I love cooking and entertaining, so I know how a simple meal can become a grand feast by stretching it out one tasty course at a time. I have taken a similar approach with my small property, dividing it into individual portions to make it appear larger than it is. Each area has its own flavor and personality and is filled with elements of surprise and delight. I have garnished my gardens with color, texture, and flair, as one would adorn a festive platter of food.
My lot is only 50 feet wide and 135 feet long. Within this small space I have created appealing yet functional gardens that complement the Tex-Mex tradition of my home and showcase the artistry of my friends. My guests embark on an enchanted journey through a succession of outdoor rooms, greeted by a fiesta of fresh herbs, flowers, folk art, and whimsy, never suspecting that my property is as small as it is. Anyone who wants to create a garden that seems bigger than its size can follow my recipe.
It takes visitors a while to absorb the different areas and their unique elements. By experiencing my garden in these small servings, both my visitors and I feel relaxed and satisfied, something anyone who loves to entertain strives for.
Create a sense of division
I considered my driveway to be wasted space, so I converted it to a garden. I had a stonemason build a 6-foot-high wall aligned with the front of the house and attached to an ornate entry gate. The wall’s dry-stacked, cut limestone—a native Texas element—adds rustic appeal and a sturdy sense of privacy. I assembled an 8-foot-long by 8-foot-wide glass greenhouse in the middle of the driveway to transform the space on either side into distinct rooms. The front area became a fishpond, the back, a Mexican courtyard.
In the fishpond area, I created a “living wall” by lining the limestone wall with large, native river rocks that are irregularly shaped and full of holes. The spaces provide perfect niches for planting. I also encrusted the stones with small seashells, mosaics, and tiles.
The purple walls of the garage-turned-toolshed and the house flank the Mexican courtyard. The walls aren’t imposing because they are outdoor art galleries displaying colorful children’s chairs and other folk-art treasures from my south-of-the-border travels. The greenhouse, adorned with cedar trellises and vines, serves as another border of this courtyard. Peering through the windows, I can catch a glimpse of the fishpond.
A fence of unpeeled, split-cedar posts adds privacy and maintains the Tex-Mex theme. Staggered in height from 5 feet to 8 feet, the posts make a verdant backdrop when draped with vines.
By making the numerous walls of my garden visually appealing, softening them with natural materials, and ensuring that other areas are visible from any room, I’ve divided my space without adding a sense of confinement.
Raise some areas, lower others
Visitors often have to step up or down as they move through my small property. These steps delineate different areas, which creates a sense of spaciousness. In the Mexican courtyard, I wanted my 10-foot-square kitchen garden, brimming with colors, textures, and aromas, to be the center of attention, like a stunning floral arrangement. I raised it 2 1/2 feet, using the same dry-stack limestone as in the front wall. The repetition of materials provides continuity from space to space. The ledge created in this area offers extra seating, while the raised floor promotes the good drainage necessary for growing healthy herbs and vegetables.
The back patio drops 2 feet, but the effect is the same as with the raised areas. The changes in elevation signal transitions between spaces and create the sense that each room is distinct. Visitors don’t get the feeling that the property is one big, partitioned space but a garden of unique spaces full of surprises.
Add items of special interest
Each garden room holds eye-catching treasures. At the edge of the fishpond sits a large, mosaic fish with moving metal fins (1). The bright yellow sill of the kitchen window is trimmed with bits of broken earthenware and colorful tiles (2). Sprinkled around other areas are more little surprises, like mementos from my travels to Mexico and hand-painted mermaids.
The purple wall of my house is the perfect place to display my collection of children’s chairs (3). If you turn around, you can see an upright, claw-foot bathtub with bright flowers painted around the rim (4). Within, Our Lady of LaTina (a play on Latina and la tina, which means “bathtub” in Spanish) stands, sparkling with bits of mosaics and broken mirrors. Other examples of Mexican folk art and statuary (5) festoon my gardens.
These creative touches invite exploration and discovery; people move into and around the rooms to examine the surprises. My treasures not only are fun but also lend a sense of depth and enlargement to my rooms by making it hard to digest them in a single glance.
Save the best for last
Like saving dessert for the grand finale of a meal, I save the best area for last. At the back of the house is a gate carved with the words Jardín Encantador. When the gate to this “enchanted garden” opens, a storybook cottage appears, handcrafted from aromatic cedar, with a high-pitched tin roof and iridescent stained-glass windows (photo, right). From the street, no one would imagine it existed.
Once again, walls and elevation changes announce a new space. A raised, wooden deck, shaded by a large pecan tree and bordered by a vine-laden fence, signals the transition. The back of the house is painted a vibrant terra-cotta rose, as is the side of the garage, providing a colorful enclosure. Against the back wall of the house, the wraparound cedar awning shades a belt of semitropical evergreens. Pots of ferns, palms, and a rattan table and chairs shaded by a purple umbrella add to the deck’s tropical feel.
When I’m seated at my desk in the cabin or with guests around the outside table, I have a lovely view of the raised kitchen garden through the open gate. By closing the gate, I feel enveloped in peaceful seclusion, far from busy city life. My hidden refuge can host a feast for 40 or an intimate dinner for two.
But, as always, there is more. Two large, fossilized stones serve as steps leading from the deck to a sunken flagstone patio. It functions both as an extension of the deck and a separate area with its own personality. An open-aired palapa, crafted of split-cedar posts, serves as an outside cantina.
Another pecan tree shades this more natural, plant-filled courtyard. Rustic furniture, built by a local craftsman, complements the cedar cabin nearby, providing seating with a vista of the colorful deck. Guests quietly converse here when other rooms are occupied.
With its open space bordered by trees and shrubs, this sunken flagstone terrace has an expansive air. Indeed, it is a respite from the color and art of the rest of the property. By saving these wonderful spaces for the rear area, I compel my guests to move through my property rather than stopping earlier and leaving this area unseen and unused.
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