The Tefft home in coastal SLO County: Big Sur zen in a terraced garden

On a steep slope near the coast, a unique hillside home took shape over decades with love and careful attention to detail

Special to The TribuneJuly 10, 2013 

Annie stretches out at the top of a steep staircase, leans forward into the sea breeze, and hangs her huge doggy paws over the top step.

Annie is a black Newfoundland the size of a baby elephant. A gentle giant, she reigns over a seaside garden.

This steep coastal garden in San Luis Obispo County took 30 years and several stages before becoming an overnight success. The original home of 500 square feet could only be reached by first ascending a steep driveway, then climbing 28 steps to the front door. The builder believed people should only sleep indoors and should spend the rest of their time outside. That’s how he designed his redwood and glass Big Sur classic houses, which were part of the modernist movement.

The spectacular ocean view sold the owners on the hillside property, so they began their first project: adding a second story. A garage and additional garden terraces slowly followed. Heavy equipment couldn’t be taken up such a steep slope, so construction materials were moved uphill by hand and by wheelbarrow.

“We think twice before buying a watermelon,” said Tish Tefft, who moves rocks with aplomb and probably has superb cardiovascular health. She is an interior designer, and her collection of antiques and objets d’art have all found a place on the many terraces.

Her husband Bob, a Renaissance man, deftly recycles redwood and repurposes it into gates, fences, benches, railings and arbors.

Over many years, their neighbor added to her home in a meandering Winchester Mystery House manner. Concrete slabs, retaining walls, more slabs, more walls. Eventually the Teffts bought the house and had it removed. However, there was a problem. What could they do with the many retaining walls and concrete slab floors that remained?

The solution was brilliant: The hillside is knitted together with terraces held by retaining walls faced in horizontal gray flagstone. Vertical green glass tiles form a bamboo-like design on a customdesigned fountain that fronts one old retaining wall. Water slowly moves down the surface, drawing the viewer closer to serenity through slight movement and gentle sound. Surfaces of redwood, Three Rivers ledge stone, gray pavers and pea-size gravel are softened by groundcovers of gray-green Dymondia and elfin thyme.

Visitors never suspect there might have been a residence in this location, because the transformation from scullery maid to Cinderella is so complete.

Mature blue gum eucalyptus bring a sense of strength to the newer plantings. At the edge of the property a lean and healthy looking lemon-scented eucalyptus is lovely, but so brittle it drops branches in the wind.

Tough 20-foot Myoporum carsonii were removed when Myoporum Thrip arrived from Australia, devastating local populations. The tiny black pest looks like sprinkles of poppy seeds and is a real killer. Once the plants were gone, opportunity arose for redesigning some areas. A new ginkgo tree, barely 4 feet high, holds great promise for the future. Ferns, swordleafed phormiums and Westringia “Morning Light” were also planted.

Many ornamental grasses and succulents bring shades of grays, blues, greens and rusts to the garden. Staghorn ferns, one as large as an elephant’s head, hang from walls, arbors and fences. Although the only things that really bloom are red grevilleas and yellow hot pokers, the garden is full of color.

Agonis trees bring vertical splashes of burgundy to break up the horizontal lines. One fronts a clump of giant oat grass while another softens a wall. Both elephants and fish are recurring themes throughout the garden.

Some plants just beg for a name of their own. That’s how “Eunice,” a cactus Euphorbia, got hers.

“She’ll never reach the deck,” they said, with the deck at 10 feet.

“Eunice” now soars over the deck and stretches almost 25 feet high.

The entire garden is a biosphere with a giant water retention system that recycles. Drought tolerant plants selected for their resilience and year-round color cover the hillside.

Repurposed stained glass windows hang in unexpected places, above a potting bench and on a fence.

Many gardeners greatly appreciate unusual rocks, so it was with surprise that during the removal of the house next door a giant granite boulder, like the tip of an iceberg, was discovered jutting through the structure. The entrance to the garden was redesigned to let this grandfather boulder be appreciated to its fullest.

Another treasure is a gentle reminder to all. Carved into a stone alongside one of the paths, it reads: “May I always be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”

Reach Mary McCorkle and Genevieve Holloway at

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