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The back of the house, after.

When landscape designer Molly Wood begins a new project, she prefers to host the first concept meeting. As she’s learned through trial and error, it’s a lot easier for homeowners to wrap their head around outdoor renovations when they’re looking at 2D drawings—not standing in the middle of their disheveled yard. “If you meet in the space, you’ll just chase your tail around in circles,” says Wood. “Looking at it on a flat piece of paper, it becomes a puzzle and you are able to figure out what pieces go where.”

Courtesy of Molly Wood Garden Design

This approach was extra-helpful when Wood sat down with a Los Angeles–based couple who had recently purchased a weekend getaway in San Clemente. Not only did they want to reimagine the overgrown backyard, they sought to turn the front yard into a private zen oasis, too. 

The front of the house, before.
The driveway, before.
The back of the house, before.

While having a functional front yard isn’t a foreign concept for Californians, Wood completely enclosed the area with a tall fence, creating a courtyard-like feel. “It was important to use every square foot because the house itself is so small,” notes the designer. Another key reason for turning the entrance into an outdoor living room: It faces the sunset. “We did what I like to call Gap and Gucci,” explains Wood. “There are a few really blingy moments like the ipe-wood deck, and then we have a bocce ball court that makes use of a big empty space but is really cost-effective.” Ahead, Wood shows us how she brought their initial blueprints to life.

Invest in at Least One Old Tree 

The front of the house, after.

Wood’s big splurge for the front courtyard came in the form of a field-grown olive tree that had to be delivered via crane. And while she could have easily gone for a much younger, smaller option, the age and size of this tree introduced a much-needed sense of history to the space, “making it not feel like it’s brand-new,” she notes. 

Think of Your Firepit Like a Coffee Table

The front of the house, after.

Situating a firepit on both sides of the house ensures the clients can get the most out of their evenings, no matter where they decide to sit. The gas pieces, which are made by a local concrete artisan and sold through Wood’s store, are designed with an extra-wide edge so you can comfortably kick your feet up. “Even when it’s not on, it’s like an ottoman,” she points out. 

Stick to Simple Concrete and Gravel Hardscape

The back of the house, after.

Wood doesn’t get overly fussy with brick and grout. The primary material out back are concrete pads that she treated with a heavy wash so the texture almost looks like sand. “You can put a beautiful vintage pot in front of it and it’s really going to pop,” notes the designer. The aforementioned bocce ball court is made out of basic decomposed granite instead of pricey crushed oyster shells, which is a more prevalent material on the East Coast. 

Don’t Forget a Trash Can

The back of the house, after.

Because there isn’t a proper dining room inside the home, the backyard had to live up to the couple’s entertaining needs. The custom outdoor kitchen features a 42-inch-wide grill so they can barbecue plenty of food at once. And to keep their trips back inside to a minimum, Wood added a mini fridge for drinks and a pull-out trash drawer.  

Tick These Three Plant Boxes

The back of the house, after.

For Wood, picking plants for a space is all about having a variety of textures. The three shapes she always strives for? Mounding silhouettes (think: boxwood balls or pittosporum), vertical varieties (like tall grasses and asparagus fern), and a graphic addition (often in the form of succulents like agave). The thick, rounder shapes help anchor the garden, while the vertical additions lend a sense of movement when a breeze rolls through.

Test Your Fountain Features Pre-Purchase

The new outdoor shower in the backyard.
The new fountain in the backyard.

To balance out the fire elements, Wood always incorporates a number of water details into a space, often in the form of limestone trough fountains—something she’ll always listen to before she puts down her credit card. “There are a lot of water features that do not make a soothing sound,” she says with a laugh. (For instance, one with a single stream funneling into a large pool.)

Redoing the Driveway? Put in Irrigation First

The driveway today.

The plant pots that line the driveway are now filled with sage, rosemary, chives, and other edible greenery. Fortunately, the homeowners don’t have to worry about keeping them alive when they’re out of town. When Wood and her team revamped the concrete driveway, they incorporated a self-irrigation system that delivers H2O directly to the pots and has a 3-inch drain line so water doesn’t get all over the fresh concrete. Who needs a welcome mat when you have thriving herbs?