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

A wall can work wonders in a small front yard ― especially when it creates a private outdoor living space near the house.

That’s what Carolyn and Doug McCord found when they began their landscape makeover in Phoenix, Arizona.

Before the remodel, the couple’s front yard was  a sea of gravel surrounding a single saguaro cactus (click on small photo below left).

“It looked like a lunar landscape,” Carolyn recalls. She wanted a landscape that had “the dense planting and controlled chaos of an English cottage garden, but with water-conserving desert plants.”

Carolyn, an interior designer, and Doug, an architect, also wanted their garden to echo the spirit of homes in Tucson’s Barrio District, where front walls create sheltered courtyards.

So they built three kinds of walls ― cast earth, concrete block, and stone ― in front of their house. Then they divided the space inside into two seating areas and a dining area.

The revamped entry garden is now a comfortable space for relaxing and entertaining alfresco. Rich textures, colors, and plant-filled raised beds capture the sculptural beauty of the desert. 

It’s just what the couple wanted ― not surprising, because they did most of the work themselves.

Open to the sky

At one end of the courtyard, an outdoor living room is furnished with chairs, a low couch, and a coffee table. In the middle of the courtyard, alongside the entry path, is a dining table and banco ― a seating area where the couple has breakfast.

Openings in the stucco wall behind the banco frame views of greenery on the other side. An outdoor kitchen just beyond the dining area includes a barbecue and raised beds where the couple grows and harvests herbs and vegetables.

Next: More about the materials 

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.