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for the garden
desert gardening basics
October, 2013, Page 60
Photos by Art Holeman
Fragrant herbs and the soothing sound of water create a peaceful respite between the back patio and guest casita.
A Tucson Couple Refashions the Yard of Their Historic Home
I thought North Carolina’s weather was fine until we moved to Tucson five years ago,” comments Laura Gail Lunsford. “The weather here is fantastic, and we love to be out in the yard.” She and husband, Art Padilla, purchased a Pueblo Revival-style home in the city’s Jefferson Park historic neighborhood. Its landscape had good features, including a courtyard fountain, a charming brick path and mature mesquite and palo verde trees for shade. However, the planting areas needed attention. Some of the spaces were overgrown, while others were bare; so the couple started “editing,” as Lunsford describes it, to create a haven for outdoor living.
They began by removing two dead citrus trees, a poorly sited apricot tree and invasive pampas grass. Oleander shrubs were trimmed to provide screening, and an aggressive Lady Banks’ rose plant that blocked windows on the guest casita and sprawled over other plants was brought under control.
With room to reinvent the space, the couple started incorporating vegetation offering fragrance and color, such as artemisia, lavender, Mexican honeysuckle, penstemon, rosemary and salvia. “These plants stay manageable in size and reduce maintenance, which was our goal,” explains Padilla. “We also transplanted creosote bush to enjoy its wonderful aroma after rainfall,” adds Lunsford.
Photos - From left: Laura Gail Lunsford harvests fresh greens from her garden. • Vibrant paint colors transform metal chairs into a lively dining set, while painted walls brighten the alfresco entertaining area. In the corner, a corrugated-metal shed—also enlivened with paint—holds garden tools and other outdoor necessities.
Edibles in the Landscape
The homeowners wanted to take advantage of Arizona’s cool-season gardening weather to harvest fresh herbs and vegetables from the backyard. “I do most of the cooking,” says Padilla, “while Laura Gail provides the ingredients.” She grows culinary favorites—arugula, basil, chives, cilantro and parsley—just a few steps from the back door for easy access. Arugula, cilantro and parsley go to seed and self-sow, although the basil is replanted because it freezes before setting seed. “Chives also die back with cold, but they resprout when weather warms,” notes Padilla.
A prancing metal horse casts its shadow near a bed of red salvias.
Vegetables are easy to tend in the waist-high redwood planter box purchased at a Scottsdale farmers’ market. From September through April or May, depending on the weather, the planter overflows with assorted leaf lettuces, radishes and rainbow and Swiss chard. Lunsford lets the box go fallow when summer’s heat arrives.
The backyard’s brick pathway curves out of sight around the casita. “We like that the disappearing path lends a bit of mystery to the space,” mentions Padilla. The path ends in the citrus orchard at the back of the property, which contains ‘Ruby Red’ grapefruit, ‘Meyer’ lemon and a tangerine—all dwarf-size trees. Standard-size ‘Hamlin’ and ‘Trovita’ sweet oranges thrive near the dining table, enveloping the area in sweet fragrance during bloom.
As they redesigned their landscape, the homeowners embraced Tucson’s vibrant Southwestern color palette. “Art has roots in Key West, Florida, another region that isn’t afraid to use color, so we were happy to be able to incorporate color throughout,” Lunsford remarks. Backyard walls painted mustard yellow lighten the long, narrow space and provide a backdrop to enhance the lush, green foliage of nearby citrus and pomegranate trees.
While visiting Tucson Botanical Gardens, Lunsord noticed brightly painted vintage metal chairs, which inspired her to pick up old chairs at swap meets. Using the entire color spectrum, she painted a round table and eclectic chairs to produce their one-of-a-kind outdoor dining set.
In shady spots where plants don’t thrive, metal flowers provide cheerful no-fuss alternatives.
In the front yard’s shady areas, multicolored Mexican metal flower sculptures take the place of live plants. The couple had experimented with various plants in the shady conditions with marginal success. They tried purple prickly pear cactus for a splash of color, but the pads remained green without sunlight. “We’ve moved agave and aloe plants beneath the tree canopies and they do well in the filtered light, but most flowering plants received insufficient sun to bloom or thrive,” observes Lunsford.
Although desert gardening was initially confusing, the couple quickly adapted with hands-on experience as well as knowledge gained from a drip irrigation class. Within a few years, they have created a soothing respite for themselves as well as an inviting habitat for butterflies, birds and lizards.
“We enjoy sitting on the patio and watching hummingbirds in the fountain,” Lunsford says. “The fountain dampens exterior noise,” adds Padilla. “So it’s like being surrounded by quiet, natural space rather than an urban environment.”
Sculptural agaves, hesperaloe and other succulents thrive in the filtered light beneath the front yard tree canopies. The trickling sound of water from a Mexican cantera fountain welcomes visitors approaching the home.
A decorative metal gate opens to the backyard, where a covered patio offers a shady respite on hot days.
When building an addition to their home, the owners ensured that rain from the roof would be channeled via a swale to soak in around the front yard’s trees and succulents.
The waist-high redwood garden box is big enough to grow a variety of edibles and makes tending them a snap. The reddish-orange flowers on the pomegranate tree draw hummingbirds to the yard.
Laura Gail Lunsford attended a free class on drip irrigation and effective watering, co-sponsored by Tucson Water and Pima County Cooperative Extension’s Smartscape program.
She learned the importance of placing trees, shrubs and smaller plants and pots on at least three separate irrigation lines. “This allows plants to be watered at different intervals for varying amounts of time to soak through their root systems,” she explains. She and her husband also installed a “smart” irrigation controller, which uses local weather data to automatically replenish soil moisture as needed.
Tucson Water offers classes in rainwater harvesting, gray water and waterwise design. Learn more at
. Contact your local water conservation department for similar classes and information.
Do not place a fountain beneath a mesquite tree. The litter drop into the fountain requires diligent removal to keep the water clear and prevent the motor from burning out.
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