Color My Walls
Su Casa,

As professional garden photographer for over ten years, I have visited literally hundredsof gardens throughout the western United States and overseas. In retrospect, I am constantly struck by the power of a novel ornament, a unique design element or some tasteful whimsy to create a sense of style or identity. The specialness of the scene sticks with you long after the memory of the other conventional parts of those gardens, however beautiful, have faded away.

One gardener in Berkeley, a favorite I must confess, mulches her beds with bowling balls. Her neighbor has recreated a sort of existential Portuguese patio with ceramic tiles and stucco columns. She then embellished the columns with excerpts from William Blake.

Admittedly, these examples may be a little too close to the creative edge for most of us, but there are some lessons to be learned about how to bring a some glamour and personality into the gardens we make. It’s fun to let a little pizzazz in, and when we get it just right, a special touch can be that little something needed to move the garden from just nice to wonderful. One strategy that designers in the southwest can look toward which works to give our gardens a transfusion of interest is the use of brightly colored walls. Anyone who visits Albuquerque, Phoenix, or especially arty Santa Fe, will discover everywhere the red, green, or turquoise evidence of the delight that the Hispanic culture brought for embellishing earthy stucco and adobe. Painted window casements, trim, and gates all mimic the brilliant colors of the sky, the blue horizon, the sunset or the sashes of the costumes at the fiesta. Red, mauve, mustard, blue, purple, orange, pink, yellow. These are the colors of the Southwest. Bright colors for a bright-colored land.

But more than echoing the landscape around us, the use of bright colors on the walls of our gardens helps in many other ways. Flowers and plants need a backdrop, something to talk to. Too often the shining labors of hours of work in the beds and borders are lost in the visual chaos and clutter behind. Skillfully located and tinted surfaces bring out the relationships between colors and let us see the shapes and relish the textures. It’s a figure and background thing.

Additionally, we too often fail to contain and direct the eye’s wondering habits. Screens, hedges, windows and walls move the attention around the garden and help create surprise and playfulness. Keeping a secret is a grand thing for a garden to do. We should never be able to see the entire garden in a single glance. Why not put the walls to work not only to frame and contain, but to participate as well in the play of color?

In Phoenix, designer Carrie Nimmer solved several problems with a single stroke when she decided to enclose the small front yard of a historic stucco home with a low, thick, bright red banco. Suddenly, the pink Penstemons, the green stems of the palo verde tree, the yellow blooms of the desert marigold and even the roof tiles were all engaged in a taut conversation. No one who visits the neighborhood fails to notice the “ red wall garden.” There’s a lot more going on than before. It’s an icon now.

Landscape architect Steve Martino is another Phoenix artist who has discovered the magic that strong color makes with his landscapes. Brassy octopus agaves and puffy prickly pears form a desert calligraphy when backed by sinuous canvases of ocher stucco.

Up on Tano Road in Santa Fe, Nancy Dickensen invited landscape architect Martha Schwartz in, who promptly put up swatches of bold pink and panels of mottled lavender, jolting heavy wooden doors, aspen stems and playful containers into some jive talking.

“Americans are afraid of bold colors,” says garden designer Marcia Tatroe, from Denver. “ In a land where everyone was an immigrant, people were looking for neutral colors. But now there is no stigma in standing out and showing off our individuality,” she says. “It’s fun.” Tatroe continues on to point out another important consideration. When faced with the slab of a dull blank garage or a flat expanse on the inside of a perimeter wall, color comes to the rescue. “It takes something that is a defect and makes it into an asset” she explains. “We can use colors or a trompe l’oeil mural to disguise an ugly surface or expand the sense of space in the garden. It can transform a problem in one swoop.”

Additionally, the colors invite more audacious ornaments and plantings to amp up the volume all around. Deena Perry of Santa Fe did it by mounting wooden birdcages painted in primary colors on a wall of sponged purple. Down in San Antonio, Mike Shoup duplicated the cobalt and pale yellow color scheme of a famous Moroccan compound, Majorelle. It is electric with dark blue walls, lances of pale silver yuccas, cream colored containers, and yellow columbines. Nimmer piled in pots cheeky with punky succulents and Euphorbias to bathe in the pool of red.

On Canyon Road in Santa Fe, Elspeth Bobbs made her wall into a dramatic setting for her electric trains by adding a panoramic scenic mural, arranging miniature plantings to blend seamlessly with their painted counterparts. She also created a medieval scene complete with a sword in the stone. Murals are a part of the heritage around us, and fit in with the culture as well as the garden.

The walls also provide continuity, unifying the often higgledy-piggledy plantings with a single visual theme. With the wall to catch and frame their shadows, some of our best and most drought tolerant plants come alive. Neglected treasures such as the stubby desert hat rack of a cholla cactus or a spiky banana yucca are at their very best, shadow dancing with their spectral alter egos. The colors of the more mundane things such as cushions, umbrellas, birdbaths, ceramic tiles and gaudy glazed pots all plot romances with the looming curtain of color.

What’s more, if you tire of a particular notion, with a little paint and elbow grease, you can simply get a new do for a new romance. When the fireworks of the flowers fade and withdraw into the muted tones of winter, the painted surface continues to provide interest and buoys the garden through the lull. Winter snows make the charm of perpetual color even more obvious.

It’s almost too simple. Check your inhibition at the gate, take aim at a big blank target with your sponge and roller and invite a new light to appear and illuminate your favorite places.

Charles Mann