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Basic Elements Guide a Fresh Garden Design

This article was written by Ronda Swaney and was featured in our March issue of Home By Design magazine. Photography by Marie Buck. To visit the original Home By Design article, click here.


“Deep down, we’re all cavemen; we need fire, water, shelter. If those needs are met, we know everything’s going to be okay,” says Molly Wood, owner of her eponymous garden design firm based in Costa Mesa, California.

Starting with those foundational elements was necessary for this project, and each found their way into the final design. “This was a blank slate when I came to it,” says Wood about this Irvine property. “The home was a full gut remodel, and the garden was taken to dirt. No pool, no trees, no shade structures.”

Although a blank slate, the neighborhood where this home is located places strict limits on what plants and colors can be used, which Wood viewed as a welcome challenge. “Design to me is like a fun puzzle,” she says. “I like balancing out spaces, figuring out the flow of things, and programming the area so that it works for all involved.”

Another piece of that puzzle was incorporating the homeowners’ wish list. They wanted this garden to serve many purposes centered on entertaining. “They wanted to do it all,” says Wood, who answered that brief. The property hosts a courtyard with a water fountain, pool, multiple casual seating spots, an expanse of grass, outdoor dining, fire pit, and barbecue area. Each feature serves a distinct purpose, yet they all flow cohesively through clear pathways and a common color palette. Homeowners and guests can easily navigate from spot to spot and from indoors to out.

That cohesiveness and attention to flow starts on the approach to the home. The previous orange-tinted adobe-style exterior was freshened up with a light and bright European vibe—white, gray, and rust tones feel inspired by the Mediterranean. Brilliant bougainvillea pops against the sunny exterior and steps lead down to the entry. That entry opens to a welcoming courtyard that feels transportive, with its simple fountain and built-in seating. Gravel paths lead around the home, flanked by lush, water-wise vegetation.

Cozy seating nooks invite conversation. A bar and grilling station provide a casual setting for snacking and socializing. Metal structures topped by skirt bamboo provide a shady place to relax. The pool offers a cool dip and plenty of lounge chairs. For seamless indoor-outdoor flow, glass doors open from the house to an outdoor dining area with seating for ten.

Multiple intimate seating areas show up in several spots around the house, inviting occupants to come outdoors to enjoy the surrounding beauty. That’s all per plan. “My job is to get people outside,” says Wood. “To me, nature is absolute perfection. If I can get people outside, to feel the breeze, to feel more connected, then my job is well done.”

“You should enter into a space and feel like you’ve been transported to somewhere else magical and different,” says designer Molly Wood. “Sounds and sights help transport you. Incorporating those elements is one of my favorite things to do.”

Wood also loves to create spaces that evoke emotion, which is aided by tapping into the senses. “Entries and courtyards should feel like special spots where you feel nurtured, comforted, and invited in.” This home’s courtyard prompts that transportive feeling through sensory immersion.

The soothing burble of a water fountain greets visitors as they enter. Comfortable built-in benches invite guests to shelter from the sun. Wood used potted plants to draw the eye and evoke an elevated aesthetic. “I used sculptural plants and special vessels from my shop,” she says. “They’re like the jewelry of the garden. It’s the final adornment that adds another layer of texture and richness.”