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For The Garden

Mexican-Style Garden

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: August, 2013, Page 62
Photos by Richard Maack

Succulents and perennials line the courtyard path, which leads to a hand-painted arch.

Joe Miracle and Kent DeYoung Convert Their Lakeside Property Into a Traditional Hacienda Retreat

Over the past 15 years, Joe Miracle and Kent DeYoung have skillfully intermingled desert-adapted plants, bright colors and Mexican art to overcome the many challenges presented by their Mesa, Arizona, property. During that time, they gradually transformed three ho-hum yard spaces into cohesive outdoor living areas showcasing festive south-of-the-border spirit.

Their patio home is located next to a man-made lake in a residential community. The existing small backyard included an upper wood deck as well as steps and a steep terraced slope to the water. The view from the kitchen window across the side yard—only about 10 feet wide—was of a blank white stucco wall belonging to their neighbor’s home. The front yard offered the most useable space, but consisted of poorly sited trees and shrubs, plus gravel mulch.

The homeowners began by replacing overgrown plants that blocked views with desert species or garden elements to create the Southwestern look they desired. One of their first projects was to remove a tall oleander bush blocking the home’s entry and set a concrete Mexican fountain in its place. The fountain is now the centerpiece of a charming courtyard garden.

A Day-of-the-Dead-themed metal sculpture greets visitors in the side yard.
Eventually, they removed most of the original plants, replacing them primarily with an ever-expanding collection of cacti, succulents and wildflowers. “We kept the pittosporums because they survived the summer heat, gave us privacy and we liked the look of them,” explains Miracle.

Although the remodeling process was one of trial and error, the results demonstrate Miracle’s love of plants, DeYoung’s adept use of color, and the joy they share in collecting and displaying Mexican art. Following are ideas they used to achieve their garden’s special ambience.

Make It Your Own
Miracle and DeYoung stay on the lookout for structural elements or pleasing colors that can be adapted to their landscape. The idea for their front yard’s Spanish courtyard wall came from another home in their community. “It reminds us of adobe walls in Santa Fe—a place we love,” says Miracle. The wall is constructed of cement blocks stuccoed with a smooth finish.

Joe Miracle (left) and Kent DeYoung transformed their ’80s-era yard into an inviting Southwest garden.
Plants & Color
The neighbor’s house wall forms one boundary of their very narrow side yard, which has a northern exposure that is difficult for growing desert plants. “The sun beats down in summer, while the rest of the year, there’s no direct sunlight,” Miracle explains. “Also, water from our roof and our neighbor’s roof drains into that space, so rain floods the pavers and the ground stays wet and cold in winter, with moss growing on the pavers,” says DeYoung.

Finding plants to tolerate the hot summer sun and wet winter soil involves ongoing experimentation. So far, aloe and elephant’s food have performed the best.

In lieu of blooming plants, the homeowners enlivened the space with color by obtaining their neighbor’s permission to paint his wall a sun-drenched shade of amber. (The patio homes’ adjacent layout is such that the neighbor doesn’t see his own wall.) The vivid backdrop provides a canvas on which to display Mexican art—a year-round source of color.

“We like to visit Mexican import stores,” says Miracle. “The Talavera pottery, the whimsical art—their bright colors bring a garden to life, especially when plants aren’t blooming.”

Eclectic art and an amber wall infuse the side yard with color. Elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) covers the baker’s rack.
Introduce Art
In spaces too narrow for a tree or with poor growing conditions, the homeowners position sculpture or other artwork to grab attention. “Art doesn’t require water, and you can take it with you if you move,” comments DeYoung. At the side yard’s entrance, a metal Day of the Dead statue pops vividly against the amber wall.

One year, the couple purchased a lifesize metal burro for their front yard as a mutual Christmas gift. “I bought the front half,” quips DeYoung. The burro stands beneath a palo brea tree that they transplanted when it was “just a stick with four or five branches.” The burro is part of the quintessential hacienda scene they created, which includes the courtyard wall—painted iron-ore red—and its weathered wooden doors and tiled arch.

Local artist Robin Ray hand-painted the arch with a garland of flowers. When positioning art or other garden features, the couple considers different vantage points. “We initially thought to have Robin paint the side facing the street, but Kent suggested that if her artistry faced the house, we would be able to enjoy it from the courtyard as well as the living room window,” Miracle explains.

Pot It Up
Their landscape has limited space, demanding exposures and poor soil drainage. Miracle solves those problems by growing hundreds of plants in containers that line walkways and fill just about every available space on their deck. “Pots allow me to make a soil mix for each plant type, and I move them around for the best light,” he explains.

Containers also offer another method for introducing color and art into the garden. In addition to Talavera pottery, the duo seeks one-of-a-kind creations by local artists, including Mike Cone, Debora Life, and Jim Sudal.

Photos - from left: Before •  After - A yellow-variegated agave, cobalt-blue pot and a wall painted an iron-ore hue, provide impact in the front yard. Spring wildflowers are allowed to go to seed, while late-blooming aloes take over. A rusted-metal burro stands in the shade of the palo brea tree, where Moroccan stars are suspended from branches.
Share What You Know
Miracle has broadened his gardening savvy as a member of Central Arizona Cacti & Succulent Society and invites anyone with an interest to come to a meeting. “We have knowledgeable people who are  glad to answer questions, and members share plants, so it’s an inexpensive way to expand your collection,” he suggests.

Both homeowners are members of Friends of Mexican Art, a non-profit group that promotes friendship and understanding between Arizona and the people of Mexico. “Kent and I enjoy seeing homes and gardens of group members,” says Miracle. The two also open their home and garden for tours to share their enthusiasm and answer questions about plant care and collecting art.

“I do the bulk of the gardening, while Kent has a great eye for color combos and positioning elements,” Miracle points out. Their collaboration obviously works because their landscape remodeling efforts were recognized in 2011 with two awards from the city of Mesa: An Extraordinary Property Award as well as the Mayor’s Award for Building a Better Mesa.

Photos - from left: With its festive ambience and lake view, the backyard deck is ideal for entertaining. Joe Miracle creates the metal pinwheel flowers from cans. The chandelier, which the homeowners had wired for electricity, was a $20 bargain from a secondhand shop. • Bright-blue chairs beckon at a lakeside spot offering afternoon shade and often, a cooling breeze. The homeowners purchased the wind spinner at a gallery in Santa Fe. A chiminea warms the area on cool nights.

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