The Behind-the-scenes How-to on a Backyard Designed for Entertaining

It takes al fresco to a new meaning!

When Leslie and Michael Thorn moved into their 1938 Tudor in Fryman Canyon seven years ago, the couple approached the task of renovating with restraint. “My main concern was I didn’t want to take away any of the charm—inside or outside,” Leslie says.

Above: “The pergola under the oak trees feels well positioned and the right scale. It gives purpose to the barbecue and pizza oven and makes the space feel like an outdoor room,” says Paul.

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And that included not messing with the mature trees on the property, including several canopying oak trees and a striking redwood. The biggest aspect of the landscape redo: The backyard was essentially a large ravine that made the space nearly impossible to enjoy.

After moving in, the Thorns did a cursory re-landscaping that leveled and filled the backyard, adding a cement seat wall and firepit. But after a few years of living with it, the couple felt the space still lacked cohesiveness and adequate areas for relaxing and entertaining.

Above: The Thorn kids like to hang out with friends around the fire pit. Left to right: Griffin and Cameron Thorn with twin sisters Alianna and Laila Marshall.

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With two teenage children, the family is an active one. Michael is president of entertainment at Fox Entertainment. Leslie is an ayurvedic practitioner. “I wanted spaces where we could entertain friends and family and where I could host larger gatherings of women for my practice,” Leslie says.

With that vision in mind, she hired Paul Robbins of the British Garden Company (britishgardencompany.com) in March of 2020. Although he grew up just outside London, Paul says a classic British garden wasn’t in the cards. “Leslie’s garden couldn’t be farther away from gardens I grew up seeing. There is very different sense of place in Southern California which I have adapted to and appreciate. Horticulturally, it is a different plant palette, too. I was trained with a good grounding in designing with plants for certain purposes, no matter where the location. I like to use plants that are easy to care for: olives, pittosporums, jasmine, citrus, bougainvillea. I arrange them in large swaths for ease of maintenance.”

Above: Pizza is served! | Leslie Thorn at her Fontana Forni gas-operated pizza oven. | Paul Robbins amid lavender

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As for the job at hand (which he did working with landscape installer Pedro Mendoza), Paul pinpoints the challenge: “To make it look sophisticated but not cottage-like, which the architecture leans towards. The color palette set is soft neutrals—ivory, grey, taupe—and I chose materials that felt organic and natural. I wanted a lot of the hardscape elements to soften—almost disappear—and to bring in some patina with cobblestone and gravel, coupled with lots of evergreen plantings.”

Lompoc cobblestone was installed on the back porch and steps and in lieu of grass, 24 tons of Lodi gravel was spread throughout. A steel pergola, made by ByBetos Iron Works (bybetosironworks.com), provides an intimate space for dining. Electric wiring was piped into the structure to allow for pendants, and a bamboo screen shades diners from the sun.

Above: Terra-cotta pots on the steps, purchased at Goodwin International in Irvine, are filled with lavender, heather and rosemary  |  Leslie’s medicinal garden.   |  Chairs and a pot, both from Big Daddy Antiques‚ beneath an oak tree.

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The designer describes the landscaping as “low-water leaning on drought-tolerant,” which complements the oak trees. For privacy hedges, he selected Carolina cherry laurel. “It is softer than ficus if you don’t clip it a lot and it grows almost as quickly.” Other evergreen plant selections: Little Ollie shrubs, pittosporum, blue Ecuador salvia, Hidcote lavender. “The lavender should stay fairly compact. And you get two flushes of blooms, one in spring and one in fall,” Paul says. “And then butting up against the house, I put the evergreen myrtle, also known as myrtus. “It has a small white flower, grows to about three feet and loves heat.”

On a sunny spot adjacent to the backyard, Leslie also has a medicinal herb garden. It’s the icing on the cake to what she considers a job well done. “Every decision Paul made out here just works. In the end, it was everything I’d always pictured for a backyard for this property.”

Paul says the aspect of this job he’s most proud of is the lack of grass and respect paid to the oaks. “I am not interested in making gardens which would die without constant watering and a lot of maintenance. It is all about the nature around and the wonderful light.”

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