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Designer | Contractor
Sarah Stuckey Coates

Mill Valley, CA

Site | Size
7,000 Sq Ft

Start | Completion

High End
Project Data

Landscape Case Study

Project Name

Grace Gardens

Bay Area Landscape Organization


Situation + Site Condition

A welcoming and philanthropic family in Mill Valley, CA was using their existing residence as a hub for a very social, active, and entertaining-oriented lifestyle. They were also making plans for a significant residence remodel.

As they considered future plans for more events, gatherings, and entertaining, the site had many issues to address including:

  • Unclear entrance to the residence + garden
  • Overgrown + neglected shrubs + trees
  • Unattractive shed + outbuildings
  • Sunken stone patio with restricted access
  • Dark, inaccessible areas overcrowded with sports equipment and/or tools
  • Patchy, water-wasting lawn
  • Aged deck, arbor, exterior structures + furnishing
  • And more

Project Objectives

To address these challenges, Sarah Stuckey Coates, owner and lead designer of Stuckeyscapes, LLC, worked with her client to define and clarify a set of objectives including:

  • Create an inviting outdoor space for family + visitors to gather, entertain, and relax
  • Provide refuge and a spiritual connection with nature, wildlife, and all things growing
  • 360° interaction of views, beauty, and wildlife—everywhere
  • Provide easy access to herbs + flowering plants for cooking and decorative use
  • Accommodate 4 sets of large, sliding doors for enhanced garden views throughout the residence
  • Remove lawn
  • Reduce water requirements + use
  • Take advantage of existing grades + mature trees
  • Support + enhance soil quality
  • Develop new out buliding for sporting equipment + tool storage
  • Pack as much love and care as possible into a solution
Water Challenges
In heavy or seasonal rain, water would often drain into the basement/foundation with the soil becoming over-saturated. The result was a compromised site that was impacting structural elements.

Excavating and installing a new drainage system around the footprint of the residence was recommended. New hardscape planned for the project would also have to be installed so that runoff water would be directed away from the perimeter foundation.

Capture and distribution of excess site water and runoff also presented an opportunity for efficient plant/tree irrigation throughout the site.

Stuckeyscapes Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Excessive grade water runoff was impacting structural elements and compromising plants + trees.
Site Access Challenges
The residence was located at the end of a long, narrow driveway that was shared with neighboring houses. This frequently used vehicle and pedestrian access route also integrated parking for residents and visitors.

The result was that it needed to be managed for daily use and unimpeded access. Regular and consistent coordination with neighbors, workers, and materials delivery was crucial for maintaining positive neighborhood relations and project progress.

Stuckeyscapes Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Unimpeded site access was essential for positive neighborhood relations.
Electric Challenges
The client has a long list of have-to-have landscape and functional features that necessitated the integration of many new electrical components. These features included high-power heat lamps, an electric vehicle charger, a hot tub/spa, a tankless water heater for an outdoor shower, and more.

The result required new, upgraded electrical service and extensive trenching for wire in PVC sleeves that could deliver 220v of power to all of the new electrical components.

Low-voltage lighting was also integrated throughout the site to highlight landscape features.

Stuckeyscapes Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Low-voltage lighting was integrated throughout the site.
Soil Challenges
An underground spring located in heavy clay and nutrient-dense soil at the site also had to be addressed.

This site condition dictated a number of mitigation measures and adjustments to grades and surfaces.

Stuckeyscapes Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Heavy clay, slow-draining, and nutrient-dense soil impacted planting plans.

Plan + Solution

Sarah talks extensively with her customers to gain their insights, dreams, and fantasies about what they are looking for from a finished garden and landscape.

Through interviews and discussions, she works to get at the heart of what her customer hopes to get out of their garden and what will bring them joy and satisfaction. This process helps her to build a budget and expected range of spend for the project.

She approached the planning and design with the full confidence of her client. Sarah mapped the overall project with CAD software and used rough sketches to share various details with her client. This enabled real-time revisions and opened new solution opportunities for the project.

The result made the experience more interactive and enabled her customer to become vested in all parts of her plan.

Sarah also used photos taken with her iPad to draw on top of to share proposed details for a featured area integrating jumbo planters for shrubs and trees.
Sarah’s solution to this large-scale project was to take advantage of every inch of the available landscape and provide every opportunity to produce food, shelter, and habitat for all residents and native creatures.

The primary element that would unify and connect all areas of the site was a natural stone path and trail system that would flow throughout the site to easily access and use all outdoor areas. This included many intimate spots to stop, reflect, or just be in the warmth of the cool seasonal sun.

She also planned to integrate as many water-wise, California native plants as possible to enhance pollinator attraction, reduce water use, and improve the soil and landscape ecosystem.

Intentional, limited use of flower color in the garden within the range of violets and whites reduced visual confusion and enhanced continuity. Many birdbaths and water repositories were also added throughout the site to attract birds. Together, all of these components helped to create a 360° interaction of views, beauty, and wildlife throughout the landscape.

Project Gallery

Selected Project Plants

Sarah guided her plant selection using CA Native plants from Pacific Nurseries that are often summer-dry tolerant and less reliant on frequent watering. The gallery above features a few of the many plants used in this project.
The variety of plants and trees provided contrasting foliage that was not jarring. Each selection helped to highlight the plant in the overall landscape while sustaining a harmonious impression.

Results | Outcome

Completion of the major phases of work resulted in a unified and organized outdoor space that encouraged exploration, use, and reflection while providing calming grace and 360° of beauty.

Significantly more planted areas enhanced appropriate space for functions and outdoor activities. With upgraded irrigation that included diagnostics, station testing, and zone targeting, water usage decreased by over 50%. This included the elimination of the water-wasting lawn.

The project was completed on budget with client additions and the planned travel pause between major phases. The Grace Lane family received all project documentation with a planting maintenance plan inducing names, sizes, CA native ID, and care requirements.

When the project concluded, Sarah’s client was effusive with glee and never stopped providing her with praise and generous thanks as their favorite contractor. This was demonstrated by the client frequently sending text photos of birds in the garden, hummingbirds feeding, and flowers blooming throughout the year. The family continues to host numerous garden events where guests always compliment the garden and landscape design.

What’s more, the positive impact on the local community and neighbors was enhanced with the expanded shared parking, upgraded and improved lighting, and overall beautification. Kids regularly gather there now and love using the outdoor shower after sporting events.

Services Delivered


Beauty + Native Wildlife

A unified and organized outdoor space that encouraged exploration, use, and reflection while providing calming grace and 360° of beauty


Decreased Water Use

Site-wide landscape water use decreased by over 50% with CA Native plants


Customer + Neighbor Satisfaction

The residents are inspired every time they share the garden with family and friends

“Sarah expanded upon what we thought was possible with our garden. She brings a rare combination of horticultural knowledge and native plants, instincts around function, creative thinking, and passion. Working with Sarah was easy, fun and had a huge impact on our family as she created new, inspiring outdoor spaces around our entire home.”
Grace Lane Residents

Lessons Learned

  1. Always be polite, brief, and clear to keep people focused on an issue or outcome because everyone is distracted, super busy, and overbooked.
  2. Communicate often with clients and use text, email, and video to keep everyone informed.
  3. Never overlook or dismiss the neighbors because they can either support or inhibit the success of your project.
  4. Be clear about what you know and what you don’t know—reach out to learn from others to overcome knowledge gaps and solve problems.
  5. Accommodating and implementing a lot of power-intensive electrical features can be difficult.
  6. Digging up finished areas to meet unforeseen electrical requirements is costly and humbling.
  7. Put your heart and soul into your work and share it with your customers.
  8. Remember that every day is a gift to recognize how valuable and healing the natural habitat can be.
  9. Get plants from a local resource that has a large inventory of CA Native plants and trees available for your project.
  10. Never make promises that you can’t keep.
  11. Always allow for a 10% fee contingency because stuff happens and no one wants a budget surprise.

Stuckeyscapes, LLC

Sarah Stuckey Coates works with clients to create living spaces that will draw them outside into the garden and landscape. She has designed and developed hundreds of gardens throughout the Bay Area for the past 20 years. By creating inviting habitats for both humans and native flora and fauna, she aims to strengthen the connection between them and bring peace and tranquility to her client’s lives.