A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles

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By Dwell and Lydia Lee
A San Francisco landscape designer finds a small-space solution that’s anything but narrow-minded.

Covering a patchwork of concrete with AstroTurf was the first solution that came to mind when the Sharkey family thought of redoing the backyard of their San Francisco home. For Emily, a stay-at-home mom, and Michael, who works in finance, the priority was to create a low-maintenance space where their three exuberant girls, Carolina, Serafina, and Madeleine (ages 4, 6, and 8), could romp freely. But rather than take the expedient route, they connected with local landscape designer Monica Viarengo. She brought in a multitude of elements—space-saving vertical gardens, a massive water wall, and a joyful mural—while meeting her clients’ requirements for minimal upkeep. The result is a colorful urban garden that both children and adults can enjoy.

A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles - Photo 1 of 5 - In the Mission District yard Monica Viarengo created for the Sharkey family, outdoor chalkboard paint by Sydney Harbour applied to marine-grade plywood offers a gallery for creativity.  A mural by local artist Erik Otto—inspired by the neighborhood—brightens the back of the space.

In the Mission District yard Monica Viarengo created for the Sharkey family, outdoor chalkboard paint by Sydney Harbour applied to marine-grade plywood offers a gallery for creativity. A mural by local artist Erik Otto—inspired by the neighborhood—brightens the back of the space.

"This is a space we can grow into and grow up with—you get the idea of the kids, but it’s not too kid-centric," says Emily, a former elementary school teacher. Adds Michael: "Every aspect is used and enjoyed, which is really key in the tight living spaces in San Francisco."

Along one edge of the compact backyard, Viarengo designed a 12-foot-wide, six-foot-tall water wall, which masks street noise and provides the girls with a basin for wading. For the hardscaping, she proposed gravel as an alternative to concrete pavers—but that material had its own potential downside. "I was worried that one of the girls would pick it up and throw it at her sister, so I asked if there was some way to nail the gravel down," Emily says. Instead, Viarengo proposed a traditional pebble-mosaic technique called risseu, prevalent in her native city of Genoa, Italy. She created a design with concentric rings of colored pebbles, inspired by water droplets. "It’s durable and feels wonderful when you walk on it barefoot," Viarengo says. "And it’s not static—when it gets wet, all the vibrancy of the colors comes out."

A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles - Photo 2 of 5 - A pebble mosaic and artificial turf divide the yard into zones that never need to be mowed.  

A pebble mosaic and artificial turf divide the yard into zones that never need to be mowed.  

Per the clients’ request for the biggest possible space for the kids, most of the backyard is covered in drought-impervious artificial grass. The two-story guest cottage in back, where the girls’ paternal grandparents live, now supports a play structure. Viarengo, who trained as an architect in Italy, refreshed an exterior staircase and added a stainless-steel slide to it. Because the home is in the city’s Mission District, which is known for its vibrant murals, the designer wanted to bring the flavor of the neighborhood into the backyard. She asked local artist Erik Otto to create a colorful mural as the backdrop for the whole garden. She also covered a wall of the main house in chalkboard paint for the girls to decorate on their own.

A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles - Photo 3 of 5 - Viarengo added a custom stainless-steel slide to the property’s guest cottage. A green-wall system by Florafelt adds life to the vertical space. 

Viarengo added a custom stainless-steel slide to the property’s guest cottage. A green-wall system by Florafelt adds life to the vertical space. 

And though the Sharkeys wanted a yard with minimal upkeep, Viarengo convinced them that it would be possible to include plants with living walls that would be easy to care for with a built-in irrigation system. The ferns, heuchera, and other shade-loving plants cascade down, adding a welcome lushness to this urban backyard.

A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles - Photo 4 of 5 - The water wall was one of the family’s main requests. Not only does it provide the girls— Serafina, Carolina, and Madeleine—a place to play, it also blocks street noise.  

The water wall was one of the family’s main requests. Not only does it provide the girls— Serafina, Carolina, and Madeleine—a place to play, it also blocks street noise.  

Nearby, Viarengo filled a narrow planter with espaliered lemon trees and vegetables, which the kids enthusiastically tend. "When clients approach with an idea and work with a designer, things can really bloom," Viarengo says.  

A Heavenly Backyard is Precise with Pebbles - Photo 5 of 5 - Viarengo used the espalier method—in which a plant’s branches are affixed to asurface to encourage them to grow flat—to save space. The lemon tree stretches across a fence of clear, or knot-free, red cedar.

Viarengo used the espalier method—in which a plant’s branches are affixed to asurface to encourage them to grow flat—to save space. The lemon tree stretches across a fence of clear, or knot-free, red cedar.