Topic: Patios and Decks

Date Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Posted by: Tanya Zanfa (Master Admin)

Goodbye, lawn! Backyard grows up after kids leave the nest

Goodbye, lawn! Backyard grows up after kids leave the nest

By Julie Chai

With three kids, Alice and Dennis Oliver spent years looking out on a backyard that was dominated by a huge lawn, a trampoline and a tire swing. But after their youngest child graduated from college, they decided it was time to transform their San Mateo garden into one designed for grown-ups. “We never enjoyed our backyard before — it was for the kids and had nothing to do with us,” Alice says.

Enlisting the help of San Francisco landscape designer Beth Mullins, the first task was to ditch the lawn that ate up three-quarters of the space. “Lawns are an American institution that we feel like we have to have, but a lot of times people have lawns that they keep green at the expense of other things … not just water, but also functionality,” Mullins says.

Along with the mass of grass, the Olivers had just a tiny deck off their kitchen but no other destination in the garden. And with nearly three dozen extended family members nearby, along with friends whom they entertain often, they needed areas to accommodate a crowd as well as space for day-to-day relaxing.

With the backyard grass-free, Mullins had enough room for a more dynamic layout to fit the couple’s lifestyle. Now, a raised planter sits in the center of the garden, and living areas circulate around it. On the main level, Mullins tripled the size of the deck off the house to make room for dining and lounging, and added a satellite patio defined by a metal trellis on the other side of the yard. Broad steps lead to a lower existing patio.

Alice and Dennis Oliver of San Mateo replaced their backyard lawn with a large deck and spaces for easy entertaining. Photo: Caitlin AtkinsonPhoto: Caitlin Atkinson











Alice and Dennis Oliver of San Mateo replaced their backyard lawn with a large deck and spaces for easy entertaining.

Geometric hardscape gives continuity to the space. Rectangular concrete pads interplanted with ground cover and the tigerwood decking, central planter, retaining walls and stair risers all have materials oriented in the same direction. They lead the eye to the living spaces and create an expansive feel.

A recirculating water feature sits partway between the two upper patios and is a spot where different hardscape materials convene. It’s also a focal point from either living space. “The scale of these elements, and how they go together, makes the garden feel clean even though there are a lot of things going on,” Mullins says. “When you keep things in scale, it still feels open because everything relates back to other elements in the garden.”

Round forms of finials by the fountain, a concrete globe and the fire pit punctuate the straight lines, and a palette of textural plants — mainly confined to the perimeter — add movement and softness. “There are so many ways to design a garden that don’t use a lot of water or plants but can still give you a complete sensory experience,” Mullins says. “The important thing in a garden is that you feel relaxed and are in nature, and have space to breathe and be.”

Now, the Olivers use their garden more than ever. “This backyard is for us, and we use all of our space,” Alice says. “People ask to come over because they like our backyard — and even offer to bring dinner. We really enjoy sharing it. That’s what it’s for.”

Design: Beth Mullins, Growsgreen Landscape Design,


Julie Chai is a Los Altos freelance writer. E-mail:

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