Landscape design is an art as well as a science. Great landscape design blends both in seamless synchrony. The project we’re featuring for our annual story is a prime example of both the art and the science of landscape design coming together to solve problems and create exceptional beauty at the same time.

When art and science synch up as well as they did here, the resulting transformation is extremely satisfying for everyone involved. After all the earth-moving, building and planting is over and done with, the overall artistic vision is what remains, and takes center stage—in triumph.

The project, called The Family Lake Home, presented many practical challenges that were overcome, and overcome beautifully.

The extraordinary attention to detail in this spectacular grounds renovation, both in design and execution, merits the highest of honors.

And, it’s received them. This project won Land- Crafters, Inc, of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, two awards: a 2017 Gold Award for Residential Landscape Design and Construction over $200,000 from the WLCA (Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association); and a 2016 Gold Remodeler Award from the WRA (Wisconsin Remodelers Association)/Milwaukee NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) for landscape design and outdoor living projects costing $60,000 and above.

A summer place

The clients, a retired snowbird couple (winters are spent in Florida) in their seventies, purchased the property facing lovely Lake Pewaukee, Wisconsin, a few years ago, and have used it as a retreat for summertime family reunions. As the extended family grew, the couple began to feel that both the house and back patio had become too small to accommodate all of their children and grandchildren together properly. And there were other things on the property that needed to be improved and upgraded.

A major renovation was called for. It would include a 3,000-square-foot addition to the 4,200-square-foot house, an extension to the old patio, a stone stairway to the backyard, and a brand-new landscape to wrap the whole package up. Budget was a consideration; LandCrafters’ portion of the project totaled about $250,000. A new concrete driveway was also installed by a cement contractor.

Wanted: summer color

The couple had several goals for this landscape, both aesthetic and practical. Since they only use the home during the summer, during their time in residence, they want to be greeted by lots of bright, popping seasonal color. A contemporary feel was desired for the overall landscape design, to better harmonize with their collection of eight modern-art sculpture pieces that would be integrated throughout the grounds. Siting these large artworks for maximum visual impact and integrating them into his design would be part of the job for registered landscape architect Michael A. Manke, ASLA.

As you drive down the curving concrete entry road, you’ll be greeted by masses of purple coneflower, blue catmint, and the blooms of two different daylilies, pale yellow Happy Returns and pink Rosy Returns. Manke worked with existing plantings, adding curvilinear plant beds filled with hostas. The shady entry area is carpeted with lush pachysandra groundcover, chosen because it maintains its six- to eight-inch height without much maintenance and stays evergreen even in winter. The sunny spots are filled with summer-blooming perennials such as ‘Viette’s Little Suzy’ (a variety of black-eyed Susan). These are mixed with ornamental grasses, such as tall Karl Foerster and lowgrowing tufts of Prairie Dropseed, to provide texture.

Planting beds are balanced out by the vertical height provided by ornamental and shade trees. All the turf areas on the entire property were resodded with Kentucky bluegrass.

But it’s the upper yard that’s the true showpiece, and the area that underwent the most dramatic transformation. What once was a fairly barren hillside explodes with perennials: generous plantings of more rudbeckia, plus catmint, cobalt liatris, midnight salvia, shrub roses and Russian sage, and more of the tall and short ornamental grasses amongst the dramatic limestone outcroppings that were also installed.

“In the upper lawn, the panel going up the hill was previously very linear, with tall arborvitae on the one side,” said Manke. “Now, we have large, curvilinear planting areas, filled with flowing grasses and perennials for color, texture and movement.” This curvilinear style is repeated from the softscape areas to the hardscaping, unifying the entire design.

The upper lawn turned out to be the perfect vantage point for viewing the tallest and most striking of the couple’s sculpture collection. “We sited this piece so it can be seen as one first arrives at the home, as well as from the kitchen window,” said sales manager and landscape designer David Guthery.

Not nearly as scenic, but extremely vital, was correcting the site’s severe drainage and erosion problems. Everything on the site drained toward the house, and whenever it rained heavily, washouts of soil and gravel flowed into the lake. That all had to be changed.

To remedy this, LandCrafters installed a system of PVC drain tiles, and connected the downspouts to them. Catch basins were placed at intervals along the driveway. “To direct flow to the lower section of the yard, we created four gravel-lined dry streambeds,” said Guthery. The water from the catch basins empties into these beds, where it’s captured, and the roots of Blue Zinger sedge and astilbe filters it as it trickles down. These streambeds are so attractive, bordered as they are by round indigenous river rocks and plantings, that no layman would guess they were created to serve a practical purpose.

Improving accessibility on the steeply sloped site in an aesthetically-pleasing yet functional way was another important pragmatic concern. Getting down to the lakefront via the existing pathway at the side of the house had always been a tricky proposition; one had to traverse a grade that drops ten feet down in only 28 feet of length, with only grass underfoot to provide traction. The path was slanted enough to be dangerous, especially when wet.

This was remedied by stair-stepping the pathway with cut Eden stone, a finer, smoother grade of limestone—chosen to match the color of the existing veneer stone on the house, and rougher-textured limestone outcroppings. (The area is one of the biggest marketers of limestone, lying at the western end of the Niagara escarpment, a long limestone deposit that runs all the way to Niagara Falls.) Residents and guests can now follow a safe, pleasing path down to the backyard and dockside.

The owners also wanted to preserve several old oak trees on the property, along with a special boulder. These two things were easier said than done, as the next section will illustrate.

The challenges

This project was remarkable for the many difficulties that had to be overcome. The narrow, steep grades of the property were tough to negotiate for anyone other than a mountain goat. That upper lawn area was hardly being used at all, as it was virtually inaccessible prior to the revamp.

“The overall sloping grade and lack of drainage on the site were big obstacles for our crew,” said Manke, “with 50 feet of grade change over the 390 feet from the road to the seawall by the lake. It created problems just maneuvering around the site, and required that we pipe water into confined areas.”

Access to the side and back yards was very limited, and required the use of small tracked equipment or, frequently, hand labor, in order to install the stone steps. “We worked our way from the bottom to the top with tracked skid-steer loaders and mini-excavators that could handle the slopes,” said Guthery. “Portions of it were so steep that it was nearly impossible to navigate.”

Before any work could begin, permits had to be obtained for the relocation of the power and phone utilities and modifications to the grading and drainage. Since the property faces a lakefront, several different levels of environmental approvals were also needed. A concern was raised about ground permeability, so a raingarden was built by the lakeshore, to capture and treat stormwater runoff before it overflows or percolates into the lake or groundwater.

“Because of the severe changes to the grade (the addition was going to be cut 50 feet into the slope, and the driveway lowered), and the drainage problems, Mike had to work closely with the client and the home builder,” said Guthery. Manke also consulted with an engineer at one point.

The addition took 50 feet from the driveway and also made it considerably steeper. “This caused a large amount of handwringing by the owner,” said Manke. “But the only way to make it less steep would have been to create a series of switchbacks, which would have turned the entire front yard into driveway.”

The client was also concerned about preserving the oak trees on the lake side of the property. The species’ sensitivity to grade changes and earth compaction around the bases and root zones limited what could be done in the backyard. “We reshaped the patio from a rectangle to curvilinear shape, but couldn’t extend it much further, because of its proximity to the roots,” said Manke.

And then there was that granite boulder, affectionately nicknamed ‘Ann’s Rock,’ after the home’s coowner. Ann liked her rock, and she wanted to keep it. However, Ann’s Rock was smack in the middle of the planned home addition. Still, the couple was insistent that it stay on the property—if not in its original spot, then in another.

At first, digging up this thing didn’t seem that daunting a prospect. But the visible portion of the rock proved to be just the tip of the iceberg; most of its mass was hidden below-grade. Once the dirt contractor finished excavating it, LandCrafters’ crews discovered just how massive it really was: 12 feet long, six feet high and five feet thick, with a guesstimated weight of about 20 tons.

It’s just as well the owners wanted to keep it, as breaking up and hauling all that tonnage away would have been prohibitively expensive. The decision was made to push the boulder up the hill onto the upper yard. With the help of a big bulldozer and excavator, the Herculean deed was done. It now sits in front of the sculpture.

While one hunk of stone was being relocated, more were being delivered—several semi-loads full of the limestone outcroppings, some 100 tons of them. Stacking and staging these heavy, palletized materials caused a vehicular and logistical logjam. This work was being done as the addition was being built, and the driveway was the only access road in and out.

The limestone outcroppings were used not only on the side steps, but also for terracing that steeply sloped upper yard, where the boulder and the big steel sculpture now reside. The terracing serves two purposes: it helps reduce erosion by redirecting large volumes of water; and allows easier access on foot. The upper yard is now a comfortable, pleasurable area for the grandchildren to play in, effectively extending the property’s usable space.

It’s in the details

While the overall landscape is exceptional, there are a few details that deserve extreme close-ups, as they’re prime examples of the kind of craftsmanship we’re talking about.

Previously, the front door opened onto a motor court and parking area in front of the garage. The clients looked out of their kitchen window onto a large expanse of asphalt.

Manke transformed this area into a welcoming planted space, set off by a warm-colored walkway of Belden Crestline Outer Banks clay brick pavers, set in a running-bond and herringbone pattern. The earth tones blend nicely with the home’s exterior. Those particular pavers were chosen for their precision fit and contemporary look.

“They have chamfered edges (cut at a 45-degree angle at the top), giving them a crispness that fits well with the contemporary, up-to-date look our clients wanted,” said Manke.

The concrete patio was replaced with those same clay brick pavers— this time, set in a diagonal herringbone pattern. Where you see the excellence is in the exacting way these pavers were installed, both in the front and the back. All of them have consistent, tight joints. The angles don’t meander, and the cuts are clean and tight.

Excellence can also be seen in the terracing of the upper yard. The limestone outcroppings were installed to look as though Nature herself had deposited them that way. To get this effect, different-sized pieces were used, with soil and spreading, massing perennials in between, chosen for beauty and because their roots stabilize the soil. Each piece of stone was individually leveled, with shims and grit material used between the courses where necessary.

The leveling is a detail that often gets left out, resulting in a more haphazard look.

“Most people see outcroppings as chunk materials,” said Guthery. “They just take a skid steer, and start stacking them up. The whole thing gets more and more crooked as they get towards the top.” Then he went on to add, “The way people handle outcroppings shows the dif ference between a good contractor and a great one.”

The final element, the proverbial icing on the cake, was the installation of a low-voltage LED lighting system, without which no modern landscape renovation is complete.

Path lights now illuminate walkways and steps, making them safer.

Each tree and sculpture was given its own uplight, revealing an entirely different dimension in both the trees and the art objects.

When a landscape design creatively blends artistic vision with the painstaking attention to detail required to bring it to life, the results can be award-winning, as they were here. LandCrafters’ guiding philosophy no doubt has something to do with the company’s success.

“Our goal is to help people make good decisions and spend their money wisely,” Guthery said. “It’s not our mission in life to do quarter-million or million-dollar projects just to do them. Our mission is to serve our clients." They have accomplished that mission, and done so with excellence.