The newest trend in Santa Fe gardens embraces the natural landscape

SHARON COHOON,  – August 14, 2005

The newest trend in Santa Fe gardening is the opposite of the courtyard style in many respects. Instead of focusing inward toward the home, it looks outward, embracing the natural landscape. Betty and Jonathan Calvert’s garden, designed by Richard Wilder, is a good example. “The Calverts wanted their garden to blend in with its surroundings,” says Wilder. “So we tried to make nature and the garden look continuous ― as if we just happened to wall in a portion of wild land.”

A meadow of blue grama grass, with a pathway of flagstone weaving through it, comprises most of the garden. For interest and realism, Wilder tucked in a few taller ornamental grasses. “Blue grama, our native grass, usually occurs in monocultures,” he says, “but you always find other grasses popping up near it, and I duplicated that look.”

Another technique that Wilder used to connect garden and nature was to mound up the soil near the walls so that the garden looks less flat and more undulating, like the area’s rolling hills. The generous use of boulders, mimicking the region’s numerous outcroppings, was another ploy; many of these boulders are large and flat, inviting perching. Minimizing hardscape, like the rest of Wilder’s techniques, was designed to blend boundaries. “We wanted to make man’s hand in the garden as invisible as possible.”

DESIGN: Richard Wilder, Wilder Landscaping, Santa Fe (505/989-8524)


Essentially Santa Fe

  • Walls. Thick adobe walls that mysteriously hide gardens from view are not just a romantic notion; they’re practical. They provide shade in summer and warmth in winter, protect plants from wind, and keep out rabbits and other hungry marauders.
  • Portals. The single-story covered porch, often running the full length of the house, is Santa Fe’s favorite way of providing garden shade. Portals are deep enough to act as second living rooms and also help keep interiors cool.
  • Fountains. There are as many ways to incorporate water features into the landscape as there are gardeners. But in Santa Fe, the raised fountain ― placed in the center of the garden, following the ancient Moorish-Spanish tradition ― always looks the most at home.
  • Amber and blue. In the fall, Santa Fe gardens reflect the colors of the natural landscape. Asters and Russian sage complement the brilliant blue skies; likewise, chamisa, sunflowers, and ornamental grasses mirror the golden shades of the native grasslands.
  • Eccentricity. Santa Fe gardeners ― bless them ― are fearlessly original. Their gardens are full of folkloric art, cow skulls, rusty found objects, brightly painted wall murals, and a hundred other forms of artistic expression.


Landscape lessons

Soften up. For a lusher, more natural-looking garden, use drought-tolerant groundcovers rather than hardscaping wherever possible. Most of Betty and Jonathan Calvert’s backyard, for instance, is a meadow of blue grama grass , which can get by on natural rainfall, says Richard Wilder.

Mimic nature. Plants in nature are opportunistic; they tend to congregate where conditions are particularly favorable. That might be on the leeward side of a windbreak or near a water source . For a convincingly natural look, follow the same patterns. And always plant in curves or swirls ― nature never lines up in rows.

Regionalize. Select plants that thrive in your soil, climate, and rainfall patterns, and they’ll look at home even if they’re not indigenous. Catmint is one good example. Another, in the entry garden, is thyme; Wilder added it between the paving to soften the space. Decorative items should look at home too: The rough-hewn table on the portal was created by Luis Tapia, a Santa Fe artisan, but the wrought-iron chairs and St. Francis statue are from Mexico, and the rugs and pillows are from India. Because they all share the same earthy tones and handcrafted aesthetic, everything harmonizes.

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