Back Portal Redesign Phase 3

Creating a view!

I mentioned previously that when we selected our NM home, one of the things we had to let go of was a house with a view.  Technically, we have peek-a-boo views of the mountains from a few windows, also from a few specific spots in the yard, but there isn’t anywhere that gives you that “wow, would you look at that view” feeling. Certainly not the end of the world, as we love our new home more and more the longer we live here, but as much as we were enjoying the outdoor living with our portal, the little back yard that it overlooked was pretty dismal. 

The far side of the portal had a roughly 3-foot tall retaining wall holding back the back yard, and the yard space was enclosed by the house on one side and a much taller retaining wall as the long side of the triangle.  It was such an odd mix…scraggly plants we couldn’t identify, an assortment of concrete blocks used to edge beds, a tree with orange berries and wild onions growing at the base….and a cluster of the most beautiful Iris plants I had ever seen!  Running through the middle of all of this was a Y-shaped dry river bed with partially buried river rocks – hundreds of them – which seemed such an odd choice here in the high desert…

The good...the bad...and the "what is this and why is it here?"

We cleaned up, pruned, discarded…and decided we had much more to learn about landscaping in this environment.  So, our next stop was the SF Botanical Garden, and a tour with a very helpful docent.  We learned that we were over-watering the native plants and under-watering things like the fruit trees…in fact, on one trip to a local nursery, I asked the tree specialist about how much water to give the fruit trees (a few new ones that we had planted out front, as well as an established peach tree).  I mentioned that I was trying to balance keeping the trees healthy and not having a $400 water bill every month – her reply (with strained politeness) was “90% of fruit is water, and you’re trying to grow it in the desert…you’re going to have a water bill!”  Her eye-roll was implied 😉

We also met with a landscape designer (Donna Ehle of Mariposa Landscaping) who was incredibly helpful, and we learned so much from her.  Donna is the one who explained the dry river bed, which is actually an intentional, critically important part of the drainage plan for the yard.  Why do you need a drainage plan in the desert, where it rarely rains?  As it turns out, there are two reasons.  First, when it rains here, it rains hard!  Really hard! There must be a path for the water to take, as it comes down much faster that the ground can absorb it.  Second, the houses have flat roofs with sides but no gutters, so there must be a way to keep the water from collecting on the roof during a downpour, or the roof structure could be damaged. Enter the Parapets and Canales – the parapets are cutouts along the side of the roof walls (yes, just like on the tower of a castle), and the canales are the traditional spouts where the water travels to get off the roof.  This spout creates a waterfall, and the water lands in the dry river rock bed, which carries the water away from the house, and ultimately to the street.  As she was explaining this, I looked around and realized, sure enough, there was a collection of rocks under each and every canale, at various points around the perimeter of the whole house – one of the many amazing things that we learned about NM in that first year!

Both functional and decorative, Canales are often painted bright colors to add detail and interest to flat roofs.  There is a current trend to add contemporary styling to Pueblo architecture, and in that case the canales are often metal instead of the traditional wood shown here.

Coming up with a plan...

 We were so impressed with Donna, we asked her to create a design for our back yard. Remember how we like to dream big?  Our goal was to access the back corner of the lot (behind the tall retaining wall, so a higher elevation - and mountain views!) and her plan was fabulous - modifying the retaining walls to enlarge the space, putting in a hot tub, and planting a variety of plants and trees that would thrive here.  We talked about putting in some steps from the portal, so we could easily access the new hot tub – we would completely transform the space! 

We knew it was a really big plan, and something we wouldn't be able to implement for a while, but it was such fun to think about!

We spent a few months in that space of “This project would be so amazing…but the scope is enormous, and probably not the best use of our resources…but this project would be so amazing!”  That space can be hard - you can envision something and know how great it could be, but even if you could afford it, would it be the right thing to do?  But this space is also one of creativity and possibilities…and that’s often where great ideas and solutions are born, so in our experience, it’s OK to sit in that space for a while 😉

I have an idea...

Meanwhile, we had found new light fixtures to hang in the portal – the original ones were not in keeping with the Pueblo style, and after 15 years were definitely showing their age.  We loved the look of this punched tin, and knew it would be perfect!  Andy was up on the ladder tending to the wiring, and I was literally just standing next to the ladder, supporting the weight of the new light until it could be secured…

I was looking across the portal at our sad little triangle of a back yard, and it hit me! What we needed was some connection…something to make this little area a part of our outdoor living space!  With the new light fixture installed, Andy got down off the ladder and looked at me, saying, “I’ve seen that look before…what are you thinking?”  “I have an idea…”, I replied.  I’ve mentioned that we’ve been doing projects together for years – without saying a word he went into the house and returned with his tape measure…”what do you have in mind?” 😉

I explained that I thought we needed to lower the wall between the portal and the back yard, which would create a visual connection between the two spaces, and then replace a section of the wall with a few steps so we could access the yard and make it a destination!  I could envision the whole thing – the newly lowered wall would be faced with flagstone, and a flagstone cap added to top, at the same height as the fireplace hearth - it would look like it had always been there.  We could landscape the back yard (now an English Garden in my mind) and there would be room for a small hot tub at the end of the new flagstone path.  I just knew the impact would be amazing, and best of all, because the scope was much smaller than the original plan, we could go ahead and get started!  Suddenly, instead of our tall retaining wall being a hinderance, it would provide the backdrop for what I knew could become a magical space!

So we hopped over the wall and started measuring, planning, and coming up with ideas…over the next two weekends we did the prep work - we removed the small tree in the center, which really opened up the space.  We removed scraggly plants from the various beds and remove the concrete blocks, which opened up the space even more.  We now knew that the river rocks need to stay, but they needed some serious attention.  There was so much silt and debris among the rocks – we suspected that this impacted their effectiveness, and it certainly made them look a mess.  So we took out the rocks, one by one (I have never harvested potatoes, but I imagine the process is similar!), and scooped out the remaining dirt and debris – what a surprise to discover that they were really more like shallow troughs lined with landscaping fabric!  Once the rocks were replaced it made such a difference – maintenance projects aren’t always fun, but the results can be significant!  

Cleaning out the dry river bed and planning the layout for the flagstone path...

We called the contractors who had built our fireplace about 6 months before, and they were able to get started the next week.  Once again, it was such a privilege to watch artisans at work, and it was fun to see them get excited about the results as the project neared completion. 

Lowering the wall from the left corner of the portal to the center column...

The wall was lowered about 8 inches, then faced and topped with flagstone.  Before (left), during (above) and after (below). Eventually the concrete floor will be covered with bricks, so we are ignoring the peeling paint for now.

On the right side of the back wall, in addition to lowering the wall, a section was cut out to create steps to access the back yard...

It was time to landscape...I had visions of an English Garden – snapdragons are one of my favorite garden flowers, and I knew they did well here.  We inherited several beautiful rose bushes when we purchased the house, and I had seen hollyhocks growing all over town the summer before, so knew they would be a great choice, too.  But we are in the desert, and so we do have to balance the need for water with the desired outcome.

Thankfully Donna’s original landscape plan had several great choices!  We chose Turkish Speedwell as a groundcover, and while it needed some babying the first summer, it is thriving now! We decided on shredded bark mulch – it’s often windy here, so mulch of some kind is needed to help minimize the water loss and blowing dirt, and wood mulch keeps the ground cooler than the gravel mulch that is prevalent in other parts of our yard (an important consideration when nurturing young plants here).  The sunlight is intense (we’re at 7200ft altitude), and the flowering plants are prolific (provided they get enough water, and aren’t fried by the UV rays…it’s a constant balance, and we are still on the learning curve).  We decided to add a fountain to the middle of the river of rocks – it’s made from a beautiful pot, and is such a great addition that we put one out by the front gate as well.  The fountain serves a few purposes – it’s really beautiful to look at, the water sounds are wonderful (and they help block the traffic noise we get when the wind is just right) and it’s a big hit when our grandchildren come to visit!

Before and after from the other side...

I have mentioned the difference to the portal when we added the outdoor curtains, but that was nothing compared to the difference when we had the wall lowered!  It was only about 8 inches, but that one change completely altered the sightline, and our little back yard was not only visible, it was inviting!

What a difference!

As I’m writing this, it’s mid-March, exactly a year later – we planted tulip and hyacinth bulbs in the fall and are excited that they have started to come up, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with how this project has turned out!  By connecting our back yard, we have expanded the outdoor living space and created the view that we were missing! This week we are having a few evergreen trees planted behind the tall retaining wall to provide some color contrast and help shade the late afternoon sun, and we’re planning what we’ll be planting in the next few months.  Definitely tomatoes and strawberries, as both did really well last year… and giant sunflowers will line the wall next to the hot tub.  In a few weeks it will be warm enough to turn on the fountain and start planting…“Gran’s Magic Garden” has become a cherished part of our NM home!😊

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Deb Tisler

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