By Mia Amato—San Francisco Examiner

Landscapes are so often planned in terms of what we see, smell and – with edible plants – taste, that the sense of touch is often ignored. Hot, cold, soft, warm, rough, smooth – these can be characteristics added by plants on a small scale and, on a large scale, with hardscape features such as walls and paved surfaces.

Where you rest a hand or set your foot provides subliminal messages as you move through a garden space. A Palo Alto garden that evokes delight through textural hardscape is one designed by David Kato, a Los Gatos landscape design/build contractor. His firm, Katoscapes, recently received a local chapter’s "Residential Sweepstakes" award from the California Landscape Contractors Association for this project, which will be judged in a statewide competition among landscape contractors this month.

What wowed the judges? A good guess would be the complex hardscape, which freely mixes aged brick, boulders and precision-cut flagstone in a striking garden patio. "The clients had asked for a landscape with distinctive areas for play and entertaining," Kato explains. "But the space is small. From the house to the side property line fence, you’re looking at maybe 17 feet wide." Surface mixtures provide the excitement here.

Kato’s solution for a multi-use patio was to design two flat areas paved with aged brick in a running bond pattern, then divide them with what he calls "transitional areas" – two stretches, about 6 feet wide, surfaced in low boulders of golden Arizona flagstone. Slightly bumpy underfoot, the golden stepping stones are placed at random and further softened by creeping herbs – erodium, chamomile and thyme – that emit a pleasant scent when you walk from one brick area to the next.

The larger space is 12 by 14 feet, set up as a dining area. It includes a built-in stone barbecue and can be entered through a door that connects to the family room and kitchen. A second smaller patio, 11 by 9 feet, is just off a door to the master bedroom suite; it leads away from the house to an adjacent rose and herb garden. There’s another matching dining set for entertaining that can be set up in a flash; a raised stone bench/planter serves as extra party seating, as do broad steps near the house. "The steps coming out of the master bedroom and family room are 1,700-pound Arizona flagstone slabs," says Kato. "Each one is about 8 feet long and 8 inches thick." His crew maneuvered the slabs in place with dollies normally used to transport large landscape trees.

The same material was given a more polished treatment on the bench/planter, which curves elegantly around a magnolia tree. "In this case, the constructed base is concrete, but individual slabs of flagstone were cut by hand and set as a facing," he says. The facing is about an inch and a half thick and wraps around the curving planter as if it were wood paneling.

"It looks clean because even though we used random stone, we used brick joint tolerances – the space between slabs is less than an eighth of an inch thick," Kato says. The flagstone has a bit of sheen to it, he notes, because of sparkly chips through the grain.

A matching flagstone veneer shows up in another part of the garden, in a fountain that has two weirs, or spillways, and a connecting channel between its upper and lower basins. Like the planter in the patio, the smooth cut stones have a wide enough coping for someone to sit and dip a hand under the cool spray.

Arizona flagstone employed as stepping stones unite all other garden areas; there are even small, rough boulders set into the serpentine brick walk that welcomes you to the front of the house. Mature oak and liquid amber trees were kept during the restoration and add a leafy softness to the stone and brick elements of this award-winning design.

Kato’s firm is one of 16 honored for excellence by the California Landscape Contractors Association San Francisco Bay Chapter in awards presented recently in Palo Alto. For a complete list of San Francisco Bay Area winners, contact CLCA’s Erin Gil, (408) 463-0500.

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