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Beautiful California Garden

An interior designer follows her passion outside, learning gardening from the ground up  

Written by Mara Boo
  • John Merkl

    Gardening is not something Teresa Smiles-Gilliam was born to. “I grew up on Air Force bases with little yards,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about gardening or landscape design. I had to teach myself.” One look around the grounds of the country French-style Hillsborough, California, home she shares with her husband, Glenn, and their five dogs makes it clear she did her homework. “We built this house 15 years ago, when Instagram and Pinterest didn’t exist,” she says. “I mostly learned what to do and what I liked by reading books.”

    Specifically, interior design books. “I took the same approach to garden design as I do to interior design,” says Teresa, a retired San Francisco design school teacher. “I sat down, looked out, and thought about what I wanted to see.” That amounted to greenery— and not much else. “Trees, hedges, and lawn. That’s all,” she says. 

    Arborvitae and puffs of boxwood drench the pool area in lush green. 

    Photography: John Merkl
    Produced by Bonnie Broten

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    Pretty Pool

    It turns out that envisioning the landscape was a lot easier than achieving it. “We made some mistakes along the way, that’s for sure,” Teresa says with a laugh. “A couple of them were costly.” She tells of trees planted over gas lines, a water pipe that broke after eroding among the tangled roots of a hydrangea plant, four futile attempts to grow lemon trees, and the 50 English yews that had to be replaced—twice—before the couple finally gave up.

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    Sunny Lounging

    Still, they never veered from Teresa’s original vision of a manicured, layered landscape that would celebrate the welcoming, almost fairy-tale architectural style of their home. “I’m the designer; Glenn does the heavy lifting,” Teresa says. “Every time I say, ‘I was thinking … ’ he runs out of the room. Then we go to the nursery and load up the Suburban and bring it all home.”

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    Lovely Setting

    Mostly, they fill the car with boxwood, the garden’s Europe-evoking anchor. Planted in hedges, it structures and delineates. In shapely clusters, it offers a voluptuous counterpoint—think rounded orbs—to the garden’s more tailored aspects. “I’ve learned boxwood does well pretty much anywhere,” Teresa says. “It’s easy to grow and looks good 12 months a year. It’s my favorite plant.” 

    Iron chairs purchased in Malibu gather around a custom concrete dining table graced by pink clematis in a weathered iron urn. 

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    Flowing Fountain

    It’s also a versatile companion to the tightly edited mix of trees, shrubs, herbs, and flowers Teresa favors. “We don’t have a huge variety,” she says. “We only used what we really, really like, and we used a lot of it.” To wit: Drifts of lavender planted by the hundreds soften and scent the front yard. Rambling roses sweeten the air beneath a quartet of focal-point ficus trees. Hydrangeas abound; Escallonia and ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae erect the ultimate in living walls. Poolside walkways are lined with Pittosporum topiaries. 

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    Dreamy Arbor

    Teresa was inspired to create this vine-covered wooden arbor after seeing something similar on a catalog cover 20 years ago. The structure is adorned with Cécile Brunner climbing roses, wisteria, and creeping fig; granite gravel crunches underfoot.

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    Sitting Pretty

    An upholstered double chaise offers a comfortable seat near the lion’s-head fountain, which hails from France. 

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    Outdoor Dining

    A shaded outdoor dining area is conveniently located just off the house offering beautiful vistas of the back yard. 

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    Growing Green

    Wisteria and creeping fig gnarl around limestone pillars beneath a blooming arbor, and Boston ivy curls its way to the top of an impossibly romantic turret—and also conceals the enclosed space’s dog-protecting wooden fence. “It took 15 years for the ivy to completely cover it,” Teresa says.

    A profusion of layered, leafy texture defines the landscape surrounding the house: Boxwood hedges outline Pittosporum and boxwood topiary, climbing roses, a tall arborvitae, and fluttering waves of Boston ivy. 

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    Puppy Love

    A sign that is French for "the dog house" hangs on the side of the home and speaks to Teresa's love of animals.

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    Sweet Shed

    The property’s swimming pool and potting shed are equally charmed by her well-defined style—and her love of vintage, repurposed, sentimental embellishments. These vary from flickering lanterns to cherished antiques. The swimming pool is lined in the exact shade of blue Teresa and Glenn recall from visits to the Greek island where Teresa’s mother was born; the potting shed—really an outdoor storage unit from a big box store—enchants courtesy of vines that cleverly obscure its provenance.

    Teresa used creeping fig to disguise the fact that this charming structure is actually a Tuff Shed unit. “Can you believe it?” she asks. 

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    Potting Shed

    Inside—along with hundreds of pots, vases, tools, and even music—five little beds await their four-legged occupants, Lily, Jack, Mimi, Rambo, and Rolo. “Everything about the garden has to do as much with function and comfort as anything else,” Teresa says. Lucky dogs included. 

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    Shed Storage

    Furnishings, including a glass-front cabinet, farm table, and oil paintings, show her interior designer’s eye. 

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    Teresa Smiles-Gilliam and her dogs play on a path defined by tall hedges of Escallonia and ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae; hydrangea bushes and a climbing rose add touches of soft color. 

  • Jonathan Wallen and Farzan Saleem