Warm Nights, Cool Views

from Garden, Deck & Landscape
See how one California couple incorporated an outdoor fireplace into their backyard for a new outdoor living space.

With pink streaking through the sky and a purple haze settling over the horizon, the
best seat in the house would take in the panorama beside the glow of a fire flickering
and dancing to the cadence of a soft breeze. At least that was the consensus of a San Francisco couple who dreamed of a cozy outdoor fireplace surrounded by
a colorful garden to enhance their stunning view of
Richardson Bay and extend their outdoor living time.

Reality, however, posed several challenges. The couple’s new home was perched high on a hill, and the backyard tumbled down a steep slope. The view was indeed sparkling, but strong winds whipped off the water, chilling the air. Throw in hard clay and a roaming gang of deer, and a garden seemed like wishful thinking.

But seasoned landscape designer Jan Gross of Heritage Landscapes had a few ideas for tackling the tricky site. She designed a series of retaining walls to contain the backyard’s grade. Ten steps gently traverse a 5-foot drop to a curvaceous patio, where Gross installed a dramatic concrete fireplace encased in tinted stucco.

The unusual parabolic design moves smoke up and away from the seating area and forms a shield of heat — which Gross capitalized on by orienting the fireplace’s back to the windy west. “Now, even when it’s foggy and cool, you can stay outside and be warm,” she says. Gross extended the sweep of the fireplace into a semicircle, with built-in bench seating that’s perfect for entertaining and for savoring the ocean view just beyond. In more solitary times, the bench and fireplace serve as a cocoon.

To unite the fireplace and landscape with the Mediterranean flavor of the house, Gross used a variety of California and Mediterranean natives that are drought- and deer-resistant.

To work with the wind, she incorporated colorful perennials and shrubs close to the house and transitioned to large swaths of grass farther down the
slope. “Instead of trying to select plants that could withstand the wind, I started looking for plants that would look beautiful in the wind,” she says.

The pathways throughout the property are now lined with lush foliage and shrubs bearing red, pink, and purple flowers. Birds and butterflies zip from blossom to blossom. “I really pushed contrasting colors, and the result is a lot of fun,” Gross says. “It’s an exuberant garden with great destination spots, like the fireplace."

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