Lessons from a family garden makeover

See how one family designed their dream backyard (and did most of the work themselves)

First garden makeover
Photo: Thomas J. Story

Renovating a garden can be a challenge, especially for first-timers. But with a little research and a healthy dose of patience, flexibility, and elbow grease, you can turn bare soil or an overgrown jumble of plants into a landscape you love ― and enjoy the process.

That's what David and Celestina Finkle found when they re-imagined their makeover project as a family adventure.

With four children reaching their teens and 20s, the couple knew it was time to transform their backyard in San Jose, California, from a kids' hangout into a dream garden.

Led by the couple’s older daughter, Sharon, then a high school senior with a passion for gardening and a goal of becoming a landscape architect, the Finkles planned, designed, and created their new garden in just a few months.

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Their biggest priority was to break up the roughly 2,900-square-foot backyard into a series of garden rooms.

They also wanted more appealing views, a pond, a new patio, and drought-tolerant plants. 

For help with hardscape, the Finkles consulted landscape architect Teri Ravel Kane (408/266-1662), who provided conceptual drawings for the backyard.

Under Kane's watchful eye, Sharon combined all the ideas into a master plan. Then she and two of her siblings ― Megan and Blake ― rented a jackhammer and dumpsters and tore out brick paths and the cement patio, with help from grandpa Jim.

Vicente Chavez, a concrete and masonry specialist (408/910-2255), installed the new patio; he made the paving look like slate by stamping texture onto colored concrete.

He also built raised planters. The kids filled the planters with soil from a landscape supply yard; Sharon and Celestina chose plants that fit the Mediterranean look.

Seeing the project through from start to finish confirmed Sharon's career aspirations. (She served as Sunset’s test garden intern last summer and is currently a landscape architecture student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.) Was the effort worth it? You bet. The garden is an all-occasions gathering spot for the entire family.

Next: 10 steps to success


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