The Challenge

Very few professions elicit requests for help from family, friends and–let’s face it– acquaintances, like landscape architecture does. At some point, essentially every person I have known has asked me some form of this question: “Can you (show me a few ideas/tell me what’s wrong with this tree/pick out some plants/completely redesign) my (front/back/side) yard?” Everyone ever involved in the profession from first year students to Dan Kiley has undoubtedly experienced this phenomenon. It’s basically a rite of passage. But the way I see it, these are opportunities to hone your craft, showcase your creativity, solve problems and make someone you know happy.  So I have helped out plenty of family and friends over the years.

About five years ago I was presented with a slightly more challenging request than usual. My girlfriend’s (Sarah) parents asked me to redesign their yard in Tucson, Arizona (spoiler alert: Sarah and I are now married, with a baby on the way). As you can imagine, there are a number of challenges in doing this: expectations of potential future in-laws, distance from Chicago, unfamiliar plants and extreme climate, to name a few. To top it off, their house was scheduled to be on a home tour and the yard had to be completed within a few months. Obviously, this was a high risk/reward scenario, but one that I relished.

The Plan

Courtyard before.

Barbara and John’s property is an odd trapezoidal shape at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Catalina Foothills. With three girls obsessed with swimming, their family grew up in the back yard where there is a pool, veranda and fire pit. Over the years, they had focused on making this the main place for spending time outside. The space worked well for them, so one of my main goals was to connect this area to the rest of the yard. I also wanted to give them more options for outdoor dining, entertaining friends, watching the amazing sunsets and viewing the stars (you can actually see them, unlike in Chicago).

Yard before.

A big issue they were having was the confusion about the location of their front door. Visitors and deliveries always came to the door closest to the driveway, which was actually the kitchen. A low wall separated this space from the rest of the yard, but had no actual connection—you could see the rest of the yard, but not get to it. This enclosed space consisted of a few plants, soil and a bunch of small lizards darting around.  The path leading to the front yard and door lacked a defined entry and, although the yard was enclosed with a stucco wall, it felt desolate and uninviting. A rusting 30-year-old swing set didn’t help the cause. The yard had very few shrubs and plants, but had a few nice Palo Verde and Mesquite trees to work around. Remember, this is Tucson, so when I say “yard” that means “desert,” not grass.

I presented a plan to Barbara one weekend when she was visiting us, complete with my analysis of the issues and drawings and images of my proposal. The plan I put together was probably a little more extensive than they originally envisioned. Barbara and John are very hands-on people and had always done everything themselves, so I knew it would be difficult for them to grasp the idea of having to hire someone to do the work. What I presented included demolishing old walls and building new ones, removing and replacing brick pavers, setting stone pavers and installing plants, lighting, a sizeable water feature and a custom pergola and gateways.  This wasn’t giving them a “few ideas for the yard,” it was a complete overhaul. So, I had to convince her that the plan would be worth it because I knew if I sold her, John would go along with it. With a little help from Sarah and lots of chocolate and wine, I won her over.

The Design

Defined planting areas.

More than anything, I wanted to establish a framework for a garden that would evolve over time.  A garden needs to be personalized with artwork, furniture and favorite plants. Since I was generally unfamiliar with the plant species in that part of the country, I defined planting areas and provided suggestions for locations of focal point species and types of plants. Previous trips to the Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul Park gave us inspiration and helped us identify plants that we liked in addition to the favorites they already had.  Planting areas were defined in raised beds and formed with a rigid geometry of cut flagstone and travertine pavers. This helped establish a modern form with a division of spaces featuring a variety of colors, forms and textures to enhance the experience of the garden.


To direct people to the front door, an iron pergola and custom gates were created for a distinct entry point. The idea for a whimsical gate came from their travels to Mexico and sets the tone for the garden’s character, serving as not only a portal, but also as a piece of sculpture.  A simple rectilinear path leads to the front door and ties to the back patio/pool area. A rounded iron pergola encompasses an outdoor dining table underneath a mature Mesquite tree.

Entry gate detail

This structure visually links the back and front areas of the property and has become a favorite location to entertain friends for alfresco dining and wine tasting under the stars.

To solve the issue of people coming to the kitchen door, an enclosed courtyard was created off the kitchen with tall walls and a lockable gate.

Kitchen courtyard AFTER

This courtyard serves as a separate tableau viewed from the kitchen table, intended to be reminiscent of the types of spaces found in small towns in Mexico.

Courtyard detail





The walls contain niches to place vases or sculptures and blank spaces to hang artwork. The focal point is a large urn that was modified to create a water feature surrounded by seating.

Fountain in the distance



This water feature can also be seen from the rest of the yard through another gate and down some steps.  A variety of cactus, succulent plants and perennials soften the edges of the courtyard and create an environment that changes with the seasons.

The Happy Ending

Five years later, it’s apparent that I passed the ultimate test—Barbara and John love spending time in their garden AND they let me marry their daughter…under the pergola in the yard. The garden proved to be a great place for entertaining, as we hosted around 60 people for our wedding and reception. Since then, it has been fun watching the garden evolve as plants have matured and personal touches added. The thing I learned from this experience, though, is that successful projects don’t end, they just continue. In this case, Barbara and John asked me to design a new roof deck off the master bedroom. Obviously, I relish the opportunity to give them a few ideas, as long as they don’t mind when I think big.

Completed courtyard AFTER