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Lisa Clyde believes her backyard is simply perfect.

It rises up in back of her remodeled Sebastopol bungalow in three tiers, each tier a flagstone patio set in uneven quadrangles, separated by low, stone planter boxes.

A single fountain made from a 2,500-pound basalt boulder burbles in the upper left tier, dropping a slow waterfall into a bed of black Mexican pebbles.

There is nothing flashy about this 740-square-foot yard and yet it has an understated, unfussy elegance that Clyde prefers. And most importantly, it invites her to come outside.

When she moved in three years ago, there was nothing in back but a steep slope of wood chips and random plants.

“There were some bender boards, a maple tree in the middle and some roses. It wasn’t very appealing and it was totally unusable. I would have had to be a mountain goat to walk up there,” she recalled.

One year and $50,000 later, it has been transformed not only into a usable landscape but a winning landscape.

The regional chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association gave the project, installed by Lynne Bernstein of Garden of Ease Landscape and Design in Sebastopol, its top Sweepstakes Award at the organization’s annual competition in June.

“My favorite part about this is it brings the whole outside inside,” said Clyde, who can look out to what amounts to an extension of the house through wide patio doors in her kitchen.

The project was selected over 20 other residential projects, many a lot grander and with budgets many times the size, up to $1 million or more.

But as Connie Salinas, the executive director of the association, said, “It’s the little details that set her (Bernstein) apart.”

“It’s extremely precise and perfect. A lot of people take shortcuts in their work. Lynne never takes shortcuts.”

The secret to a successful landscape, whatever the size or budget, is that attention to detail — even the hidden workings that no one sees.

“The judges are not just looking for a pretty garden,” Salinas said. “They’re looking for something that is done really well. Things people may never see or think about. It’s professionalism versus eye candy.” That includes how well the concrete is poured, the quality of the irrigation hook-ups and timers and the amount of mulch and compost in the soil. Judges even stick a probe into the ground to make sure there’s a layer that can goes down 2 1/2 feet.

“I don’t cut corners,” said Bernstein, whose concern for precision and getting it right may stem in part from the 18 1/2 years she spent as a global networking engineer for Exxon-Mobil, working in Princeton, N.J. and later Dallas, Texas.

Even during those days she was meticulously tending to her own gardens.

“Before I would go to work, I would get up in the morning and work in my garden,” Bernstein said. “And then I’d come home and do the same thing. At night sometimes I would put these big spotlights outside. People would ask me, ‘Why are you working in the corporate world when landscaping and plants are your passion?’”

Eventually taking the advice of a friend who counseled her not to get “stuck in the fear of feeling any pain,” she took the leap, quit her high-paying job and started pursuing her real passion. When she moved here with her partner, she completed coursework in landscape construction and design at Santa Rosa Junior College and in 2007 launched Garden of Ease. She manages most of her projects in-house with her crew of 10. But for design, she frequently turns to Sonoma garden designer Judy Olin.

Where to sleep

The Presidio has two main options for overnights, both of which are open year-round.

If you prefer luxury, book a room at the Inn at the Presidio, just steps from the Presidio Officers’ Club. The 22-room inn sits in a renovated officers’ quarters; each room has original touches such as lead windows and crown molding. All stays include complimentary continental breakfast and afternoon wine hour. Rates start at $189/night.

Sleep under the stars at Rob Hill Campground in the hills above Baker Beach. This is the only (legal) overnight campground in all of San Francisco, and two group campsites with space for up to 30 are available. Rates are $125/night.

For more information about these options, or the Presidio in general, visit presidio.gov.

It was Olin who came up with the idea of setting the middle patio tier in Clyde’s yard on a diagonal for drama.

“I thought it would expand the space and make it more dynamic. Then with the upper sitting area, we put a planter in front to create a sense of seclusion,” Olin said.

Bernstein gives a lot of thought to permeability to keep rainwater in the ground rather than washing away as runoff.

The plantings are simple and carefully chosen for ease of care or usefulness. In the lower reaches, there is a cutting garden with dahlias and other blooms. Along one fence are fruit trees — an espaliered pomegranate, a dwarf citrus and a persimmon. Along the opposite fence are bright green asparagus ferns and abutilon. Bamboo has provided a fast-growing cover along the back fence and in only a year has grown to conceal a metal building on a neighboring property while also giving the landscape a Japanese Zen look.

Look down and you’ll see signature details of Bernstein’s work. She built up stone planters and risers using rock ledging her crew cut on site rather than purchasing pre-cut. She’s also conscientious about seeking out hardscape that is permeable, so rainwater will seep back into the ground to replenish the water table rather than run off into storm drains.

She laid the stonework not on a concrete slab but on a road base. To keep the stone in place she chose, rather than mortar, a product called Gator Dust, that is sand and small stone mixed with a polymer binding agent.

In the front of the house she created a small parking area with a material called Flexipave, a soft, porous paving material made by KB Industries out of recycled tires and rock aggregate, which costs about $15 a square foot. Bernstein flew down to the company headquarters in Lago, Fla. to learn how to use and install the material, which claims to percolate 2,000 gallons of water through one square foot in an hour.

One of the other key ingredients to a successful project, she said, is communication with each client, taking the time to find out what they want. And if they have trouble articulating that, she tries to find out what they don’t like.

“I love what I do,” she said of her encore career. “This isn’t just about paying the bills. I love landscaping. I love design. I love being creative and I love people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

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