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For The Garden

Courtyard Conversion

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: June, 2013, Page 54
Photos by Richard Maack

The homeowners positioned a palo verde tree so that its bare branches allow full sun to reach their vegetable beds in winter. In summer, its leafy canopy offers protection from the sun.

Jeanette and Eric Sletten’s Front-Yard Renovation Builds Community

Neighbors strolling by Jeanette and Eric Sletten’s Scottsdale home may be invited over with a friendly wave to enjoy a glass of wine in the charming courtyard they created three years ago. The outdoor living room allows the couple to chat with neighbors in a fragrant and serene setting.

The original front yard was installed in the mid-80s and reflected the common design of that era—a flat expanse of Bermuda grass, oleander, Texas ranger and palm trees. “When we moved here after retiring eight years ago, we thought we wouldn’t need to make changes, but then Jeanette discovered gardening,” recalls Eric with a smile.

Jeanette explains that she first planted vegetables in an old raised bed on the northwest side of the house. It received insufficient sunlight, and plants grew leggy, reaching toward the sun. “Our front yard has a southern exposure, perfect for vegetables, but all that space was going to waste on grass and palms,” she states.

After redesigning their front yard, the Slettens—Jeanette, Eric and poodle Maury—enjoy savings of more than $200 per month on reduced maintenance and water bills.
Redesigning the Space
“The palm trees provided no shade, were messy, and we had to hire someone to climb up and prune them,” comments Eric. The day a lightning strike set one of their palms on fire, the homeowners decided it was time to consider alternatives. They came up with three goals to renovate the front yard: Create a pleasant courtyard to encourage interaction with neighbors; take advantage of the sunny exposure to grow vegetables; and exchange the old plant palette for desert-friendly choices that also provide shade and color while reducing water and maintenance costs.

“Our neighbor, Debbie Rauch, is an interior designer, and she helped us with plant aesthetics and paver selection,” says Jeanette. They hired Premier Outdoor Solutions to remove the lawn and old plants, including 13 palm trees in the front and back yards. (The homeowners kept one Canary Island palm because it was a manageable size and shape, and its girth provided a bit of shade.) Premier built the courtyard wall and raised vegetable beds, laid permeable patio pavers, and installed lighting and plants.

Using repurposed materials, metal artist Lyle London created the garden gate, which provides access from the open front yard to the enclosed courtyard. “The gate includes a mesh screen with a three-quarter reveal that allows us to see through to the street while maintaining privacy,” notes Eric. A “hidden” handle discourages visits from solicitors. Openings in the courtyard wall on either side of the gate include lighting. A water feature and trees are also lit, allowing the couple to enjoy time outdoors at night.

The Slettens transformed the once-barren narrow strip between their property wall and sidewalk with cacti, succulents and wildflowers.
Plant Selection
The courtyard is enveloped by soothing sounds from a water feature, which is made of Arizona copper. Jeanette plants the flowerbed in front of it with a seasonal mix of colorful and fragrant bloomers, such as lavender and sweet alyssum.

Selecting landscape plants that thrive, especially in the aftermath of severe cold spells, has involved trial and error. Over the past few years, they have lost original plantings of lantana, popcorn senna and verbena to frost, and the rabbits munched on bush morning glory. “My goal with plants now is that they must take full sun, be drought tolerant, and if they might be frost sensitive, I don’t want them,” jokes Jeanette. When possible, she suggests purchasing locally grown plants that are adapted to local conditions. For example, a nursery tag might say a plant takes “full sun” although full sun for plants grown in a California nursery is not as intense as full sun in the Phoenix area, she cautions.

The front yard between the street and courtyard wall contains colorful fountain plant (Russelia equisetiformis), gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), ‘Little John’ dwarf bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus ‘Little John’) and sweet pea shrub (Polygala x dalmaisiana), which features unusual purplish-pink flowers with winged petals. These low-growing plants don’t block views and remain a manageable size for reduced maintenance.

Jeanette and Eric tend the plants themselves, including lightly pruning trees only as needed to remove damaged or crossing branches. They allow shrubs to grow to their natural shapes, rather than shearing them into tight cubes and balls that eliminate flower buds and color.

Spring-blooming scarlet flowers of Eaton’s penstemon draw hummingbirds into the courtyard. Permeable pea gravel paths allow rainwater to soak into the ground.
Growing Vegetables
Inside the courtyard wall, Premier built two raised vegetable beds of cement blocks covered in stucco. Water lines were plumbed during construction to come up through the beds. Jeanette lays soaker hoses for even water distribution when sowing seeds or setting out transplants. “Soaker hose is easy to move as needed,” she says. (See Jeanette’s Favorite Veggies, Page 57.)

Initially, the beds were filled with garden-quality soil, and Jeanette mixed in compost and steer manure. Now, she manages her own compost pile, and incorporates additional compost and steer manure into the beds each fall to replenish organic matter and nutrients. “I also top the soil with straw mulch to maintain moisture,” she notes.

“The raised beds are a comfortable height without having to be on our knees to tend them,” says Eric. “We buy about 60 percent less produce now that we harvest from these beds. Everything we grow—broccoli, peas, tomatoes—it all tastes so much better than store-bought.”

The couple chose to add smaller-stature trees so that their canopies will not block the sun from the vegetable beds when they mature. In different seasons, trees provide blooms, including cascalote (yellow flowers in winter), palo verde (yellow spring flowers) and chaste tree (lavender blooms in summer).

Photos - From left: A sitting area in the courtyard features a mesh gate (behind the chairs) that allows visibility toward the sidewalk, yet creates privacy. • A cottage-garden blend of sweet alyssum, geranium, snapdragon and lavender fills the flower bed in front of a copper water feature.

Happy With the Results
“The renovation created a huge lifestyle difference for us,” comments Eric. “We spend time outside every day, enjoying the space and meeting people. Several of our neighbors transformed their front yards into usable courtyards after visiting ours. As an added benefit, we no longer pay monthly maintenance for tree and lawn care, and our water bill is about half what it used to be,” he states. “We’re saving about $200-$250 per month on reduced maintenance and water, while enjoying fresh, healthy produce and lots of colorful plants.”

Neighborhood kids come over to check out the vegetable beds, and they take home seeds or fresh produce. After experiencing the friendly interaction that has blossomed with their front-yard garden, Jeanette, a Master Gardener with University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, decided to use her advanced training to help promote school and community gardens.

“In my Iowa hometown, I actually grew up on Main Street, and I remember sitting on the porch with family and talking to neighbors as part of everyday life,” she says. “Relatively small changes in a landscape’s design can help us recreate that sense of community.”

Jeanette’s Favorite Veggies
Eggplant: ‘Rosa Bianca’
Green pepper: ‘Better Belle’
Lettuce: ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’
Peas: ‘Sugar Snap’
Romaine: ‘Parris Island’
Squash: ‘Early Yellow Crookneck’
Tomato: ‘Champion’, ‘Early Girl’, ‘Juliet’
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