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for the garden
desert gardening basics
the hillside gardener
The Hillside Gardener
February, 2013, Page 69
Photos by Tom Bean
The DIY homeowners constructed paths, stairs, a footbridge and terraced rock gardens to convert their steep lot into a user-friendly landscape.
Christine Robinson Weaves a Colorful Garden Tapestry Using Foliage and Flowers
Christine Robinson was undeterred by the challenging topography of the Prescott, Arizona, mountainside lot where she and her husband built their retirement home. Although shaped like a large mixing bowl—with steep sides and a flat bottom—the lot gave Robinson an opportunity to design a unique garden.
She ordered 10 truckloads of boulders from an excavation company to supplement those that were onsite and worked with a backhoe operator to hoist and reposition them. “We wrapped the chain around each boulder. He lifted, and I guided the boulders to where I wanted them set,” Robinson recalls. With the boulders in place and providing overall structure, she alone tackled the laborious process of hand stacking smaller rocks to shape walls and terraced planting beds. “If I put my mind to it, I can do it,” states the determined gardener.
Robinson backfilled spaces among the rocks with soil to create planting areas, mixing whatever native soil was available with bags of garden soil. She top-dressed beds with a layer of bark mulch composed of small pieces that would decompose quickly and help build healthy soil. Robinson started the project 12 years ago, and her planting medium is now richer and easier to cultivate. She replenishes the bark mulch every other year, doing a section at a time so that it is not a big chore.
Christine Robinson enjoys flowers from her cutting garden.
Because of the lot’s steepness, the couple built terraced walls and walkways around the front of the house to control erosion and improve accessibility. The terracing also contributed to the yard’s bowl-like shape and created an unusual microclimate in which to experiment. Protected from wind, the bowl remains cooler in summer and warmer in winter than is typical for the area.
Tall trees surrounding the front-yard planting beds create varied sun exposures and also provide relief from the summer’s hot sun. “Sun exposure may change throughout the day from full sun to partial sun to full shade, but overall, most plants receive filtered light much of the day,” observes Robinson.
To ensure the eye is stimulated year-round, Robinson incorporated evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs with varied textures and colors—deep green, gray-green, blue, yellow, and burgundy, as well as variegated foliage.
Diverse perennials interspersed among shrubs bloom from early spring to late fall; annuals are tucked in for added bursts of color. “Gardening is my artistic outlet,” comments Robinson. “Placing plants to maximize their beauty is my version of painting.”
One trick she uses is to group a specific flower species or flower hue in a mass planting so that the color pops against surrounding foliage.
Photos - From left: A fairy is tucked in the garden for grandchildren to discover. • Trees and shrubs with green, blue, yellow, burgundy and variegated foliage offer seasonal interest year-round. An enormous orange-blooming trumpet vine on the right encircles a tree trunk.
A Fairy Garden Evolves
An ivy-covered arbor with a fairy suspended from it arches over stone steps. “When my grandchildren were young, I set two small fairy statues on the steps, and they called them the fairy steps,” recalls Robinson. She added a few more fairies among the plants, and while mowing the lawn one day noticed a newcomer: a bronze fairy sat on a diminutive white chair at the base of a pine tree. A neighbor had secretly placed it in the garden. Other fairies mysteriously appear from time to time as the neighborhood joins in the fun.
The fairies rest amid a pretty blend of tiny flowers suited to their wee stature, such as bluebells, purple aster and weigela, a deciduous shrub covered with pink bell-shaped flowers.
Color abounds in the rock-filled garden, where blue salvia, yellow yarrow, pink mums and orange zinnias flourish under Christine Robinson’s care.
The homeowner positioned the boulders and stacked rocks by hand to create planting areas for trees and shrubs.
Christine Robinson’s artistic vision takes flight in her garden beds with the varied colors, textures and forms she incorporates with plants and rocks.
Fairies are not the only creatures drawn to the garden. A salamander has lived in a small hole under the rocks for several years. Robinson is grateful for the many lizards that scurry around, consuming insects. Goldfinches cling to drying flower stalks to glean seeds; hummingbirds zoom back and forth; and birds nest throughout the landscape.
The homeowners were hands-on during the transformation of their landscape. Other than using a backhoe to lift boulders, they have performed all the labor themselves, laying flagstone and building wooden terraces, railings, an arbor, a bridge and a wishing well. “We even used a two-man handsaw to slice through railroad ties that a chainsaw couldn’t cut,” recalls Robinson.
“I’m proud of the garden because we did it ourselves, and I handle all of the planting and maintenance,” she remarks. “Many people stop to look and chat, and it’s a treat for me to share my garden with them.”
Wishing a Problem Away
Christine Robinson realized that hauling a lawn mower up and down the steep steps to mow a small patch of grass would be cumbersome. She solved the problem with a decorative wishing well that protects and disguises the mower housed inside. She and her husband built it, using block and a wooden access door, covered the well with faux stone, and situated it on the small patch of lawn near the fairy garden. The mower handles fold down to fit through the door.
The Robinsons’ landscape was on Prescott’s Alta Vista Garden Club 2012 tour. The next tour is scheduled for June 14, 2014. The club meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month from January through October; guests are welcome. For details, visit
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