Last year some friends of ours redid their backyard.  I asked them about the process.  Here’s the Q&A:

What prompted you to redo your backyard?

Our whole backyard was a swimming pool that was about 30 years old.  Our kids are older and no one is really using the pool.


The pool took up almost the entire backyard.  We figured the cost to repair and maintain the pool vs the cost for a new backyard was probably about the same and we’d get more use out of a real backyard.  So we decided to fill it in, re-landscape and have a usable space. 

When our daughters saw the pool gone for the first time they said that we’d filled in their childhood!







How long did you think about redoing it before taking the first step?

We had talked about it for a couple of years before taking the plunge. (ha!  I added that)

What did you do first?  I started messing around with some designs of my own, we noticed peoples’ yards more, talked about what we would want it to be like and we educated ourselves doing internet research on what it takes to fill in a pool, how it needs to be done, what permits were necessary, etc.  We got advice from friends about the process and considered what our future use of the property might be – such as putting on an addition.  (Note: the possibility of an addition in that area would have meant compacting the soil for structural stability – but City ordinances regarding rear setbacks reduced the likelihood of an addition there)

How did you choose a design professional?  We got only one recommendation, from you, and based on that invited Lois Miller to meet with us. At our initial meeting we liked the pictures she showed us, the way she listened to our desires and budget. We hired her right then.  We wanted someone with a proven track record, not just out of the phone book.  (Lois Miller’s Garden Design website = )

Did you have a budget?  We had a rough idea of what we wanted to spend, not a strict budget. We really didn’t know what to expect. As you can guess our initial thoughts turned out to be too low.

It cost about $15,000 to do the backyard, not including filling the pool – which was about $5,000.  The cost of the irrigation wasn’t bad but the lights!  Whoa!  In reading about the cost, though, all advice said to spend the money; the extra cost for the more expensive lights was worth it.

 What was it like working with a design proLois was great. This is the first time we’ve worked with a designer on any project so I really can’t compare her to anyone else.

 We were pleased with her easy-going nature and the fact that at our initial meeting she asked questions.  She really listened and incorporated what we wanted into the plan.  That really meant a lot.  She even brought books to show us what the plants looked like.

She also had good suggestions – adding elements to the plan that were beyond our current scope.  She said she wanted us to see what it could look like and that those items were completely optional.

The fireplace and BBQ she put in the plans were expensive, so we bought portable ones, instead.  Although we did not incorporate any of the “extras” at this point, it was designed so that we could add them later if desired.

How much of the work did you do yourselves?  We hired out the hardscape (pavers and rock) and filling in the pool.  Those jobs were way too big for us. But we did the rest – soil prep, irrigation, lighting and planting.  The design was easy to follow.

Click here to see the actual plan            

Rototilling the backyard turned out to be a bigger job than we’d counted on.  When the pool was filled in they broke up the concrete and tossed it into the hole.  Then, the 5 or 6 dump trucks of ‘clean’ fill they brought in turned out to be full of branches and rocks the size of watermelons.  We dug out 4 pickup truck loads of rock!  (Definition of ‘clean fill’ can be found here àt  Based on this, they did NOT get it!  When my family moved into a new house in Fort Lauderdale, you could lift up the sod and find all sorts of construction ‘treasures’!  Staples, nails, brackets…many things to warrant a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot!)

Did you deviate from the design?  As I already mentioned we chose not to do some of the optional ideas. We also made minor adjustments to some of the original plant choices. Some plants weren’t available at that time, so we substituted for something else.  Other than that we stuck pretty close. 

How did you go about choosing the suppliers for the products in the design?  Lois gave us lists of contractors and suppliers. We chose our paver contractor from her list and used some of the suppliers she recommended.

We were very fortunate to have a friend who works at a commercial nursery.  He got us all our plants – a savings of probably $1100!  We obtained 2 plants from a retail nursery and they were $80! 

Other than that I used suppliers that I already familiar with – everything from Home Depot to landscape supply yards.

 All those suppliers recommended by Lois were very helpful.  Although it might have been possible to find less expensive ones, it was worth it to get people who were good and proven. 

 In fact, the guys at Lane Irrigation inCampbellwere super-helpful.  They spent about an hour with me helping work out the irrigation plan and showing me how to lay out the electrical for the lighting, recommending tweaks.  Not cheap but worth it. (Lane Irrigation = )

And Victor Mendariz, of Interlocking Paver Specialists, and his guys provided those little extras that mean a lot.  They showed up on time, were pleasant and cleaned up the job every day.  Lois recommended him and he was fabulous.  He even came back to fix something that we’d caused!  We were consistently advised that quality was worth paying for.  We didn’t skimp on the materials.  We’re glad we didn’t.  (Interlocking Paver Specialists = )














What do you think is the best decision that you made?  The best decision was to hire a designer. Though I’m sure we could have come up with something on our own, Lois’ design flows so beautifully and ties the whole yard together. Her knowledge of plants also gives a better chance of things surviving long term.   

The second best was to use quality materials. Once the dollars started adding up it was easy to think about cheaper choices for lighting and irrigation or maybe to use seed rather than sod. Now that it’s done I’m very glad we went with the better materials. They were much easier to work with and made the finished product look great now and, hopefully, long-lasting.







Anything else you’d like to add?  In hindsight, we might have gone through the process to gain access to our backyard via an easement with the Santa Clara County Water District that runs along our property.  That would have alleviated the need to take down the fence and move a storage unit out of the way.  We saved time but you can still see the impact in the lawn of all those trips back and forth hauling supplies from the front to the back.  The lawn is a little lower along that path.

Choosing all the different colors was more involved that we thought it’d be –the pavers vs the stone vs the rock vs the bench caps – all those different tints.  We had to take samples from each yard to the other yards to try and get a match.

The pair of ducks that had been wintering at our pool for the last 3-4 years came by and walked around like “where’s our pond?”   Otherwise, the backyard project came out better than we had hoped. It is beautiful, relaxing and spacious. We’ve already had one large gathering and everyone loved it!  Especially the flamingos you gave us.  (OK, I added that last part 😉 )

One nice thing Lois did was create a pretty view out of each window.  She paid attention to window placement and everywhere we look there is a nice focal point. 

Now we need to figure out what to do with the front yard.  We have a huge palm tree there and out of the front window all you can see is the leg of an elephant.

Thanks to the Paul and Karen Brown for letting me interview them and post pictures of their project.  Keep in mind, dear Reader, that it takes plants 3-5 years for plants to fill out, so things will look sparse for awhile yet.

There are a few things I’m hoping you’ll take away from this:  Lesson 1 is the value of good design.  Some people have said ‘I designed this myself’, too ignorant to know that the design speaks for itself (it sucks) and we are nodding our heads and murmuring ‘ahh, mmmhmmm’ hoping no further comments are solicited from us.  Inside we are cringing.  What’s that saying? Oh yes, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client”.  The same goes for design.  Expect a professional to help you get the most out of your land.  A good designer will listen to you. 

Which reminds me, you need to listen to your designer, too.  They bring an outside-the-box level of thinking to your project. 

Lesson 2 = Buy good materials!  Our cheap landscape lights failed quite early on so we ended up having to replace them.  Shoulda gone with the good stuff from the get-go!

I probably sound like a broken record, but, honestly, cheap choices made today are paid for tomorrow 😉