Owners Steve Sheehy and Davis Bergman were thrilled with the house but found themselves wondering what on earth to do with the garden. "We took one look and knew that the kitchen needed French doors opening onto the yard," remembers Steve. "But that gave us a terrific view of the concrete slab that covered the yard and the stucco retaining wall opposite that marks the southern boundary."
As non-gardeners, they knew professional help was needed. Enter David Pfeiffer who, as Davis recalls, "looked around for 15 minutes and announced that he knew exactly what to do. Within a week he produced the perfect design."
Perfection, for Pfeiffer, lies in creating a strong connection between the house interior and exterior, so that each area is a space for living, with only the most subtle differences between the two. "I want to enable clients to live as easily outdoors as they do indoors," says Pfeiffer, describing his approach. "I achieve this by arranging the space like a floor plan. This ensures a very organized garden, but then I disguise and soften it with the generous use of plants chosen for their foliage."
Today the courtyard garden is a secluded oasis, screened on two sides by a 6-foot-tall fence, while the house on one end and the stucco retaining wall opposite complete the enclosure. "The stucco wall really set the theme for this garden," says Pfeiffer. "Steve and Davis responded to the weathered surface, so we used rustic, stacked-stone walls, a wooden-frame pergola, and simple gravel and rough stone pavers to give the garden the kind of feeling of warmth and intimacy that you find in a traditional European garden."
If Lesson One is called "Find the Theme-Setter," Lesson Two is "Arranging the Space" according to how it will be used. Here there are four distinct areas: the raised terrace that provides the transition between indoors to outdoors; the arbor-covered dining area; the grass lawn that marks the transition from the public street into the private garden; and the "sunken" gravel-floored seating area between the lawn and the dining area.
In keeping with the rustic theme, simple materials are used, like stepping stones across the small lawn and gravel instead of solid paving in the seating area. Gravel is an underused landscaping material, but Pfeiffer uses it routinely: It is porous, so water doesn't puddle, and it's economical.
One of Pfeiffer's favorite ploys is to have edibles, like the grapes over the dining arbor, and blueberry bushes and strawberry plants in the borders, do double duty as ornamentals. Scent, too, is easy to enjoy in small enclosed gardens, and perfumed plants are prominent here.
"We live in this garden and really enjoy relaxing here in the evening," says Davis. So effective lighting is a Pfeiffer "Get-It-Right" rule. It must be subtle and quietly illuminating, showing a pathway through the garden or accenting a garden feature like the wall fountain playing into a small fish pool. The sound of the splashing water masks the traffic noise from the street.
Simple solutions are best for first-time gardeners, who are all too easily overwhelmed in the marketplace. Outdoor furniture comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, materials, and prices, and Sheehy and Bergman decided to furnish their courtyard economically, acquiring pieces from warehouse stores. The curved metal frame that became the base for the coffee table was a chance find on household refuse day. "We hauled it home and topped it with a beautiful stone slab," notes Davis.
Small spaces demand restraint, but not when it comes to foliage and shape, which Pfeiffer deploys with painterly skill. A large-leaf Acanthus mollis occupies an eye-catching spot near the terrace dining table. The leaf of this plant-the model for classical Greek architectural ornamentation-here doubles as a cool green mass for more delicately proportioned plants. "Color," says Pfeiffer, "concerns me least. It comes and goes so quickly. Much better to stick to a muted palette of white, silver-gray, and lots of different greens." This is a sentiment that many of today's cutting-edge designers share. Flowers fade, but foliage and form are always there, providing the building materials we need to create comfortable, convivial outdoor rooms.