I once had the unique experience of spending a day at the huge, lavish Beverly Hills mansion that belonged to William Randolph Hearst and his girlfriend, the actress Marion Davies. You might have seen some of it in The Godfather, or in John and Jackie Kennedy’s honeymoon photos. Built on top of a hill, probably fifteen thousand square feet, it has a two-story library taken from a 16th-Century European monastery—and the most spectacular backyard I’ve ever seen. Imagine three very large swimming pools laid end to end, with waterfalls cascading from one pool to the next, all surrounded by Venetian columns, a forest of trees and green lawns as far as the eye can see. Whoa.
The funny thing was—no one ever seemed to set foot in that backyard. The owners of the house worked or traveled most of the time, so their spectaculatr backyard went sadly unused.
Yours doesn’t have to be that way, though. While you may not have the Hearst millions to spend on your own palacial acreage, there are several ways you can create, landscape and configure it to maximize your outdoor enjoyment. Here are my 5 favorites:
1. Waterfall or Fountain
You don’t have to build multiple cascading swimming pools to enjoy the soothing sounds of falling water. A simple pond, a recirculating pump and a few well-placed rocks; or even a commercially-available fountain, will give you the same effect on a smaller scale.
2. BBQ Island
Enjoy outdoor cooking? Who doesn’t? It’s a relatively simple matter to go from the old charcoal-burning hibachi to a much more user-friendly barbecue island. You can choose from lots of cook-ready freestanding units, or build one in with simple masonry structure, complete with countertops and a prep sink.
3. Rolling Hills and Multiple Levels
Most backyards are flat and featureless. I had a friend who decided he didn’t want his new backyard landscaping to look that conventional, so he trucked in some dirt and made several smoothly-curved hills and valleys, then covered it all with sod. It was an instant hit. Kids loved it. You can create multiple levels easily with a little imagination.
4. Make a Path
Nothing invites the eye--and the innate urge to see what’s around the next corner--more than a winding path. Whether you have grass, flowers, bushes or trees in your backyard, use your plantings as borders for a meandering path of stepping stones or pavers or gravel. Use curves and corners to create some mystery, and light it for nighttime walks.
One of the best backyards I’ve ever been in, besides the Beverly House, was a tiny fenced refuge in the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California. It featured ferns, a small fountain, a few pieces of furniture, and several towers of balanced rocks, some of them five and six feet tall. The rocks looked precarious, but weren’t, since the homeowner had used one tube of heavy-duty industrial glue to hold them together. A relaxing and even meditative spot, his yard cost almost nothing to landscape, but it helped him enjoy life--maybe even more than they do at the Beverly House.
[Want to check out the Beverly House? It’s for sale—only $135 million!]