by Scott Calhoun
Living in the Yard—Cooking, Sleeping, and Going to the Movies
[O]ur front and back yards are not normal. That is, the front yard is not a big green lawn with a couple of trees, where a real estate agent might stick a sign and few others would venture. We wanted to turn the notion of a front yard on its head. Instead of a highly manicured area that no one used, we wanted to return front-yard living to the front yard. By design, our front door faced onto a gravel hiking path filled with wild trees, shrubs, and flowers. Within this area we aimed to enjoy many a barbecue, movie, and sleep-out.
In our back yard, we wanted to transform a rectangle of beaten earth, hard-up on the street, into a vine-covered, intimate hideaway, a sanctuary for plants, butterflies, hummingbirds—and people. A little quiet place enclosed by a big adobe wall.
Living in the Back Yard
Once we began living in our finished house, the lack of privacy from the street was a little shocking. The house stood there like a naked face, two big eyes with a long nose, looking out on the street. People driving by could look directly into our bedroom. Potential homebuyers would park on the street and walk right up to the door, thinking that our home was a model, sometimes catching Deirdre in a towel on her way to the shower. We knew we wanted to enclose this space. In a nod to the character of the house, we used mud adobe brick to build a circular wall. I got the idea from a garden at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in which a badly eroded mud adobe wall enclosed a circular planting bed filled with red-flowered Texas betony (Stachys coccinea) and salvias. This garden was always alive with hummingbirds, and walking around it felt like exploring a ruin. We wanted a little of that mystery in this back yard.
Without a doubt, the back yard is the most intimate space in our landscape. Flanked by rainwater-harvesting culverts and enclosed by a mud-adobe wall, this 40 x 16-foot garden is Deirdre’s personal retreat.
Although the soil and growing conditions were better in the back yard, it still presented considerable horticultural and marital hurdles. The realities of the back yard were as follows:
Some of the most high-spirited fights of our marriage have been over design issues in gardens. In one Oscar Madison-Felix Unger spat we agreed that Deirdre would get to design the back yard, and I would design the front yard and patios. This was the gardening equivalent of taping a line down the middle of the house. I can’t say that it has worked out very well, since we both have infringed on each other’s territory considerably.
Deirdre had a notion to plant citrus and pomegranates in this back garden, which ran contrary to my desire to plant cacti and vines from Baja California, Mexico. We reached a compromise in which we planted a ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate tree in one corner and a variety of Sonoran Desert plants in the rest of the yard.
We also agreed that the garden would have a red theme. We both love the color red and how it looks with the sage green and pale blue trim on our house. The fact that red attracts hummingbirds was also a plus.
Since the pomegranate would be the only non-native tree in our garden, I wondered if it would stick out like a sore thumb. To my surprise, after I selected a nice five-gallon specimen, it seemed right at home in our landscape—perhaps because its red blossoms matched the red theme of the garden.
Although the pomegranate is not native, it has a long history of cultivation in desert regions and is often mentioned in ancient literature. This tree was present in Mesopotamia and in biblical times. The unique shape of the pomegranate, a symbol of fertility, was often depicted in Egyptian jewelry, and pomegranates were placed in King Tut’s tomb to sustain him in the next world. In the sexiest book of the Bible, The Song of Solomon, the pomegranate figures prominently as a tree to make love under and as a fruit that recalls both temples and the breasts of a woman; “Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits,” says the biblical poet. In Chinese culture, whole pomegranates were rolled onto the floor of the wedding chamber to promote fruitfulness during the consummation of the marriage. Even if you’re a guy who can easily disregard ancient Chinese wisdom, what straight male gardener can resist a plant with fruit that recalls the shape of a woman’s breasts? Besides its mammary resemblance, the pomegranate is a true desert tree and will survive on only fourteen inches of rain a year. The pomegranate is also one of the rare desert plants with real fall color—its leaves turn an arresting yellow in autumn.
As it turned out, we planted our pomegranate on the verge of an American pomegranate renaissance. In December 2003, a Time magazine story touted the culinary and newly realized health benefits of the fruit. At a healthy fast-food outlet in Phoenix, I drank my first bottle of pomegranate juice, produced by a company called Pomwonderful. My mother had often sprinkled the multifaceted, ruby-like pomegranate seeds on fruit salads at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I had never considered juicing the fruit. The juice had the sweet-tart overtones of cranberry and cherry juice, and the packaging was at least as alluring as the juice itself. It came in a stylish double-globed glass bottle that appeared to have been fashioned within the confines of a push-up bra. Not only was the packaging sexy, Pomwonderful’s marketing campaign was equally seductive. Because of pomegranate juice’s high antioxidant content—which Pomwonderful claims is higher than that of red wine, blueberries, green tea, and a host of other heart-friendly foods—Pomwonderful used the slogan “Cheat Death” in their print ads.
Against all logic and my strident objections, Deirdre wanted a fountain against the back wall. I knew this would require several weekends of fooling around with electricity and masonry. I also knew that because my wife was strong-willed and generally smarter than me, I would probably end up building a fountain. After I gave up trying to dissuade her, we began to search for small fountain fixtures. We found a painted Mexican frog planter that we modified. When this frog was properly plumbed (we ran a tube from his drain hole to his mouth), water bubbled from the amphibian’s mouth. For some reason, the crazy little frog started to grow on me. Maybe his spiral eyes hypnotized me.
To my surprise, Deirdre built the rest of the fountain herself, using spare lumber and a sheet of galvanized steel. She even used my worm-drive Skil saw for the first time, without incident. Behind the fountain, I installed three old doors we found at a local salvage yard. The center door had a mirror that we lined up with the centerline of our house as a gesture to remedy the feng-shui chi leakage problem mentioned previously. The mirror seemed to do a fine job of reflecting chi back into the house. I could sit at the head of the dinner table with a direct view of the mirror and garden. I could almost feel the chi rushing down the hallway, bouncing off the mirror, and hitting me in the forehead. I believe, although I can’t be sure, that the two red and blue Corona beer trays flanking the mirror also helped to contain any stray chi that was bopping around.
I’ve never been one to spend lots of time fooling around with plants that grow in ponds. I frankly don’t understand a plant that will grow by just dangling its roots into water. But Deirdre found some plants called water lettuce that float on the water and multiply like rabbits. At the rate these water lettuce heads propagate themselves, they may shortly be declared an invasive weed by the State of Arizona, as has already happened to water hyacinths and duckweed. But the water lettuce does look pretty good, spreading the color chartreuse out across the surface of the water. There are also a few good native water plants, and I found one that I really liked: yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), which likes boggy conditions. It was a good plant to put in front of the mirrored door in some half-submerged pots in the fountain. Yerba mansa’s zinc-oxide-white flowers look stunning emerging from the still waters and reflecting in the mirror. The shape of the yerba mansa flower suggests both prairie coneflower and Mexican hat.
One of the great things about screening is that dividing up an outdoor space usually makes it appear larger than it is. This became readily apparent in my back garden. Before we enclosed the space, the 16 x 40-foot rectangle seemed perfect for a shuffleboard court or horseshoe pit. But after we built our adobe wall, the space seemed plenty big for chairs and a table, trellises and vines, and a small fountain.
The dominant feature in this garden is a steel grid ramada; ‘Baja Red’ queen’s wreath and native passion vine weave their way through the steel squares of the four corner posts and top of the ramada, which are all made of the same metal grid. Also climbing up the ramada is the vining moon cactus.
On trips to Mexico with Zoë, we had accumulated a galvanized bucket full of Mexican pop bottles that now sat idle in the garage. We had moved them from our apartment to our house, but had not found the proper venue for their display. If not for Zoë’s protests, they would have been thrown out. Meanwhile, every time we went to Mexico, Zoë always seemed to find a new bottle to add to her collection. I could see why Zoë liked them. The Mexican Squirt bottle, for the toronja (grapefruit) flavored drink, has a swirling green glass base like a soft-serve ice cream cone. The Crush bottle is fluted and looks like a mini Art Deco skyscraper. Of course we had the classic Mexican Coca-Cola bottles, but there were other obscure brands like Vita, Sidral Mundet, and Topo Crico—remnants of a slower time when people had time to buy a soda at the corner market, drink it on the premises, and return the bottle for a cash deposit. The bottles reminded us of happy journeys into Mexico, where sometimes we had slowed down enough to eat street tacos and linger over a soda for a good long while in a Colonial plaza. Finally, we used baling wire to hang all twenty-five pop bottles from the ceiling of the ramada and threaded clear Christmas lights among them to add to the market-festival effect. On a trip to Obregón, Sonora, Deirdre purchased a large disco ball made from strips of tin cans that we hung in the center and stuffed full of lights.
Draped with vines and festooned with Mexican soda pop bottles, the steel ramada reminded me of a stall in an outdoor Mexican market, or at least an idealized American vision of a Mexican market. Dangling in the breeze, the Mexican pop bottles became a symbol for our back yard; we began to call it the “Mexican pop bottle” garden.
Continuing the pop-bottle theme, we affixed a bottle-cap centipede to the side of the ramada, along with some magnetized tin-can cockroaches and grasshoppers. Deirdre made magnetic bottle-cap flowers that she arranged on the sheet metal panel of the fountain. The yard was becoming more and more idiosyncratic. We wondered if our neighbors would think it was the work of crackpots. On the contrary, we got a lot of compliments on the Mexican pop-bottle arrangement, none of which included the word “unique.” If you stood back a little in the evening and squinted at the bottles glowing in the sunset, you might wonder exactly where in Sonora you were.
We found that hummingbirds were attracted to the pop bottles with red-painted labels. So as not to discourage them, we added a real hummingbird feeder. I’m generally not a big fan of hummingbird feeders. I’d rather let real red flowers do all the work, and it took a while to find a feeder that really fit with the theme of the garden. Most were functional but too plastic; others were decorated with shining glass beads and chimes that recalled a New Age head shop in Sedona. They just weren’t the right style for our Mexican pop-bottle garden. Finally, I found some hand-blown bubbled-glass feeders from Mexico, with elegant red glass flowers as the spigots for the hummers’ beaks. Their octagonal shape was modeled after French perfume containers of the early 1900s, and the feeders looked so chic, I didn’t care if a hummingbird ever visited. The feeders came in clusters of three, and we hung one directly in front of the mirrored door. This ensured that hummingbird battles over territory could be viewed from both inside and outside the house.
The perennial plant palette had a big emphasis on red plants, with bat-faced cuphea clustered around the palo blanco trees; and firecracker penstemon, slipper plant, and red fire barrel cacti along the wall. We used some blues, like Gregg’s mist flower (Conoclinium greggii, also known by its folk-medicinal name, boneset) and sundrops to set off the reds.
The back garden was best in late summer following monsoon storms. During and after summer rains, the garden responded as if on steroids. In the sultry heat, it transformed itself into a thick, lush southern Sonoran hideaway. A garden that struts its stuff in summer is an oddity in southern Arizona. Our winter visitors (a.k.a. snowbirds) demand winter-blooming exotics and generally ignore much of the summer-blooming flora. For me, summer is the best time to enjoy the garden. Warm nights filled with night-blooming cacti, yellow morning glory flowers, and burgeoning bat-faced cuphea under the lacy tops of palo blancos make summers in our garden full of magic.
Cooking, Eating, and Just Sitting Outside
A couple of weeks after we moved into our house and long before we had any semblance of a garden, we ate Thanksgiving dinner on the north patio, which was not a patio at all but a patch of beaten dirt. Deirdre brought out folding tables, covered them with linen tablecloths, and put a pot of white and blue violas on each table. My parents, brothers, and sisters would be here, so we had to keep up appearances.
In the back yard, I had another project—cooking our turkey in a pit. With the jackhammer, I excavated a hole big enough for a twenty-five-pound bird. My friend Eric Clark gave me a bunch of mesquite firewood that I piled into the hole and lit at 3:00 in the morning to get the coals ready so the turkey would be cooked by lunchtime. My fire was impressive. So impressive, in fact, that the leaping flames in close proximity to the eaves of the house made me too nervous and excited to sleep. I sat upright in bed looking out the window at the fire until the flames died down. Then, using clean bedsheets and damp burlap bags, we swaddled the turkey, placed it on a bed of hot rocks, and buried it with southern Arizona dirt. About six hours later, we unearthed the bird and removed the burlap and cotton sheets. For a moment, I worried that the turkey had not cooked—its flesh was as pale as an albino. But I checked the bird’s temperature and it was indeed done, maybe even overdone. We carved the turkey with a fork and a butter knife. The meat fell off the bone, and its flavor hinted at mesquite smoke. It made for one of the best Thanksgivings we could remember, and we ate it on a patch of beaten dirt. It got us fired up about cooking outdoors.
You can cook outside just about every month of the year in southern Arizona. Early Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo settlers, as well as Native Americans, often had separate outdoor kitchens in order to avoid heating up their dwellings in the summer. Although we didn’t have the space for an outdoor kitchen, we have made do with a rolling barbecue from Sears and a $50 table from Target that we painted to match the house. Although cheap, both have served a couple of kids on a budget pretty well. We’ve cooked Chilean flank steak, garlic shrimp, and pork tacos with good results. At night, we might set up a light on the dining table after dinner and play Boggle while listening to Billy Bragg sing a Woody Guthrie song:
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