Small-Scale Style

from Garden, Deck & Landscape
This small-scale garden design combines landscaping and container gardening to create a tranquil retreat in the middle of San Diego.

They Laugh About It Now
but Cheryl Coccaro and Alexandre Tadevossian vividly remember the first time they stepped into the small, barren space behind their newly built San Diego townhome and wondered whether they were looking at an asset or a liability. “Since it was new construction, they hadn’t done any landscaping,” Cheryl recalls. “Everywhere we looked there was just dry dirt and high, wood retaining walls.”

Hoping someone else could see potential where they could not, the couple phoned their friend David McCullough, a local landscape architect. McCullough liked the 13x25-foot space. “I told them not to worry, it would look great,” McCullough says. “People always think small spaces won’t be comfortable or usable. But I like them because they can really be made to feel like intimate outdoor rooms.”

The key to creating an inviting compact space is keeping things simple and uncluttered, says McCullough, who asked Cheryl and Alexandre to choose their favorite purpose for the new patio. That one thing, he told them, would be the focus of his design. “It was hard to decide because we wanted to do everything out there,” Cheryl says. “We wanted to eat, lounge, and entertain. But we realized we’d get more use out of it as a dining area, so we chose that. I’m glad we did because we eat out there all the time.”

Comfort and Solitude
In addition to space limitations, the urban patio presented McCullough with other design challenges. Three neighbors’ upstairs windows looked down on the patio, so he needed to make it feel more private. He also had to find a way to use the existing wood shoring walls.

“We could have covered them up. But that would have been expensive, and I saw them as an existing feature that could really be used to our advantage in the new landscape,” McCullough explains.

Knowing the couple wanted a low-maintenance space, McCullough filled the sloping earth behind the retaining walls with trouble-free plants such as Lantana, rosemary, and giant lilyturf. He also included tall, upright plants, such as tree ferns, bamboo, and ornamental grasses, that would grow up rather than out over the small patio area. As they mature, the plants will create a living privacy screen. Mulched with black river rock and dotted with stones of various sizes, the gardens resemble a natural hillside.

Because the patio is accessible from both bedrooms, Cheryl and Alexandre wanted its surface to be comfortable under bare feet. After looking at several kinds of stone, they decided to go with McCullough’s suggestion of Irish linen, a tumbled limestone. “We went to all kinds of stone places, but once we saw the Irish linen, we knew we wanted it,” Alexandre says. “It’s very soft, and we like the cream color.”

Just Add Water
The couple also adores the new patio’s fountain, a feature that wasn’t part of the original design. “Dave had planned to put a tall, bronze sculpture in that corner,” Cheryl says. “But we looked high and low and couldn’t find one. We even tried looking at a bronze foundry in Mexico but just couldn’t find something in our price range.”

Thinking it was time to start looking for something different for that space, Cheryl stopped by Architectural Salvage and spotted the fountain. “I called Dave right away, and he came out and thought it was great too,” she recalls.
“We love to sit out there at night and listen to the trickling water. We can see the lights of the buildings downtown, yet we’re sitting in this very tranquil, serene space. It’s almost surreal.”

Rock In A Hard Place
Landscape architect David McCullough used black river rock throughout Cheryl Coccaro and Alexandre Tadevossian’s new patio. The round, black rocks make striking accents in planting beds, water features, and deliberately created pockets within the pavement. McCullough also likes to use them as groundcover rather than bark mulch, which breaks down over time and must be replaced.

Black river rock comes in a variety of sizes, but McCullough recommends using those that are between 3 and 5 inches in diameter because they are easier to keep free of debris than smaller rocks.

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