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THE CANVAS: A drainage problem, destroyed lawn, hopeless fence

THE PALETTE: Earthy tropical tones, durable hardwood, exotic plants

THE MASTERPIECE: A retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, year-round Caribbean vacation, secluded spot to indulge the senses

Landscape designer Gregory Nowell had a tough job ahead of him when he signed on to do this San Diego project. The backyard belonged to his toughest critic: himself.

When Nowell, principal at Nowell & Associates Landscape Architecture Inc., moved his family into the house a few years ago, the backyard required immediate attention. A dead avocado tree and poor drainage had taken its toll on the property. Previous owners had installed room additions to the 1950s house, creating a U-shaped structure. When it rained, the water collected against the home.

Nowell looked to his family for help when it came time to revamp the yard. “Pretend you’re my clients and tell me what you want the space to feel like,” he told his wife and son. The words he heard most were “tranquil,” “tropical” and “serene.”

To accommodate his family’s wishes, Nowell set out to create the ultimate outdoor retreat.

Tropical tranquility

He accomplished his goal with a series of relaxing outdoor “rooms.” A living area, dining space and spa are set apart from each other by a variety of tropical plants. The spa area features king and bamboo palms and towering tiger grass, which looks like bamboo. The striking plant from Thailand serves as a natural dividing screen between a seating area and the spa.

Though the space is only about 15-by-18-feet, the small sanctuary is completely concealed from the neighbors’ view. “I’ve had people come over to the house and not even know the spa was there,” Nowell says.

The property’s fence behind the spa is made of materials from an old, dilapidated redwood barrier. Nowell and his neighbor salvaged the wood and rebuilt it without nails or glue. Instead, they used the mortise and tenon joinery method of interlocking wood held together by wooden pins. It gives the fence a more hand-crafted look.

A quick fix

The biggest problem spots for Nowell were the sloping front yard and drainage in the backyard. He came up with a remedy for both: Build a retaining wall along the sidewalk in front, then dig up 31/2 feet of dirt in the back and move it to the front of the house.

Once that was done, the backyard could be made level. The excavation solved the drainage problem and made it possible to create several tiers in the backyard. It also allowed the spa to be recessed.

“Adding levels makes the space feel larger and more interesting,” Nowell says. “I probably didn’t need to recess the area. However, with the spa set down, the deck looks more built in.”

The spa has a redwood exterior that matches the fence, but Nowell decided to use Ipe wood for the deck. He discovered the durable hardwood five years ago, and likes that it is easy to use and requires little maintenance.

A multicolored slate tile wall supports and highlights the spa’s sun bench, which also is made with Ipe. The wall continues throughout the garden as a unifying design element. The same kind of tile was used for the informal path and steps leading to the deck.

The yard now evokes warm earth tones, while the tiles provide a tropical flair. Ceramic pots hidden in the landscape also emphasize exotic plants such as orchids, bromeliads and plumerias.

“Most people just put pots by the front door,” Nowell says. “I place them in the landscape.”

The harshest critic

He had more trouble designing the project than finishing it, having gone through 20 ideas before settling on this Caribbean vacation scene. He used all of his favorite materials, leaving the backyard with five kinds of stone and 10 types of tile — something he would never recommend to clients.

In the end, Nowell admits it is more difficult to create your own backyard paradise than designing one for a client.

His family appreciates the results and uses the spa every day.