backyard bliss

Two distinct New Mexico landscapes inspire designs for outdoor living grown from unique visions of regional plant life and site-specific outdoor architecture.

This article first appeared in Spring 2009 Su Casa

a design for all seasons
David Cristiani put a lot of thought into planning and designing his home’s outdoor living spaces, and his attention to detail pays off in the varied ways he and his wife, Kathleen, enjoy their gardens and patios in every season. Every morning during the summer, “I enjoy walking outside with a cup of French roast coffee as the sun is creeping above the mountains, before I go for a mountain bike ride or hike,” declares the Albuquerque-based landscape architect, owner of the design practice Quercus.

In spring and fall, the Cristianis eat breakfast on the east-side courtyard patio of their Sandia foothills home. In summer, they move into the shade of a ramada in the “secret garden” off the master bedroom, where an escarpment live oak and eight-foot-tall beaked yucca stand over lavender and autumn sage.

On winter afternoons and cool spring or fall evenings, a fire pit in the courtyard serves as a favorite spot for relaxing to the soft, watery sounds of a small black granite fountain. Subdued low-voltage outdoor lighting aimed at plant features for dramatic shadows adds to the tranquil mood. Cristiani compares the effect to “candles hidden in the plants.”

Both professionally and in designing his own home’s outdoor spaces, Cristiani’s approach celebrates the specific natural environment of the project’s setting—plants and weather patterns that can vary significantly from those found a short drive away. This east Albuquerque neighborhood’s landscape in the boulder-strewn foothills near the mouth of Tijeras Canyon represents the higher elevation portion of the northern Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. In fact, flora in the arroyo behind the designer’s home more closely resembles that of the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, New Mexico, than that of Sandia Park or Santa Fe.

“Climate and land form always come first in landscape design. Biology is in response to the climate,” Cristiani explains. “I try to design with the ecoregion in mind.” As a result, he believes strongly in avoiding plants that require “irrigation life-support,” as he calls it. Water harvesting takes the form of catching rainwater in basins around plants to intercept moisture before it runs off. While the property’s bedrock precludes an underground tank, in retrospect Cristiani regrets not installing an above-ground cistern as part of the architecture when the house was built.

Focusing primarily on plants with year-round visual interest, such as xeric trees, shrubs, and accent plants, the designer sprinkles in flowering perennials for softness and color. “Get your inspiration from nature within 75 miles and 1,000 feet in elevation of your project before you consider plants from other places,” he advises.

Cristiani put this approach to work when he and Kathleen purchased their corner cul-de-sac lot about 10 years ago. The compact property has three distinct garden zones. Outside the courtyard next to the street are drought- and heat-hardy ecoregional plants, including a honey mesquite tree, yellow flowering damianita, rock penstemon, and threadgrass.

Inside the courtyard, another honey mesquite provides delicate shade in the sitting area, while the cooler colors of verbena, lavender spice, and various species of yucca and agave—in pots and in the ground—offer drama and shape. On the south side of the house is the narrow “secret garden.”

The property’s backyard is a 3- to 10-foot ledge bordering a steep-sided arroyo. The only landscaping Cristiani did there was to plant species that thrive in reflected heat with no irrigation, among them, ocotillos—spiny, red-flowered plants common to the Chihuahuan Desert. Still in the planning stage are landscaped terraces to be built near the arroyo on the property’s north side. The terraces will double as a stepped retaining wall and wildlife-viewing and seating area.

Cristiani designs with an eye for color and form. For example, the sculptural shape of native prickly pear provides contrast with ornamental grasses and soft groundcovers such as Mexican blue sage. The plants themselves stand out against the purple L-shaped courtyard wall, which the couple added a few years ago.

“There’s a sense of boldness anywhere I look in nature here,” he observes. “Yet many people only have flowering perennials, like a cottage garden, which fails visually in our winter and summer dormant seasons and arid climate.” By focusing on plants that in the wild survive on only the moisture nature provides, and by allowing sufficient space for the plants to mature, Cristiani creates undemanding, simple gardens requiring minimal hand watering.

After 10 years of enjoying and refining their home’s outdoor living areas, the couple rates the spaces at 8 out of 10. Cristiani projects that once the north-side terraces are built, that rating will become a 9. “My goal was to create great outdoor living spaces that are a tamed version of the natural surroundings, that look like they belong here,” he relates. “You can watch birds flock in from the natural areas nearby, ignore most of the neighbors’ gravel yards, and then hang out here!”

back to nature
From Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster’s ground-floor deck, their house feels tucked into the woods. Just a foot or two above native grasses and rocks, the wooden deck borders a relatively untamed portion of the couple’s 10-acre property southeast of Santa Fe, high on Rowe Mesa’s edge. Piñons reach skyward, perhaps because beneath three feet of topsoil lies 1,200 feet of solid sandstone, creating a natural shallow underground basin that holds moisture for the trees.

From the second-story deck, whose floor shades a section of the lower deck, glimpses between the tops of piñons suggest the open spaces beyond. But there’s one more level up. Climb the wooden ladder to a small viewing deck or “crow’s nest” above the treetops, and the landscape’s expansiveness rushes into view. The broad Galisteo Basin spreads out to the south, while the sinuous curve of Interstate 25 draws the eye into the distance like a well-composed work of art.

“This is the icing on the cake, up here,” observes Ragano, standing in the morning breeze. “Actually, I love looking at the interstate.”

“It’s like a bloodstream,” Amster puts in.

“It reminds me we’re not totally removed from civilization,” adds Ragano, who grew up in Florida and spent 16 years in New York City before settling in Santa Fe in 1996.

Ragano is a designer/builder with the Santa Fe–based company Ragano & Careccio. Amster is an artist and often collaborates with her husband on video installation pieces that have been exhibited at such Santa Fe venues as Art Santa Fe, the Center for Contemporary Arts, and Salon Mar Graff.

The couple bought the property on Rowe Mesa a few years ago and designed and built the 1,400-square-foot passive solar home largely themselves, with help from subcontractors and a few friends. As for landscaping, they knew what they wanted: to relate the home’s immediate surroundings as seamlessly as possible with the natural environment. As it turned out, a key element in the landscape design emerged from the land itself.

In excavating a building site in the hillside, Ragano discovered the deep underlayer of sandstone. Months of work with a backhoe and pneumatic hammer yielded not only a level site but also a 60-foot-long pile of rock and dirt. “When you take the rock out of the earth, it’s like a sponge that expands in water—it grows!” Amster jokes. Her solution was to place unearthed boulders and rocks in a curving perimeter ring around the house, creating a naturalistic yet formal boundary between the wild and domesticated parts of the property. Amster and Ragano also used the sandstone to create walkways and build a retaining wall in the hillside behind the house, with steps leading up into the woods.

A wide flat gravel apron around the house provides fire protection and also contributes to the home’s contemporary feel. Adding to the distinctive look, a striking curved metal second-story roof rises straight up from the ground floor’s simple shed roof. “The house feels kind of like a boat, and the rocks we put around it are like a jetty,” Ragano points out.

Along with naturalistic landscaping, the couple aimed for enjoyable outdoor spaces for themselves and their guests. These include the multilevel decks and a seating area shaded by overlapping sections of sail-shaped canvas. Amster also has plans for intimate retreat spots in the woods, just right for a hammock, a miniature pagoda, or a place to relax with a book.

Closer to the house, Ragano and Amster planted grasses and wildflower seeds. Three small thyme plants spread prolifically to produce a soft groundcover among the sandstones of the front walkway. “It’s a contemporary house, but we like the warmth of an almost nostalgic feeling in the garden,” Amster relates. That old-fashioned touch also comes from small vegetable and tomato gardens, well fenced to keep out rabbits and deer.

When setting down the two-inch layer of gravel around the house, Ragano elected not to install a weed barrier underneath, which eliminated the need to dig up the barrier and replace it when it deteriorates. Instead, he combines weed pulling with enjoying the outdoors. “I walk around the house, 15 or 20 minutes at a time, and pick weeds,” he explains. Amster smiles. “Not everyone wants to walk around and do that, but Frank is our weed and water man.”

Watering needs are minimal. After almost four years in the home, the couple has allowed natural selection to determine which plants are most suited to the setting. And with busy schedules, both Ragano and Amster are happy with landscaping that doesn’t dominate their free time. “Some people find themselves slaves to their property and home,” Amster reflects. “We’re really trying to find that balance, where we enjoy the property but it doesn’t own us.”

resources for these outdoor living spaces

Gussie Fauntleroy, a longtime Santa Fe resident, writes about homes, art, and architecture for national and regional magazines, among them Art & Antiques, Southwest Art, Phoenix Home & Garden, and Native Peoples Magazine. She is the author of three books on visual artists.