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For The Garden

Mexican-style Garden

Author: Nancy Erdmann
Issue: October, 2012, Page 100
Photos by Richard Maack

Homeowner David McElheran wanted to be surrounded by a “total tropical garden atmosphere” in his Sun Lakes, Arizona, backyard.



Inspired By Mexico’s Coastal Gardens, a North-of-the-Border Resident Creates His Own Oasis in the Desert

Canadian resident David McElheran was no stranger to Arizona when he purchased a winter home three years ago in Sun Lakes, about 45 minutes south of Phoenix. Having visited friends in the adult community many times, the recently retired interior designer thought of it as the perfect place to escape Canada’s harsh winters. It also meant a fresh challenge for the creative thinker.

“The day I found this property, it was love at first sight,” he recalls. “I was looking for something quite small, and being a designer, I knew I could make this my own personal retreat. By the time the checks changed hands, I had my drawings started for the interior, exterior and outdoor living spaces.”

Envisioning his new home with an Italian/Spanish feel, McElheran wanted a yard with a tropical ambience that offered hints of Spain and Mexico. It also was important that views to the outdoors from anywhere in the house be worthy of attention. “I treated each view of the exterior as a complete picture,” he says. “Day or night, wherever you look, it is complete.”

The designer began by removing all of the existing vegetation, concrete patios, sidewalks, driveways and shade structures. Raising the roof on the home allowed for a new patio overhang, which now encompasses two sides of the residence. Under it, he built an outdoor kitchen, lounging area and living room, all anchored by an enormous stone-clad fireplace.

A colorful ceramic frog adds south-of-the-border appeal to the garden. The homeowner chose the wall’s red hue based on one he saw at a resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Beyond the footprint of the back patio, McElheran worked with pool designer Jeff Heins. “I told Jeff I wanted my pool to make me say ‘Wow’ when I came around the corner, and it does,” says the homeowner. The heated play pool has waterfalls, bubbling underwater fountains, “rope” fountains that spray above the water, and an LED light system that illuminates the pool in a rainbow of colors. “At night, with the flame pots casting their reflections on the cobalt blue water, it’s absolutely mesmerizing,” he says.

In the remaining garden spaces, McElheran incorporated several destination spots, as well as “pathways to nowhere” to visually extend the size of the yard. He chose full-grown palms and shrubbery, along with specimen-size plants, for an immediate mature look.

The setting has been a hit with friends and neighbors, and the homeowner entertains often. “The lighting, waterfalls and exterior music system keep guests late into the night,” he admits. “The pool, with its amazing light system, has been the best. And when it’s not full of friends, it is a wonderful place to just relax and chill out.”


The covered pool patio is filled with an array of furnishings, including a pair of seagrass sofas. Water from a raised spa and tiered waterfall spills into the dark-surfaced play pool. In the back of the yard is a rock-faced banco set into a curved red wall that hides an outdoor shower and pool equipment.
A shaded dining area tucked among large fruit trees is an unexpected find behind the patio’s massive fireplace. Two oversized urns set on stone pedestals add dramatic impact. Flooring is Arizona Moss Rock.


David McElheran designed his tile-accented outdoor kitchen with an infrared heating system. Cantera columns offset the visual weight of the stone-clad fireplace.
The homeowner worked closely with contractor Adrian Villalobos to create a feeling of rusticity in his yard. When the project was finished, Villalobos presented
McElheran with this trio of rusted-metal “Amigos” figures.
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