Just imagine taking over a project for which another firm had already drawn plans — and disappointed the client in the process. Now imagine taking on the job and creating a prize-winner.

There’s probably little wonder that the crew at Gail Willey Landscaping Inc. of Reno, Nevada, is rather pleased with the work they did for the Cohens, a job that netted them top honors last year for a residential installation of more than $50,000, from the Nevada Nursery and Landscape Association.

The secret, say both project manager Thomas Sloniker and landscape architect Kevin McCall, is the company’s emphasis on site planning, rather than simply installing some hardscape and plants.

Sloniker explains that while the project started from zero in terms of the Cohens’ backyard, the plans the couple had rejected did have some positive elements.

“There were really no conditions in the backyard,” he says. “It was about three-quarters of an acre, and full of weeds.”

Among their wishes were a large paver patio for entertaining and a fire pit. However, some of the components were a little out of the ordinary.

Before: Nevada backyard with weeds

BEFORE: “There were really no conditions in the backyard,” says project manager Thomas Sloniker. “It was about three-quarters of an acre, and full of weeds.” Photo: Gail Willey Landscaping

“They wanted a 125-foot streambed running through the property and dropping into a little reservoir,” says Sloniker. “We also had to build an area for her greenhouse and another area for their personal observatory.”

Made from San Francisco Cobblestone pavers by Basalite Concrete Products, the patio is estimated at about 2,000 square feet and features areas for seating, cooking and eating. One area is shaded by a 15 feet by 15 feet pergola. It also accommodates the couple’s portable barbecue.

The fire pit is serviced by a 160-foot gas line and includes a seating wall.

Cohen backyard water feature

Photo: Gail Willey Landscaping

Sloniker says the water feature was by far the greatest challenge, only partly because of its length. The ground was flat, so the company needed to develop a fall and then coordinate two separate pumps to get a fast flow.

“We had a 5-foot drop on the two spillways coming off the boulders that drop into the first pond,” he says. “Then it rolls into the streambed and drops into the reservoir to get pumped back to the top. After that, everything else was a piece of cake.”

To get that depth, Gail Willey Landscaping brought in 70 yards of material, as well as utilizing all the material excavated by the trenching for the streambed and the reservoir area. The streambed itself is made of natural boulders and a liner. At an average width of 10 feet, it’s crossed in two different places by foot bridges.

Another 100 yards of material was brought in for mounding one side of the lawn to provide some depth and visual interest. McCall says the Cohens are empty-nesters, so their desire was to have a low-maintenance area. Additionally, he took care to frame certain views for them through the use of trees and shrubs served by a drip irrigation system.

Because of the observatory, both McCall and Sloniker say lighting was also a key concern with the design.

“This property is in a rural area and with the Dark Sky Initiative we wanted to make sure all the lighting was strictly down-lighting and low-angle,” says McCall.

Sloniker says the lighting is a mix of LED lighting types from Unique Lighting Systems.

“There are path lights to help illuminate the patio area,” Sloniker says. “And, there are some wall lights with the seating near the fire pit and spotlights in the yard. There are also some lights to illuminate the spillway as it came off the waterfall, but nothing is impacting the area where the observatory is located.”

The total project cost approximately $100,000 and required the better part of two months to complete, with anywhere from five to 10 men on-site, depending on what phase of the work was being done.

Sloniker says he’s particularly pleased with the way the three main features — the patio, the water feature and the fire pit — communicate with each other.

Backyard firepit in Reno, NV

Photo: Gail Willey Landscaping

“Not only does the patio lead you to the two other areas, but there are two different seating areas where you can be close to the water,” he says. “That’s really nice and gives choices of places to be.”

As for learning from the project, Sloniker adds that every project is a learning experience, whether it’s learning how to do something better, or what not to do.

“We’re always learning better methods, better ways to install, as well as different ways of looking at grading and drainage,” he states. “There are so many variables in a project, and we do our best to understand them.”

Understandably, both men are proud of the way the design fits the space and meets the customers’ needs.

“Everything was done on purpose,” says Sloniker. “First, we listened carefully to the clients’ needs and wants. Then we put all those elements together into a plan. It’s just like the inside of a home. Everything has a different function and a different purpose. That’s how everything fits together.”

“Everything the clients wanted came to be realized, and it made sense,” McCall concludes. “It just fits together aesthetically; functionally, it meets their needs. That’s something we always put a lot of emphasis on.”