The Garden with the Red Wall

Garten Praxis, September 2002

When Victor Vasques resolved to remodel the front yard of his Mediterranean-style home in the historic Willow District of old Phoenix, he already had an “ace in the hole”. Victor’s next door neighbor was landscape designer Carrie Nimmer. Vic had traveled to Spain several times and become enamored of the architecture there. Carrie, influenced by her lifelong interest in the colorful architecture of Luis Barragan and bold plantings of Brazilian landscape legend Roberto Burly Marx, easily persuaded him into a conspiracy to make a strong design statement. .

They agreed that the front yard though small, could still be dazzling and their ambitions included a desire to crate a more usable and people-friendly space than the typical American front lawn. The design would inherently be water conservative by using drought tolerant native plant species and Latin-flavored elements of stone, water and color.

Ultimately the solution to the goal of enclosing the space without closing it off from the neighborhood came in the form of an eye catching bright red wall.

Low and massive, the wall at once segregates the inner courtyard area from the street. The wall provides a colorful foil for the plantings and a sense of intimacy without blocking the panorama of the overall design.. Turreted columns act as friendly gendarmes at the entrance without being too imposing. A dynamic sense of movement is achieved by directing the entry path at a diagonal across the inner walled space. Made of native sandstone, this main pathway is intersected at an angle by a second traverse paved with gravel leading into the low Spanish inflected banco seating ledges built into the inner wall. A small stone paved patio invites visitors to linger with a view of the overall design scheme. Containers of exotic plants such as Crown of Thorns ( Euphorbia milii) and, Agave victoria-reginae serve to enhance the Mexico-meets-Mediterranean flavor.

The simple epiphany which elevates the garden beyond the ordinary is the brick red color scheme. Echoing the terra cotta tile roof and accents of the house, the wall provides an intense dialog with the bright reds, yellows and greens of the plantings. Desert Marigold ( Baileya miltiradiata), masses of pink Parry’s Penstemon ( Penstemon parryi), and tall, red flowered Penstemon superbus, echo together with the vivid green trunks of Palo Verde trees and the spiky architecture of Agave parryi. All combine create an impressionist’s sense form and color play. Seasonal eruptions of Alyssum, Verbena and other annuals enhance the drama, as does the intense yellow bloom of the Palo Verde trees in April.

To further infuse the enclosure with an oasis quality, Nimmer added a small water feature which provides not only a visual focal point, but the welcome sound of live water. The fountain also adds an additional focus for the “sight line” as viewed from the sitting area opposite.

As the Sonoran desert bloom subsides in summer and autumn, the red wall continues to provide a visual and geometric livelihood to the yard. Agaves, tree trunks and other more structural pieces continue interact throughout the year.

The garden, though small, especially illustrates the transformational effect of a single, powerful design element to establish a visual axis around which the entire garden moves . The red wall organizes the yard into a satisfying composition which will accommodate and enhance many different of planting schemes.

The Red Wall Garden also reminds us of the critical role of the backdrop and for establishing the “bones” of the garden. Color relationships are also seen as more than simply a by-product of planting choices. The plants need to dialog with one another but also with the setting and environmental structure. Like paintings, small gardens can be highly inspirational and need not be monumental in scale to create interest, grandeur and aesthetic power.

Charles Mann.