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Narrow Yard Landscape Hillside "Jewel Box Garden"

Landscape Architect by Lucas & Lucas, Healdsburg, California

This backyard project in Healdsburg, Calif., a small community a little over an hour's drive north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, was completed at the end of 2013. Landscape architect Mike Lucas calls it "a true jewel box of a garden" that creates a series of useable spaces in a snug backyard and responds to the Mediterranean architecture. The space features extensive retaining walls, a built in fireplace, a painted steel pergola that accommodates speakers, heaters, lighting and will eventually have a wisteria cover, a water wall with planted water trough, a bocce court and a discreetly fenced vegetable garden adjacent to the kitchen.

This extensive garden renovation was fueled by the owner's desire for a more user-friendly space in a confined backyard area. The home is in Healdsburg, Calif. (pop. 11,254), 70 miles north northwest of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The home, built by a developer, was cut into the native hillside, leaving a very narrow yard four steps down from the house, with two sets of four-foot high retaining walls. Now, a continuous stem wall along the backside of the house allowed the opportunity to bridge straight out from the existing covered patio. An extensive CMU block retaining wall that aligns with the house creates a series of spaces.



The linear retaining walls are veneered in Dakota stone, fabricated by Wheeler Zamaroni of Santa Rosa, Calif. The walls transition from a ledged water feature spilling into a lily pond on the patio level, to a border for the bocce court, which is six steps up from the patio. Channels are cut in the underside of the ledges of the water wall to accommodate LEDs.

A fireplace anchors the tallest wall and provides a focal point in the main living area. Built-in benches help scale its eight-foot height into a comfortable room. A steel pergola/trellis covers the space and accommodates speakers, heaters and lighting for dinning and salsa dancing. A light acid finish for the concrete patio makes for a smoother surface to facilitate fancy footwork. The peogola will eventually have a cover of wisteria to offer shade for the patio and bocce court.

A raised lily pool and water wall provides additional seating in the space between, a nice focal point when seen from within and a subtle way to convert the retaining wall into a functional design feature. The quiet dripping from the long slender stone pieces is amplified by the acoustics of the tight space, providing serenity to the space.



The bocce court has a mix of oyster shells and decomposed granite. A French drain is concealed along the edges of the court. Breaks in the bocce court wall allow for additional seating. Thirty-year old Manzanillo olive trees (from Vecchio) were craned into place on the slope above the court. The spaces between the flagstones and the steps are planted with thyme and other herbs. Steel planters by sculptor Mark Staz line the bocce court.

Uplights grace the field-dug olive trees that line the hillside. Local basalt boulders used by the original developer to stabilize the slope were re-employed for more informal retaining walls. Native plantings were used for the hillside above: arbutus, manzanita, muhlenbergia and salvia, along with a number of Mediterranean favorites to complement the style of the house: lavender, santolina, thyme, rosemary, cistus, Teucrium, Stipa and Greecian laurel. All these plants are unappetizing to deer. However, the small kitchen garden, tucked between the house and bocce court required railings with citrus espalier and steel containers to ward off the deer. Gateways provide a sense of mystery to the linear space.


The approach to the patio is a gravel path of 'Yuma Trinity' (Mix Materials), with a border of basalt boulders which were on site from the original retaining walls, and a sculpture (left) from 'Living Green' in San Francisco.

"This 'hillside jewel box' went off without a hitch, reports landscape architect Mike Lucas. "With a wonderful crew and fantastic clients applauding us along the way, we transformed their sliver of a backyard into a series of inspired outdoor living spaces that get used and enjoyed on a daily basis."


The gas fireplace is constructed of CMUs with veneered Dakota stone. The landscape architect notes the fireplace conceals the step down in the wall height--8-feet (left side), 5-feet (right side). The walls relate to the architecture of house, and do not conform to the contours of the slope. Unfortunately, he adds, the pergola/trellis could not tie into the masonry for support. The sidewalls, which step back to make room for a shelf (left), have a smooth stucco finish. The concrete floor for the patio has a light acid finish to make it smoother for dancing. The acid finish also gives the concrete the appearance of stone. Verbena bonariensis is on the hillside, with Muhlenbergia behind it. The benches are Ipe.

Design Team
Landscape Architect: Lucas & Lucas (Mike Lucas)
Structural Engineer: Jeff Van Dyke
Soils Engineer: PJC and Associates
General Contractor: Stan Chapman
Landscape Contractor: Mountain Meadow Landscapes (Barney Brady)
Steel Contractor: Noah's Arc Welding (Matt Yager)

Materials List
Wall Stone: 'Dakota' provided by Wheeler Zamaroni
Flag Stone: 'Dakota' provided by Wheeler Zamaroni
Concrete Color: 'Palomino' by L.M. Schofield
Gravel: 'Yuma Trinity' by Mix Materials

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September 18, 2019, 5:23 am PDT

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