Dwelling: Rock On

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An El Dorado Hills landscape evolves from forbidding to fabulous.

Living in a home with a sweeping view of the valley wasn’t an option for Roger and Susan Taylor. It was an imperative. “I got tears in my eyes when I first saw this property,” Roger says as he sits in the kitchen of his contemporary-style home in El Dorado Hills and looks out at his backyard. “I saw this bare canvas of what could be done. It was very emotional for me. I could see a koi pond there, a pool here. Even before we bought the house, I knew what I was going to do.”

The potential Taylor saw was a far cry from what most people would see. Yes, the valley view makes your heart skip a beat, but the slope of the half-acre lot makes your jaw drop. There’s an astounding difference of 55 feet in elevation from the highest point in the front yard to the lowest level in the back. (To get a handle on just how steep it is, the famous Hollywood Sign is about 50 feet tall.) Taming this landscape took some major vision on Taylor’s part and 17 subcontractors to pull off the engineering. Imagine it back in 2002 when the couple moved in. There were a few trees, some scrubby brush and boulders the size of PT Cruisers. “Weeds and sticks, oh, yeah,” Taylor says, “and rocks and snakes and poison ivy.” In the front yard were the remains of the former owner’s attempt at xeriscaping.

Taylor remembers one of his first thoughts: “I said, ‘I’ve got to get a hold of [Sacramento landscape architect] Ron Allison.’ Ron came up with three preliminary plans, and we picked and chose things from them. It took us about a year and a half to make the plan.” It wasn’t written in stone. “The grass areas weren’t even in there,” Taylor says about two relatively small lawns where he practices his putting and sets up badminton and other games for the grandkids when they visit. “We didn’t really have the lawn in the plans until we excavated for the pool and had all this dirt to use, so I said, ‘Hey, let’s use it for a lawn.’”

Allison talks about Taylor’s inventiveness and commitment throughout the project—it was steadfast, even as others shook their heads. Dynamiting out some of the big rocks close to the house so a deck could be built, for example. “Roger is an innovator,” Allison says. “This project kept evolving and evolving and evolving.”

The front yard is a showstopper. Allison introduced Taylor to Laddie Flock of Natural Rock Formations Inc., who is probably best known for his work on the outside spaces at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Flock harvested volcanic monoliths from eastern Washington and used them to erect a colossus of a water feature and anchors for a wisteria arbor at the entrance to the home.

The Taylors’ backyard is less formal but equally impressive. There’s a new deck off the second floor of the house and a stone stairway leading from the second floor to the outdoor living areas off the first floor. The home’s lower deck was revamped, and in went a vanishing-edge pool with beach entry and spa, a fire pit and entertaining area, a small mid-level deck for taking in the view (and hiding the pool equipment), and a water garden—a big one—with rills and rivulets and a hip-deep pond for Taylor’s koi. “Putting in the plumbing for the water garden was interesting,” Allison says, chuckling as he remembers working around the huge rocks and the slope.

Although Taylor leaps from stone to stone in his bare feet to navigate the backyard, a network of winding pathways and stairs around the behemoth boulders opens the yard to those less sure-footed. Hand-selected water-worn rocks were wedged in everywhere to create planting pockets for flowering perennials, shrubs, small trees and vines.

Topsoil was trucked in by the ton. “Roger is a farmer at heart,” Allison says. “He loves to grow fruits and vegetables.” Every foot of the organic garden at the bottom of the yard is crammed with tomatoes, peppers (red, green and yellow), eggplant, onions, garlic, beets, bush beans, zucchini, herbs, you name it. The citrus, apple, apricot, cherry and pomegranate trees all produce. Strawberries flourish in a bed of their own, just a few steps away from a row of blueberry bushes full with fruit. Taylor tenderly harvests a fistful to share. “I come down here every morning for my breakfast,” he says. “It’s just fabulous.”

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