Southwest courtyard oasis

Rugged walls turn a barren front yard into a private retreat for desert living

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Walls and textures

"The whole makeover started as an experiment in materials," Doug says. The craggy cast-earth wall, for example, was made by pouring a mixture of soil and gypsum into a wooden form and allowing it to harden before the form was removed.

The flanking walls are fashioned from concrete blocks that the couple stuccoed and painted. One of these walls is solid, to screen the courtyard from the street.

The other includes niches ― created by leaving exposed some of the openings in the concrete blocks―perfect for votive candles when the sun goes down.

Another wall, made of stone-filled wire cages called gabions, closes off the dining end of the courtyard. Assembling the rocks is labor-intensive ("It took 18 to 20 tons of rock, which we stacked ourselves," Doug says). But the finished walls have a rugged, richly textured quality that looks right at home in the desert.

Unthirsty plants

To fill the courtyard planters, the McCords chose drought-tolerant native plants that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Outside the walls they planted large trees in containers ― two native mesquites, a palo verde, and a palo brea ― for shade and screening. Inside, they selected lower-growing plants for the beds and added a few pots as accents.

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