Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Santa Fe Chronicles - Cool Ranch

Two years ago I was asked to help create the landscape for a custom home in the high desert northwest of downtown Santa Fe. It had just been completed, and there was literally nothing around it but a dirt clearing, littered with construction debris. The native desert vegetation: juniper, pinon, seasonal wild flowers, grasses, and a smattering of cacti, lay beyond.

Our challenge was to blend this new landscape with the existing terrain, while still giving the owners a sense of enclosure and personal cultivated space. We started with a thick layer of golden brown gravel around the house. This gave immediate relief from the dirt and dust, and provided a simple and inexpensive hardscape base to develop the garden around. We never drew any plans; everything was worked out on site with waving arms and sticks in the dirt, plus visits to nurseries and rockyards and lots of emails.

On our blank gravel slate we worked out the plant and materials palette. First came a low, meandering native stone wall along the edge of the clearing, separating wild from cultivated. This is where the gravel stops and nature begins. It has been interesting to see how plants have 'hopped the wall' in both directions; natives moving in and garden varieties moving out. This blurs the edge a little, which is nice.

The front entry, above, was first to be planted; it faced west and desperately needed to be softened and cooled by a green zone. The general contractor had already installed some Aspen and New Mexican Privet saplings, so we worked around them, adding low-growing conifers like Mugo Pine and Dwarf Blue Spruce. These are much appreciated for their evergreen structure in winter. We filled in with tough, sun-loving, low-water perennials such as lavender, russian sage, lamb's ears, yarrow, hummingbird mint, thyme and goldenrod.

The rest of the space around the home took shape slowly over the next year. Paths were formed, subtle grades were captured and enhanced with more stone, and the over-flat construction grade was returned to the more undulating form of the surrounding desert with gentle berms and large boulders. These structural elements guided the placement of plants, so that the open spacing of the surrounding desert was preserved in the garden as well.

I wish I could say that I was very scientific about plant selection, since this was my first project in Santa Fe, but I'll confess right here that I based my first round choices on what was available in good quality and quantity at Lowe's in June. I figured these were good backbone plants, and I was right. Having a wonderful resource like High Country Gardens nearby was such a delightful bonus; most of the remaining plants were hand-picked from their nursery, including some choice perennials and conifers.

This picture shows how the low walls were used to define the main living space, and also how some of the high-visibility areas outside the walls (in this case next to the motorcourt) were further detailed with stone and gravel to set off accent plants.

Another detail area; you can see how different colors of gravel were used to enhance plantings and define the space. The flat stone band also serves another purpose, as a 'super highway' for the owner's Corgi, whose feet get a little sore from chasing local critters on the gravel!

Perennials rule the show in this garden from May to October. These are some of the outstanding performers from the original plant palette. Above, a pale Achillea (yarrow) combined with Perovskia (russian sage) and dwarf English lavender looks great all season

Lavender also combines well with another New Mexico favorite, Agastache (hummingbird mint). I believe this variety is called
'Desert Sunrise.'

Did I mention that Buddleias do really well in New Mexico? These are a dwarf variety that make a colorful and fragrant hedge along this pathway. (Yes, honoring alternate spelling today!)

This simple stone patio, interplanted with creeping thyme, is one of my favorite details. I'd like to stress at this point that my contribution to this project was overall concept, plant/materials palette, ongoing advice and occasional great ideas. It was the creativity and ingenuity of the owners and their skilled craftsmen that created charming details such as these.

One thing I will take a lot of credit for, however, is the labyrinth. The goal for my second working visit was to figure out what to do with a large, open space outside of the master bedroom, which was also the main area viewed from the roof deck. Flying into Albuquerque I realized it would be a perfect spot for a labyrinth. We made a pilgrimage out to the one I had seen years earlier at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu (where Georgia O'Keefe lived, now a retreat center) and it was agreed that this was the best idea ever.

We quickly decided on the size, pattern and materials of the labyrinth, and were fortunate to discover a great resource for pre-printed labyrinth designs, The Labyrinth Company. The pattern is printed on weed cloth (you can see edges of it in the construction photo above) which made it infinitely easier to build. We chose the construction materials from a local rock yard: square flat cobbles paired on end for the 'lines' and a finer pea gravel for the walking paths. (See first picture for a closer view)

This is how the labyrinth looks today. The area around it was beautifully shaped into a natural plateau, and two large benches from Santa Fe Stone make this a popular gathering place. There's a nice page about the labyrinth on the Cool Ranch website describing what it means and how it is used.

Another construction shot, late fall 2007. This also gives you a better idea of how the rest of the landscape looked (please note supervising Corgi).

The same view today. A storm started rolling in as I was taking these pictures, (flower pics taken in full sun just moments before!) One of the things I love about New Mexico is the changing weather and the incredible skies; they are an important part of this garden as well.

Thunder in the distance, rain approaching. I like how the once-modest planting of Agastache has gotten a little out of hand this year (where's the center stone?) It will be gone soon enough. Winter in Santa Fe is long; this year they had snow as late as June.

Oh, and did I mention we included hidden rope lighting in the labyrinth? I'd love to see what this looks like from a satellite! The different kinds of structure we created for this garden, like the sculptural shapes of the gnarled pinon and juniper in the surrounding desert, give it form and grace in winter as well.

Thank you for joining me on what may have been my farewell visit to Cool Ranch; it is now on the market and may soon be sold. If you know of anyone who would love to live in this magical place, please pass this along!


  1. Ok, That hidden lighting in the labyrinth is pretty wicked.

  2. I am in love with this Santa Fe garden. It is a living sculpture. Simple, impeccable design. Great work!

  3. Holy cow Laura, that is probably the most amazing garden design I have ever seen! The labyrinth is inspired. Wow. That's all I can say! How sad that the owners are moving on. B But with a pricetag like that, I hope the new owners love it just as much!

  4. An amazing location. Can't imagine what it must be like to have skies like that. And the mountains. Ahhh.
    Great backdrop for the garden. That labyrinth totally makes it, and the fact that it's lit at night, wow!

  5. Sweet job, girlio! I'd give my eye teeth for a project like that and you pulled it off wonderfully. Love the sinuous stacked wall. Did one just like it once.

  6. This is so beautiful, Laura. The labyrinth is fabulous.

  7. Breathtaking! Those night shots of the labyrinth are to die for. Like you, I enjoy designing on site. Some of my favorite gardens were not created from a drawing.

    Enjoyed your blog.
    Shirley Bovshow

  8. You are unbelievably talented... love that you admit to using plant material from Lowes. They should be paying you for that advertisement!!! Love the labyrinth and vibrance of flowering plants. You are my idol!

  9. WOW Laura, just wonderful. The labyrinth is something else. It all is. The colors were unexpected (to me) and breathtaking. Helen

  10. What a fantastic garden. Lighting the labyrinth was a truly inspired I idea. Beautiful work!

  11. Oh Laura, I'm in LOVE with your labyrinth. I've always wanted one, and the one you designed is just great. Really love the night shot, especially. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Teresa

  12. Labyrinths are wonderful. There was a group in SE Louisiana that was spearheading efforts to create public ones. They did one for a special event with simple ropes, ties and candles. It was lovely. Not as lovely as this one, mind you. =) But a reminder that if you really want a labyrinth, it can happen--even if only for a couple of nights.

  13. So cool - there is a really interesting optical illusion that happened to me when I saw the first picture of the labyrinth - I thought it was an arial shot of an explosion! I thought - wow ... Laura is an amazing photographer to capture that huge explosion, followed by ... what blew up that could have been so huge to have been seen from an airplane, to - huh? Am I high? This is obviously a labyrinth garden!
    So fantastic! I love it when vision is altered like that!

    Thanks for the great post on a beautiful, inspired garden!

  14. Germi, I see what you mean! When you see the labyrinth close-up after viewing the whole series of aerial photographs, your sense of scale is off: it looks like a big, purple explosion in the ocean or something. Cool! Leave it to you to point that out!

  15. This is just beautiful, Laura. It does exactly what a good design should do – fit seamlessly within the landscape. Yet what a showpiece! That labyrinth idea will spread like a ripple, you watch.