Back to My Garden

Soon after fall crashed in, yielding to a mild winter, I’ve been busy with a parade of unanticipated and challenging events. Gone for now are my incessant pursuits of the last 15+ years.

I’ve finally started back on my own garden spaces, started this past summer. NORTH is on the lower left of each sketch.


OPTION A: I added screen walls to the right side. (southwest) The trick will be to see the unbuidable desert hillside behind me through my dining room picture window, and yet have a fireplace and possibly some dwarf trees.



OPTION B: I added screen walls and a vine trellis to preserve views to the hillside lot, but direct them to the fireplace to the northeast.



OPTION C: More screen walls and a vine trellis, but seat walls and a water features in this axial arrangement using low desert trees to soften any future house to the northeast. I started adding in a cistern, somehow forgotten on the summer’s A & B plans…



OPTION D: Sort-of axial, this relies on screen walls and seat walls, but a harder screen wall on the east, serving as a backdrop for something sculptural. Now, a cistern is used to screen the wide northeast side, allowing a grilling area.


Looking back at the initial plan sketches, I see some great ideas I forgot about. The perspective views revealed good ideas and oversights that need rethinking. So, I’ve embellished the old plan sketches and added a couple more.

I may still add a serpentine or curvilinear theme, though that may clash with my angular house.

Some common themes above are:

  1. Front outside the courtyard – only use plants native in my neighborhood. Which means a mix of yuccas, low bunch grasses and wildflowers, and a refined, more studied arrangement of all things sandy soil. Low, native trees to shade the front courtyard from the brutal afternoon sun, which faces NW.
  2. Grilling area on the northeast side, accessible across the kitchen across the house via a tile floor and the office patio. I grill over half of my dinners.
  3. Orient away from my neighbor as much as possible. I roughed in the plants he might add right against my property line, probably all inappropriate.
  4. Keep views to the unbuildable hillside lot behind me, which serves as stormwater ponding at either end. The dining room on the far upper right of the house must have a view there; it’s stunning all day.
  5. Outdoor fireplace and seat walls, including screen walls as needed. Walls define spaces by bringing architecture out, they hold up better than benches, and they contrast plantings well. They harden the edges.
  6. Rest of plants – native or adapted, when natives don’t work; for example, there are no native evergreen, low groundcovers in my region.
  7. Be a habitat for local wildlife, such as birds (and yes, hummingbirds), butterflies, and all the life forms that were here first. And provide a pleasant place to catch sun in the cool season and relax without burning up mornings and evenings in the warm season.

Like Albuquerque, it’s insane to sit outside between 9 am and 6 pm during the summer. So, there are no plans for a foray into the desert denial of thirsty lawns and leafy trees. If my garden spaces provide refuge and a sense of place that do justice to my natural place, then it will be a success.


I’m trying to limit using the same plants I had at my last house in Albuquerque, though some may be unavoidable since they are so valuable. But with this different soil (digable sandy loam) and being nearly 1 zone warmer, I’ll do my best.

Next, I’ll do more study perspective sketches. Then, the final plan when it’s all good.


I’m also looking back at some books that inform what I need in a garden. Here are some, though I’ll add a few more if you check back:

Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest – Marcy Scott
Water Harvesting for Drylands, Volumes 1 & 2 – Brad Lancaster

11 Replies to “Back to My Garden”

  1. Whatever you do, I’m sure you will end up with a beautiful, functional, and thoughtful design, because that’s just how you are. Personally, I like the designs that expand out from the restrictions that the pre-existing architecture can impose and seem to reach out to the desert that you love so much. I think you already have some of this in some of these designs and I love how you manage to retain a feeling of intimacy. I’d love to see some sections along with the plans. And because I’m directionally impaired, I’d like to see a north arrow to get oriented.

    Thanks, I’m going into this house with more of a purpose. That makes sense on those that break out of the architecture; I’ll need to repost with N arrows. I’m with you there. This is the first house ever for me that is not oriented N-S-E-W; the front faces northwest right into the summer setting sun. Next up are some perspective and section sketches of my favorite option or two, at least to start.

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    from an English landscaper now living in Portugal.

    That’s very much like what many do with drier landscapes in parts of my region. Including density, thanks to drip irrigation. The groves of Cupressus with various gray mounds is a good contrast. Oddly in the SW US, those who use Italian Cypress do not like using enough, other plantings…usually gravel with a few thirstier flowering plants like Lantana, Roses, or Photinia.

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  3. Oh, I like seeing your progression of ideas! For the cistern – are you going to try to collect rain water? I’ve been debating whether we actually get enough rain frequently enough to make that worth it… I might even have a perfect spot for one!

    Thanks; I’ll contour the grades to absorb as much rainfall into plantings (passive water harvesting), but I’m planning in the future in case I install a cistern or two. (active water harvesting) My main issue is I have several roof drains off my flat roof, requiring some length of piping to fill above-ground cisterns at a far house corner, which then requires a pump / electricity to fill. I want them to function as an architectural screen then work by gravity, not bury them then pump up into my drip irrigation.

    I’ve heard the return on investment is low, at least with a tax-subsidized municipal water system and 8″ of rain / year. Never have crunched those numbers here. Also, everyone so far saying active water harvesting isn’t worth it do not harvest water themselves nor do they have any experience to back them up. I do know a few people including Scott Calhoun in Tucson who has had cisterns on his house for over a decade, so I should revisit his take on its practicality with him. (Tucson avg = 12″ rain / year…50% more than you or I) I’m also revisiting some of my reference materials, including:

    Then, there are the intangible benefits of “doing the right thing” and using that free water instead of potable water.

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  4. Hi David, I enjoyed this post. Looking forward to seeing your final draft. And I’m so ticked about the inclusion of bird, bee & butterfly habitat! Cheers, Kathleen

    Thanks! A purposed embrace of various habitats seems a higher road for my garden design. In the past, it was more a default that I had so much wildlife that my former neighbors commented on, by using enough natives over a gravelscape.

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  5. I always find it is useful to go back to view first ideas because as you say you’d forgotten some of them. For evergreen ground cover you might find the following link useful. Olivier Filipi (you may have heard of him) specialises in plants for dry gardens. the site is in French, thought I’d found it in English in the past, but you can translate with google. Some of the plants would be suitable if you can source them I’m sure.

    What’s funny is the ‘B’ option had some really good potential; I was smarter initially than I realized! Thanks for the link, and I’ll figure it out – arid USDA zone 8 allows me quite a few more Mediterranean plants to fulfill “evergreen groundcover” where that’s needed, than my former home’s z 7. This is going to be fun.

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    1. Would love to visit the Filipi garden, I’ve been reading about it lately. Part of his skill is very gentle topiary to tame the sprawling shrubs.

      This is my first time hearing of it, but I agree that contrast works. Our desert ecology is more sparse / clumpy than dense / moundy, but in the right oasis spot…

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      1. I’ve been thinking of this kind of topiary for a while. In nature either the wind or animals cause this so it isn’t as unnatural as it sounds.

        I fully agree – I’ve seen that very effect in our mountains. Abstracted in the garden, it’s just as amazing.

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      2. Here it is most beautifully cloudpruned in waves and layers by the salt sea wind close to the shore.
        On the milkwood forest for example, a strokable velvety surface and another world beneath.

        Thanks, “velvety” is a good description of those expanses. I’ve seen that with shrubby live oaks on our granite foothills, just more widely spaced.

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  6. Exciting! I look forward to seeing it as you progress with it!

    Unlike my ABQ garden, I can sink a shovel into the sand, without swinging a pick axe into decomposing granite for a 1 gallon hole! Planting not mining…

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  7. no divas to interfer in these plans ;) good thoughful planning, and I like your mainly using natives, however, when looking for suitable plants would you also occasionally consider using plants from other parts of the world with similar condiditions, I like to use natives in my garden, however I have found New Zealand plants like phormiums and olearias benificial as their native conditions are similar to those in my garden, though I am aware of not introducing anything that can became invasive, I look forward to reading and seeing the progress of your garden, and how satisfing to be doing your own garden, Frances

    No diva in sight with last minute interferences! Like my #6, I will need to gather some non-native plants, and Mediterranean climates of the world offer great groundcover and a few other options. Invasive avoidance is smart and I’ll need to add that one; oddly, some consider our natives that colonize as they should “invasive”, too. Some of the natives doing that only need to be removed where they aren’t needed. This will be fun!

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