|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.
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
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."