True Colors

by | May 1, 2008 | Landscapes

WHEN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT David Cristiani moved into his neighborhood in Albuquerque’s foothills, his home looked pretty much like all of the others on his street – a newer pueblo-style affair with a flat roof and tan stucco – but was uniquely accented with some young local and regional native plants. After considering his landscaping options, Cristiani surrounded the front of his home with a bold purple wall (Dunn Edwards Purple Pride DE5991) that initially shocked at least one neighbor. Cristiani was undeterred and loved the way the new wall differentiated his house on the otherwise monotonous streetscape.

Around the wall he planted Chihuahuan Desert native plants like damianita daisy, rock penstemon and Englemann prickly pear cactus. In addition to the color it provided, the new purple wall also created more secluded outdoor living areas including a dining spot, a fire pit and a water feature. Now the couple could enjoy al fresco dinners in privacy. As nice as the outdoor living space is, Cristiani believes that his wall’s highest purpose is to show off his plantings – a function it performs particularly well, especially when the damianita daisy is in bloom, with its gold flowers resonating against the purple wall.

Cristiani’s garden proves that as a backdrop for natives, there is almost nothing better than a boldly colored wall. In fact, both colored walls and native plants are better for the combination. Without the native plants, vibrantly colored walls could look garish and out of place, but when fronted with natives, walls look somehow more appropriate and connected to the local ecosystem. Likewise, the fine- textured, ferny leaves of many desert plants don’t make the best backdrop for bold sculptural plantings, including the signature plant groups of the Southwest – cacti, agaves, and yuccas – which tend to get lost among the lacey leaves.

For residents of the Southwest, walls, and especially backyard walls, are a given in most gardens. At the same time, newcomers to the region can be reluctant to use native plants in their yards. Native plants can put off some recent transplants to whom they “all look the same, with small leaves and thorns.” Of course, this is mostly untrue if you look closely enough, but to an untrained eye many of our trees and shrubs look similar – often like layer upon layer of pinnate finery. Mesquites, acacias and other legumes are great trees but need a simple background to show off their rustic character. A colored wall is that sort of background – the equivalent of putting a dancer in a neon-pink leotard in front of a black-velvet theater curtain. Since planting in front of a colored wall puts your plants center stage, you want to make sure your best and most interesting specimens are featured.

Some suggestions for wall color and companion plants include the following plucked from exciting walled gardens throughout the region. Cobalt blue walls: beaked yucca (Yucca thompsoniana), Mexican native slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) and yellow hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Yellow’). Light green: Parry’s agave (Agave parryi) and Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). Medium green: black dalea (Dalea frutescens). Lavender purple: Engelmann’s prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) and damianita daisy (Chrysactinia mexicana). Purple-blue: Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani). Bright yellow: fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni). Hot pink: totem pole cactus (Pachycereus schottii f. monstrosus).

A garden that uses deeply saturated colored walls and bold native plants with élan is plantsman John Fairey’s Peckerwood Garden near Hempstead, Texas. Inspired by Frida Kahlo’s bright-blue house in Coyoacán, outside of Mexico City, Fairey returned home to Texas to construct his first colored garden wall – a low, vibrant blue wall that denotes the entry into the dry portion of his garden. Against that blue wall, Fairey planted a rhythmic collection of silver-leafed yuccas, palms, and red and yellow hesperaloe. The red and yellow hesperaloes work so well against the blue wall that their bloom stalks appear to almost bounce off it. Fairey’s first wall, which was painted with the Mexican paint brand Comex’s “Colonial Blue,” was so successful that he built another one, this time in a burnt-orange color. In front of the burnt-orange wall Fairey planted the appropriately bold Mexican native whale tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia), which boasts wide silver leaves that seem the perfect complement for orange. “The geometry of the wall and the agave work wonderfully,” says Fairey. Unlike his first low wall, the orange wall is taller, and its presence created two small courtyards. These courtyard walls have been so satisfying that Fairey says, “I wish I could afford a lot more walls.”

Colored walls also provide a less advertised benefit: reduced need for water-wasting annual carpet bedding plants. Because people want year-round garden color they often feel compelled to buy annual bedding (plants that must be replaced at least twice annually in the desert Southwest), which requires intensive watering and fertilizing. In harsh climates, colored walls provide a better low-water-use alternative to the sort of throwaway annuals purchased at big-box stores. It seems needless to say, but paint counts as color in a garden! With year-round strong color provided by paint, gardeners are freed up to play with thrifty and sculptural native plants. As David Cristiani remarks, “My garden is colorful without being a water hog. In fact, it only gets handwatered in drier periods.”

Although the Southwest is one of the best places to install colored garden walls, plain and uninspiring walls are still the status quo across much of the region. If a conventional home builder erected your home, you may have had no choice but to accept a sturdy yet stark concrete block wall – as lifeless, generic and foreboding a surface as was ever used in the construction of a prison cell block – as the perimeter enclosure for your backyard. If you purchased an older home, it may be surrounded by a brittle and arthritic cedar fence ready to splinter at your touch or blow flat in a microburst. The good news is that there is an exciting history of colored wall design to draw upon.

The Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s courtyards sought to “bewitch” through his brio with color and strong lines. He is said to have taken up to a year to choose the right color for walls. Although his early color palette was limited, by the 1940s Barragán’s use of color was deliberate and fearless. Sometimes he used color as a metaphor – suggesting the sky with blue or sunlight through yellow – while other times his vivid purples, pinks and reds were taken from traditional Mexican clothing and festivals. In addition, Barragán was one of the first designers to incorporate existing geology into a design and to juxtapose native plants (such as coral bean trees [Erythrina spp.] and South American native jacaranda [Jacaranda mimosifolia]) against brightly colored walls. The reciprocal relationship between the house and its garden walls became an obsession for Barragán, and his massive single-planed garden walls created great volumes of color to set plants against. Barragán’s vibrant pink and orange walls are touchstones for Southwest garden designers. “When I was in school and we studied Barragán and Roberto Burle Marx, I knew immediately that I liked xeric gardens with colored walls,” says David Cristiani.

Steve Martino could be described as the contemporary American Barragán. In designing walls as sculptural pieces that include shark fin shapes, wave walls, giant radius curves and offset planes, Martino has taken the colored wall to an artful new level, although he modestly describes his work with screening and native plants as “just walls and weeds.” A good example of Martino’s mastery in matching wall color with native plants is an undulating acid- yellow wall he designed for Tucson’s Civano Nursery that runs through the middle of a native plant demonstration garden at the nursery’s entrance. Throughout the seasons, the natives play out their dramas against that yellow canvas (Frazee ‘Imperial Palace Yellow’).

In winter, a blue-beaked yucca stands in sharp relief; later in summer, fishhook barrel cactus blossoms, and fruit add their orange and yellow colors to the composition. The wall at Civano Nursery was recently painted – changed from Martino’s yellow to a green almost equally bright – which illustrates another colored wall design principle: Just as some garden plants are occasionally replaced for something new, wall colors sometimes need to be updated and refreshed. Part of the great flexibility of colored walls is that the color can be changed with relative ease. After all, it is only paint!

Although a few of David Cristiani’s neighbors were at first put off by the presence of a bright-purple wall in their neighborhood, they began to warm up to the idea after they saw it and the plantings together over time. As Cristiani notes, “I’m not saying that it was all my influence, but I noticed that a couple of years after I built my colored wall, I occasionally saw them popping up all over Albuquerque. I’m all for more creativity that encourages the use of native plants with colored walls.”

For gardeners looking for ways to bring out the beauty of their native plantings, colored walls may be just the way to do so. And the current crop of colored wall gardens brimming with indigenous flora in parts of the Southwest illustrates that the practice is on its way to becoming a permanent and welcome design tool for adventurous gardeners in the Southwest and beyond.

Based in Tucson, Arizona, Scott Calhoun designs gardens, writes and lectures across the United States. Scott is the author of two critically acclaimed books: “Yard Full of Sun” and “Chasing Wildflowers.” An expanded version of the story above will appear in Scott’s forthcoming book, “The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest.” Catch up with Scott at