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For The Garden

Renovating a Hot Landscape

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: August, 2013, Page 110
Photos by Art Holeman

Once a plain, blisteringly hot backyard, this landscape was transformed with impressive cacti, massive boulders, a pool update and a new ramada that absorbs summer heat and offers protection from wind and rain.

Careful Observation Spurs the Transformation of a Hot Backyard Into a Retreat for Year-Round Entertainment

When Bob and Jo Gemmill purchased their Carefree, Arizona, home in 2001, the 2-acre property appeared to offer plenty of outdoor elbow room. After moving in, however, they learned otherwise. “We had a lot of space, but there were almost no comfortable spots to enjoy being outside,” Jo recalls. “The backyard has a full western exposure that can be brutally hot in the afternoon,” adds Bob.

Although their home has a 125-foot-long covered deck, when the sun’s angle dropped in the west, it didn’t block the intense sunlight. In addition, the swimming pool was surrounded by outdated decking. “It was boiling hot and burned our feet,” says Jo.

As transplants to Arizona from rainy climates—Jo from London and Bob from Seattle—the Sonoran Desert’s plant palette was unfamiliar. The previous owners had installed numerous 2-gallon shrubs that were fashionable when the house was built in the 1980s, the Gemmills remark. “The bushes were sheared like sheep into mounds, looked good for only a couple weeks each year, and they dropped a lot of litter that collected on top of the pool cover,” says Jo. Finding a 4-foot-long snake among the litter was another motivator to renovate.

After living in the home for five years, the couple had a thorough understanding of the backyard’s problems and its potential. They started the remodeling project with these goals: add a ramada to provide relief from the sun’s western exposure; update and expand the pool and spa area by replacing existing decking with flagstone and installing an outdoor shower; and sculpt a natural desert garden with boulders, plants and soil mounding. “Dave Peterson, a landscape designer with Azul-Verde Design Group, had the expertise to make our ideas happen,” states Bob.

“To really enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sonoran Desert, we wanted to create a true Southwest-style livable space in our backyard,” says Bob Gemmill. Designed with a latilla roof, ponderosa vigas and various types of stone, this multi-functional ramada includes custom-made doors that protect the television and appliances from weather and dust storms.
According to Peterson, “Bob provided a general layout of what they wanted, and we worked hand-in-hand to achieve it.” For example, Bob suggested angling the ramada’s position so that its solid back wall faced west to block direct afternoon sunlight. Made of cement block, the thick wall inhibits heat buildup in the ramada’s spacious interior.

“In the pool area, the challenge was to turn its rectilinear geometry into flowing lines without ripping out the entire pool,” Peterson explains. He addressed the issue by cantilevering the flagstone over the pool edges to “soften” them. He also positioned boulders and fill dirt to shape mounds with plantings to camouflage straight lines.

Retaining original plants where feasible, Peterson incorporated cacti and succulents throughout the landscape, as well as desert trees and groundcovers for color or shade.

In 2006, the project received an Excellence in Landscaping Award for Single Family Residential Installation from the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association. More importantly, the homeowners are delighted with the results. Bob remarks, “It was finished on budget and on time, and it turned out exactly as we had envisioned.”

Golden barrel, desert spoon and striking blue yucca specimens fill a corner nook adjacent to the guest casita.

The backyard renovation took its cue from the home’s existing features, such as these traditional hacienda doors that mark the home’s entrance.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Landscape designer Dave Peterson added tons of granite boulders to transform the flat backyard and disguise the pool area’s rectangular lines. He sited the boulders and pots to direct foot traffic safely from one area to another. • In winter, the guest casita’s adobe fireplace warms visitors enjoying the views. Equipal chairs and a table with a wrought-iron base are set atop flagstone flooring. • The homeowners enjoy adding iconic Southwestern elements, such as this weathered wagon, to the landscape. Ocotillo, desert spoon, golden barrel and saguaro underscore the theme. • Weathered wagon wheels, a gnarly mesquite tree and varied cacti create this desert scene. The gate’s rising sun motif mimics the shadows cast by the wheels. The homeowners propagated the prickly pear in the corner from single pad cuttings.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating access to the backyard from the street during construction. A crane was required to lift huge specimen plants and 6-ton boulders across the property.

BIGGEST DISCOVERY: The wooden wagon. Bob Gemmill visited numerous Arizona towns seeking an old wooden wagon to display in the landscape. Eventually, he found one in nearby Cave Creek. The wagon also had to be craned into place. “Watching it fly over the property was like a scene from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’” his wife recalls.

BIGGEST SPLURGE: Flagstone. The Gemmills selected flagstone with attractive color variations. However, its dense composition was more difficult to cut than other types. “Cutting it took considerable time, and the installers chewed through a lot of expensive blades,” Bob confides.
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