This Formal Garden is an Organized Mind’s Dream
Born from one modest revision to this Rancho Santa Fe estate, an inspired formal garden takes (symmetrical) shape
Major makeovers start small at Bill and Anna Drew’s Cielo estate. Four years ago, a new beige couch for the family room “made the walls look too peachy,” Anna recalls. “So we repainted, and that led to more changes—many more.”
By then the couple had lived in the four-bedroom Mediterranean-style home high above Rancho Santa Fe for a decade since moving from El Cajon to be close to the school their three daughters attend.
“We liked that Cielo was a newer community, private and quiet,” says Bill, a commercial real estate executive since the 2014 sale of Drew Ford, the East County dealership owned by his family since 1927. “Plus here we could have land—our lot’s an acre and change.”
While the kitchen, baths and other rooms were refreshed, the grounds dominated by a palm-studded lawn, a dated pool-spa and small outdoor kitchen sufficed for children’s playtime and the couple’s frequent parties for friends and family. But a barbecue on a hot summer’s day changed that.
“There I was, baking in the heat,” Anna says. “I thought, ‘We need a roof over the grill.’ Then I started looking around the backyard. Things just snowballed from there.”
Over the next two years, the couple worked with award-winning landscape contractor Harry Thompson of Torrey Pines Landscape Company to create elegant garden rooms around a new pool house designed by San Diego architect Keoni Rosa. Inspired by everything from the latest postings on Houzz to classic formal gardens, wine-country ambience and even Hearst castle, the Drews wanted to blend elegant European design with California’s relaxed lifestyle for a look both timely and timeless.
“I didn’t want to do just Italian or French. That can seem kitschy. Instead I wanted a mix,” says Anna who emphasized a neutral palette splashed with blues, refined finishes like smooth Santa Barbara stucco, and traditional furnishings and garden accents. “I didn’t want a riot of color, so I asked for a limited number of plant varieties that would repeat around the yard. The goal was to create something lasting, with a feeling of balance and calm.”
At the center of the reimagined backyard is the 1,200-square-foot pool pavilion designed for entertaining a crowd as well as family dinners, trainer-led workouts and afternoon escapes with a good book. Disappearing doors open the pavilion’s plush living room and bar, gourmet kitchen and casual dining tables and counters to a new sunny travertine patio and walkways that link to the main residence, pool and new gardens.
Ample outdoor seating—cushioned sofas, chaises and rocking chairs—invite conversations beneath espresso-brown arbors, some with curtains to block cool breezes.
A custom masonry curved sofa overlooking a fire bowl; the spa, glistening with new glass-mosaic tile; and the refurbished pool is a favorite hangout for the Drew girls and pals. “It’s like they’re camping out,” Anna says. “We love sitting there too, looking up at the stars.”
Classic accents abound, including antique brass patio lanterns and blue-and-white Asian garden tables that echo porcelains displayed in the home. Italianate terra-cotta pots brim with choice succulents and purple bougainvilla, while cream-glazed urns are capped with globes of clipped dwarf olive. Custom wall trellises carpeted with pink ‘Cecile Brunner’ roses float gentle fragrance in the air.
“It was a full-time job,” Anna says. “I did a lot of thinking—worrying, second guessing—in the middle of the night,” she adds with a laugh. “It seems I was always calling Harry. I learned, though, that if I thought of something, he could do it.” (She also bounced options off one of her best friends, local designer, Keli Wozniak.)
Harry and his team also refined the home’s entrance to reflect backyard vistas that greet visitors as they step through the front door. Bands of Old World rustic cobblestones now accent the broad driveway and a new travertine walkway leads into walled outer and inner entry courtyards bisected by tall archways.
Patterned encaustic concrete tiles on an outdoor fireplace here repeat on two new arched wall fountains with spouts that drip into echoing urns below. Custom metal window boxes, a living succulent wall, beds punctuated by slender ‘Icee Blue,’ yellow wood and stylized container plantings add to the warm welcome.
Here and in other focal points around the grounds, 75-year-old olive trees were craned into place to replace accent palms in the original landscape. Two gnarled specimens now flank the foot of the driveway, each underplanted with vibrant Mexican sages, Spanish lavenders and agave rosettes.
Another olive accented with large custom teardrop wicker lanterns heralds the entrance to an elegant new formal garden patterned after manicured European landscapes Anna loves. Designed by Douglas Dilworth and Lei Huey Jeanes, also from Torrey Pines Landscape Company, the walled side garden invites strolls down decomposed granite paths that radiate from a simple Tuscan fountain and pause at a teak Lutyens bench. Geometric parterre beds edged with boxwood hold ‘Iceberg’ standard roses along with purple or white flowering annuals and perennials that scent the air. More fragrance drifts from jasmine climbing a diamond-patterned espalier.
Steps away, beneath a laced cottonwood tree, snow-white camellias, yellow clivia and other shadelovers line a T-shaped path, home to a succulent-planted fountain “dripping” with trailing donkey’s tail sedum and fishooks senecio. “I know someday I’ll be a grandma,” Anna muses, “and I imagine grandkids riding their trikes down these paths or joining me on a bench to read a storybook.”
Another side yard has new life as an edibles and cutting garden that thrives in tall geometric raised beds dressed in the same creamy ledgestone as a new retaining wall along the property line. Apricot and citrus trees line the bank here, steps from a farm sink and a playful swing, where the couple can share their sun-sweet harvests.
At the end of last year, with the makeover finished, the Drews celebrated with a New Year’s party and their annual Super Bowl bash. Earlier this summer, the pool pavillion, patios and gardens filled with friends marking the high-school graduation of the couple’s eldest daughter, Nicole.
“This is such a great place for hanging out with friends and family, for us and our girls,” Anna says. “We love sharing fun times and quiet times now and more in the years to come.”
4 Public Formal Gardens to Visit in California
Check out our list of four formal gardens that are open to visitors and all within driving distance (including one in San Diego).