Steep backyard: How one couple dealt with it

Architect Jeffrey Tohl’s backyard has had several incarnations in the last 16 years: a grass yard in the shape of a Fender guitar, then a space dedicated to the kids complete with jungle gym, treehouse and a sandpit surrounded by a tricycle path. Now, the final metamorphosis — an outdoor living room and multilevel garden — may be laid at the feet of Maggie, the family’s 4-year-old Airedale.

“They’re natural diggers,” Tohl says. “Pretty soon after we got her, the lawn was full of holes and all the plantings were destroyed. All we were missing was the old abandoned car up on blocks.”

To accommodate the new family member, Tohl needed to reconsider the Studio City yard. Besides, the kids had outgrown their play area, and he and his wife, TV director Ellen Pressman, had always wanted an “adult place” to entertain friends outdoors and a Jacuzzi to sink into after a long day — all on a steeply sloped site.

Tohl began by adding a scoured concrete terrace to blunt Maggie’s excavating inclinations. The 15-by-25-foot patio, located just outside the home’s top floor, has become the most used “room,” Tohl says. He set a comfortable seating group around a fire pit with a dramatic backdrop of welded steel panels flanked by Ledger stone attached to the 16-foot-tall retaining wall. At the western end of the patio, a large table serves for dining alfresco with friends on warm summer evenings.

New raised planters along the southern and western walls save plants from being dug up, although Maggie occasionally nestles into the cool gravel bed alongside the moon-face echeveria Afterglow. The two tiers of raised planters in the dining area are filled with timber bamboo, New Zealand flax and fragrant jasmine. Planted in the corner is a small garden of more than a dozen varieties of cactus, including golden barrel, pencil, nopal and saguaro.

Opposite to that, square concrete pots hold a combination of smaller cactuses and succulents. Tohl has been experimenting, mixing colors, shapes and textures.

“They each have their own personality and charm,” he says, examining a recent planting of beavertail, euphorbia and an ocotillo. “You hardly have to water them, and they look great.”

Maggie isn’t into munching their prickly spines, although while chasing an occasional lizard, she’s been known to knock over a pot or two.

Higher up on the slope, behind the retaining wall, Tohl found other opportunities. The upper hillside went back 60 feet more with a 30-foot vertical rise. Tohl cut four terraces to create a diverse landscape.

Directly above the outdoor living room lies a gated vegetable garden. A pair of metal doors from Maggie’s former dog run enclosures — dismantled now that she has the run of the place — are used for growing beans and heirloom tomatoes.

Above that, a second terrace holds drought-tolerant plants: flax and rosemary, echeveria and agave. A third terrace is planted as an orchard with peach, plum, pomegranate, Meyer lemon and avocado trees. Pressman vies with the squirrels and birds for the fruit, but Maggie seems uninterested in this level of the garden — “unless she has a new toy to bury,” Tohl says.

Maggie’s preferred perch is undoubtedly the fourth terrace, 65 feet above the street, where a redwood deck offers sweeping valley and mountain views. From here she can watch hawks soar on valley thermals and hear the black crows that gather in the tall pine farther up the hill. Hummingbirds frequently come to drink from the precast concrete fountain that Tohl found abandoned at a job site, took home and mounted on the back wall.

He and his three daughters spent a long weekend gluing on a mosaic of dark blue and gold crushed glass — their version of “The Starry Night,” he says with a laugh, referring to Van Gogh’s night-sky painting.

At the far end of the deck, the architect built a modern 8-by-81/2-foot potting shed — “my think room,” says Pressman, whose directing and producing credits include “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “thirtysomething,” “Party of Five” and “Everwood.” Douglas fir and redwood were combined with corrugated plastic siding from Home Depot. Nearby, a salvaged Jacuzzi is mounted flush in the redwood deck; a few steps down, a wood swing hangs between two pepper trees.

Close friend and neighbor Karen Young has enjoyed the pleasures of the garden, dangling her feet in the Jacuzzi, dining alfresco at the candlelit table, watching burning logs turn to white-hot embers.

“What Jeff did was bring the inside of the home outdoors in this creative, warm environment,” she says. “It’s an urban oasis, a place that inspires long, thoughtful conversations.”

The outdoor room and garden have changed the way Tohl’s family lives, he says. Come summer, days are spent picking vegetables for the evening salad, cutting freesias for the table. By night, it’s time to make the wood fire for roasting marshmallows with the kids and to haul out the banjo that Tohl is teaching himself to play.

And of course, Maggie is there, curled up on the hearth, dog tired after a day of running up and down all those steep steps.