Inspirations

Many people become designers by having something capture their emotions while functioning well, then they adapt it.

When done with consideration to one’s unique space, users, and the originator, that isn’t plagarism. Everything is inspired by something else. Very often we see other built designs, but ultimately that comes from something else in the natural world.

At the Desert Botanical Garden last week, I did that very thing.

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Durable Barriers: steel posts and angle irons allowed to oxidize, as well as wire mesh and welding, combine a simple effect and rustic ambiance; I like both.

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While the round stones-impressed-into-cement-in-a-handrail isn’t practical financially, using rebar verticals to allow plants to grow behind or through is desirable. Many of you know my appreciation of soft and sharp in nature or gardens.

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Opaque Panels: sometimes these are taller than me, and other times like this they are short. No matter, what a great backdrop to create a focal point.

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Generous Desert Forms: one may get “that looks like Phoenix…” (in a childish whine) from those who reject anything not Denver X Monet X tundra. I have. But part of regionalism is abstracting wild forms into a small vignette.

Round cactus pads dancing between vertical, stoic yucca trunks and some other spots of spikiness is the condensed version of countless land areas in my region. So, why not amp up our spiky sparsness?

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I now live where regionalism is more acceptable. Those yuccas and cacti are all Chihuahuan and not remotely Phoenix (Sonoran), so they borrowed from us! While they work handsomely there, they work even better in Las Cruces.

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Informal Hedging: softening or blocking the background, to enclose and privatize a space all year must be done without losing existing scenes and borrowed views. Such a balance will be a challenge in more than one area of my compact property.

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While I had several Rhus ovata / Sugarbush at my first Albuquerque house, they were not used at my last house, so they get a leg up! This plant’s crisp, evergreen foliage and colors always got accolades.

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Unusual Fillers: another specific plant packed in more than I would have thought grabbed my attention. Euphorbia antisyphillitica / Candelilla is native to lower elevations in the Chihuahuan Desert. Rarely used in southern New Mexico’s valley, it sustained only a little freeze damage at -5F to +5F in 2011, so this could fill in some tight planting areas I have. Maybe.

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Water: on an incredibly balmy April day in 2012, this water feature told a story better than on my chilly, rain-washed “winter” day as I wore a bulky jacket. The form and warmer weather lighting nails down habitat related to the architecture and ecology. The bird might agree, too.

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Many unbelievable situations conspired to get me out of probably never doing landscape design for others again, but that changes when it’s for me! I can see clean lines that reflect my modest home’s form, including a water feature with sculptural, spreading desert plants that thrive where I am.

So, ignore saguaros, palo verdes, or other tender, low desert fare. That tends to come with the territory in Phoenix.

Yes, there will be Gambel’s Quail, Curvebill Thrasher, Roadrunner, and several species of hummingbirds in my garden, especially if I can splurge on such a water feature.

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Crunchy and Permeable: with only 10 percent of the space here, I’ll have less of this same thing, probably with larger 3/4 inch crushed rock so it’s less messy when walking inside onto carpet in the office to change the song, or the bedrooms.

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Imagine the warm, crunchy sound walking on it, with the ability of the surface to absorb storm water to benefit tree roots. I’ll have less impervious paving than I did at the last house.

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Light It Up: in summer, darkness means it’s bearable to be outside. Even if I momentarily spot the glowing eyes of a mountain lion or the careful pace of a coyote watching me on the grill. And at any time of the year, it’s nice to extend indoor living out, even if one bundles up to do so during our drive-by winter.

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Contrasts

While in Phoenix for other matters, I first took time out to visit their world-class Desert Botanical Garden. I was in search for design inspiration and some relaxation.

Contrast is something I appreciate, being a flowers-optional designer in a 2 dormant seasons climate. Somewhat like the low desert in Phoenix, except as you’ll see they have no true winter unlike Las Cruces’ 2 month “hit and run” winter.

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The tans and browns of walls and permeable decomposed granite walkway, sure. But without the bold forms and dominant use of blue-green accent plants, this would look weaker. The yellow line of (overused) Echinocactus grusonii doesn’t hurt, here.

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Same as earlier shot, except angular agaves with a semi-circular seat wall make this pop. So does something I learned at my first job in ‘8*: provide a reveal on a wall to create more shadow and dimension.

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I enjoyed this on my cool, cloudy Monday as much as on a warm April day my first visit here in 2012. Yellow with tans and blue-greens, bold with the wall edge and crunchy walking.

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The water feature in the middle was more captivating when warmer. Since I want a blue wall or two, a yellow wall might also be needed nearby. This is not a massed planting, but a highly naturalistic one, typical of many xeriscape designs in the Sonoran Desert.

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Same direction and module, yet different materials…concrete and steel.

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This is the closest thing I saw at DBG that fits in with the whole Marfa minimalism schtick. Oddly, this gridded massing contrasts 2 Chihuahuan Desert species…undervalued Agave lechuguilla and alienesque Euphorbia antisyphilitica.

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This is a great, sculptural arc of dark with bright, and wet with dry. The dark beach pebbles are a good texture.

While out of my price range for now, something about it could be abstracted with my area’s own hardy desert plants behind it to work. Cholla anyone?

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You bet, since chollas are a symbol of my region, yet highly underused or used poorly. I specified them occasionally including using a few different species of cholla at my old house. A colleague even admired my former trio of the silver-form Cylindropuntia echinocarpa in pots, saying, “of course you would use chollas!”

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What seals the deal on the Desert Botanical Garden, other than various designers’ inputs, is the sense-of-place created.

There’s no denying their garden is in the Desert Southwest, right down to the specific location. There’s no compromise by using contradictory imagery, either.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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