A Big Garden in a Little Space

Creative design turned this tiny slice of yard into a tropical-themed retreat.

The gas grill was built in to reduce cluttering the limited area.

Close quarters almost seems like an understatement when talking about this tiny (roughly 20-x-30-foot) San Francisco backyard. Space was so tight, the renovation required removing tons of soil and rock via 5-gallon bucket through a small gap cut in a neighbor's fence. That part of the job took two weeks.

"That was an ordeal," landscape architect Richard McPherson admits, but not all that unusual in a city famous for tiny backyards. But the benefit of removing all that material was clear: by cutting into the steep hillside, McPherson was able to create a garden on several levels, and effectively increase the area available for planting.

Related Slide Show: More photos and tips from this garden

Star jasmine softens the brown- painted concrete retaining wall.

Once the excavation was complete, crews poured concrete retaining walls to stabilize the hill. The gray concrete was stained to blend into the surroundings and to minimize its bulk. McPherson then went to work on the deck, keeping the original plank flooring and extending the area outward with black slate tiles.

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A small elevated lounge area is "guarded" by twin giant bird-of- paradise plants.

A short flight of rough Connecticut bluestone steps leads to the upper-level lounge area he envisioned. There, a cozy chaise longue unfolded over more bluestone.

Walls separating the upper lounge from the deck below are sheathed in stained cedar shingles and capped with black-painted redwood. A concrete fountain in a niche between the two walls contributes its relaxing burble of sound.

The garden was planned to create a great view from inside the house.

Homeowners San Tran and Dennis Durzinsky love the setting for entertaining or relaxing. The garden also creates a wonderful view from inside the house. "One of the joys is sitting at the dinner table and looking out through the doors at night because the garden is lit," says San.

A few discreetly placed lamps highlight pygmy date palms and fragrant star jasmine vines that crawl across the wood privacy fences and walls along side the deck. Copper stem lights illuminate the steps to the upper lounge area against the hillside.

The austere concrete fountain contrasts with the bold, tropical foliage.

Adding to the ambience is an array of subtropical foliage. Although subtropical was a high-maintenance choice, it does work in the hot microclimate of the enclosed backyard. McPherson came up with a palette of plants more commonly found in a solarium than in a backyard. In particular, big-leaf Philodendron (trained against a fence to add support to its main stem) and giant bird of paradise provide commanding structure almost as bold as the three pygmy palms nearby.

The dining area is sheltered by a roof overhang.

McPherson chose the background plants that provide an array of textures and shades of green. Lantana, Bacopa, azalea, and star jasmine blooms add white accents, while Campanula and lobelia contribute blues and purples. A cluster of bamboo provides a strong vertical presence at the rear of the garden. Red trumpet and hydrangea vines join the fragrant star jasmine to soften fence lines. A few mounds of impatiens and containers of herbs round out the plantings.

Thanks to smart landscape design, San and Dennis enjoy a tropical retreat that seems a world away from the bustling downtown just down the hillside. As San puts it, "We look forward to enjoying every evening in an area that has truly become our mini oasis."

The 30-x-18-foot deck and patio occupy the bulk of the backyard. By staging the plantings in raised tiers, the apparent distance to the back of the garden is increased.

Related Slide Show: More photos and tips from this garden

Related Slide Show: Foliage Stars for Your Garden

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