”
Dallas/Fort Worth dirt is claylike and highly alkaline; azaleas like things acidic. To give them what they need to thrive, three inches of a pH-reducing soil mix composed of compost and shale that also helps break up clay soils was added to their beds. This was topped off by another three inches of azalea mix. In all, well over 150 yards of amendments were used in the landscape beds.
Azaleas also like lots of water, “but they don’t like to sit in it,” added Bales. So, the beds would need to be well-irrigated, but also have good drainage.
Besides azaleas, plantings included variegated pittosporum, multiple varieties of fern, mondo grass, hydrangea, giant liriope, turks cap, various evergreens and daylilies. Together, they create an assortment of heights and textures for year-long visual interest.
The owners’ second priority was to create more outdoor entertainment space to accommodate the large functions they regularly host. An existing patio was enlarged, and a natural-gas fire pit and stone seating area built. A smaller, half-moon shaped patio was built on another part of the lot.
“The patio with the fire pit had a southern exposure, so it needed to be sheltered from the sun,” said Clark. But a constructed covering would have destroyed the open feel, and would probably have created a fire-code problem. In lieu of that, several large, 25-foot red oaks were planted around it. The ring of trees created immediate, abundant shade, in spades.
A wall between the new lot and an adjacent one, just behind the guest house, was torn down, and the area was landscaped with turf and planting beds. Connecting flagstone walkways were built throughout.
The driveway and other walkways were covered in Tejas black gravel, which has a grayish-blue tint to it. “It’s called gravel, but it’s more like stone,” Clark said. “The pieces are kind of angular, so it sort of locks in place. That makes it work better than pea gravel, which leaf blowers can blow away.” Tejas gravel is often used in conjunction with blue flagstone, as the two go well together.
To provide privacy between the addition and one of its neighbors, the crews built a fence adjoining the two properties, then planted a large shrub hedge of Nellie R. Stevens holly in front of it. As it grows, it will provide a nice green screen.
The lot’s speedy-yet-remarkable metamorphosis is apparent when you look at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures from one section of the property. The before image shows an existing stand of three live oaks, surrounded by bare dirt.
The after picture shows the additional shrubs and ornamental trees that were planted around them, several Oklahoma redbuds, Japanese maples, and dogwoods.
Looking at these pictures, it’s hard to believe that the after shot was taken just six months following the installation. It looks like something that took decades to grow in.
“The owners wanted immediate aesthetics because of all the entertaining they do, and for the holidays coming up,” said Bales. “Fortunately, we had a generous budget to work with, so we were able to use good-sized plant material and get that nice, parklike feel from day one.”
The landscaping and hardscaping of the guest house and garage started in July of 2015, and finished that November. It was the final phase of what had been a two-year project on the entire estate, and the portion that was submitted for the NALP awards.
Five months isn’t a long time for a project of this size and scope. The fence portion was started in July, but the building contractor was still finishing the house and doing the grade work on the driveway, so Bales’ crews weren’t able to “really and truly” start construction in earnest until mid- to late August.
Crew sizes varied, from an average of four to six workers, to twice that number. “There were some weeks where we would have ten to 12 people working, depending on the project,” said Bales.
“We did all the hardscape paving, expanded the large patio, and built the firepit and the seat wall around it. In addition, we built all the gravel walkways, and put in all the plantings. We made some adjustments to the irrigation system, then subbed most of the rest of that out. All of that, in five months.”
Any large, multifaceted project brings its own difficulties, and this one was no exception. “Trying to wrap everything up on a construction project always creates, I don’t want to say daily challenges, but it seemed like every week, there were fires that needed to be put out,” said Bales.
As many as five subcontractors were onsite at the same time. Constant communication and coordination was needed in order to keep everybody out of each other’s hair. The fear was that, having completed a facet of the job, another crew would come in right behind, possibly damaging the previous work.
Pressure was also exerted by the clients. The holidays were coming up, and they’d be hosting big parties. They wanted everything buttoned up before then.
Another hassle was presented by one of the neighbors. This man was very concerned about the fence being built between the properties, an eight-foot-high cedar board-onboard with top cap, trim, and rot board (a two-by-six-inch wood piece placed on the bottom of fencing to keep the pickets from rotting), stained a deep walnut brown.
He also was worried about the possible removal of any trees on his side of the boundary. “There were lots of trees straddling the property line,” said Bales, “so we really had to work carefully with this neighbor and our clients to ensure that proper procedures were being followed. It took a lot of effort and handholding from me, as well as our vice president of operations, Ross Mittlestet.”
Because of the size and scope of the project, there was a constant need to talk with and update the clients. Since they were often out of town, this was done via photos, texts, emails and phone calls. There were plenty of changes requested: “move those azaleas five feet to the left,” and so forth.
In some areas, the owners wanted to reduce the number of plantings, and add more in others. There was another big midstream change, too.
“The original design called for the installation of synthetic turf in some areas,” said Bales, “because the clients thought real grass would struggle under so much tree shade.”
But they changed their minds. Ultimately, the owners decided they wanted the new lot to match the rest of the property. Another important consideration was having lots of soft, lush grass for their grandkids to play on. This was achieved by sodding the parcel with Palisades Zoysia grass. The irrigation system then had to be expanded to the newly sodded areas.
After the wall that used to separate the new lot from the adjacent one was gone, the irrigation systems had to be integrated. Spray heads were used, in order to assure that the new lot and the transitional areas had full coverage.
Looking at the end result of this effort, couldn’t you just picture yourself retreating from the cares of this world in this lovely private park?