ISSUE 22  |  Outdoor Living

Landscape Architect Visit: Scott Lewis Turns A Small SF Backyard Into an Urban Oasis

June 02, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Michelle Slatalla

“We had this idea of making a green cube in the back of the garden,” says San Francisco-based landscape architect Scott Lewis. And as you can see, it was an excellent idea.

In a small city backyard, Lewis of Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture created a spacious feeling in a space that’s barely 25 feet wide by 40 feet long.  The garden, with both shady and sunny micro-climates, is lush and green; perimeter beds grow around the edges of a wedge-shaped bluestone patio. The clients, a family with young children, originally wanted a lawn. But with San Francisco’s foggy, cool weather, “a lawn often doesn’t work,” says Lewis. “The paving accomplished the same goal.”

In a back corner of the property was a shed that had been converted to an artist’s studio. To turn it into a green jewel box, Lewis covered it with ivy.

The project won an American Society of Landscape Architects national Honor Award in 2010. 

Photography courtesy of Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.

Above: English ivy is invasive and will destroy wood structures as well as masonry. To keep Hedera helix ‘Hahn’s Self Branching’ in check, Lewis designed a wire frame to hold the ivy about 3 inches away from the face of the building. The frame is made of quarter-inch-thick wire welded wire bars.

“It’s basically a rigid framework, and you can get behind it to trim off any tendrils that escape,” says Lewis. “It’s in some respects an easier and much less maintenance-intensive solution than a green wall, because you just have to trim the ivy a couple of times a year.”

Above: Seen from above, the artist’s studio is in a back corner of the property. The bluestone pavers were laid in a running bond pattern and dry set to create a permeable surface.

The red planter, a concrete pot by artist Mary Collins, holds a lemon tree.

Above: The recently renovated house has new steel sash windows and doors that go up to the ceiling. “We wanted a garden form that would be harmonious with the contemporary style of the windows,” says Lewis.

When you step out onto the wood deck, you enter the garden beneath a canopy of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) trees.

Above: From the dining room, the clients look out onto a woodland. A giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) was placed close to the window to emphasize the feeling of being enveloped by shady woods.

Above: On the opposite side of the dining room window (and not visible from indoors) are stairs to the basement. Concrete planters house a collection of shade plants. 

Above: Shade plants include hellebores (Helleborus niger); violets (Viola odorata ‘White Czar’); sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and white bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa ‘Alba’).

Above: The Edwardian style shingle house had been recently renovated to give it a more contemporary profile.

Above: This “before” shot shows the heavier wood detailing; the deck is the same one that exists now.

Above: The bluestone patio’s wedge shape, which is obvious on the site plan, is something you’re not really aware of in real life when you are standing in the backyard. The wedge shape makes the space feel wider and naturally extends the indoor living area into the garden.

The left side has much more shade than the right side, and the patio creates a natural demarcation between the two distinct climates. “We wanted the plantings to be compatible throughout the garden, and the paving pulls it together,” says Lewis.

Above: The clients requested a palette of serene green and white. “This turned out to be a texture garden,” says Lewis.

Above: Surrounding the artist’s studio, Lewis planted white dwarf deutzia (Deutzia gracilus ‘Nikko’). “It’s typically an old-fashioned plant, a deciduous shrub that blooms in late spring and early summer,” says Lewis.

For another of Lewis’ San Francisco backyard gardens, see A Jewel Box Townhouse Garden. And for everything you need to know to install a bluestone patio, see Hardscaping 101: Pennsylvania Bluestone.

N.B.: This is an update of a post published June 15, 2013.