Rock Walls & Terraces in Santa Fe
Three stories of our Santa Fe landscaping and terracing projects:
1. In 2006 we had the pleasure to work for Sabrina Miller on her new house in the hills above the north end of Santa Fe. The original survey had been done wrong. What had supposed to have been a two foot cut into the hillside to situate the house below the ridgeline requirements had turned into giant twelve foot gashes of a mixture of clay and flaky rock, a serious erosion problem and a liability. She needed a landscaper.
While she was disappointed by the unexpected cost, with a little planning we were able to see the bright side. Her driveway opened up the opportunity to create terraced gardens of various shapes on both sides that would rival any Santa Fe landscaping project in town.
We started with dry stack block moss rock terracing, shaping with the jobsite backfill as we went. As three foot walls are considered the maximum height for stability, many of the areas got three or four terraces. We had to leave at least two foot depths in the beds, so many of the areas had to be brought back in about six feet from the cuts in the walls. My crew of landscapers put their hearts into it. Because of the unique and irregular terrain that was available, we started to add big curves, small curves, short walls and high walls, all meeting at different places. Complimented by some of the most colorful area appropriate perennials and shrubs, it became one of the biggest joys of their Santa Fe summer home, both for Sabrina and her husband Ron.
A perfect flagstone patio in the back courtyard with views to rival the ones from the top of the ski area contrasted perfectly with the closed in feel of the terraces at the entrance.
2. I first met Dr. Martin on a Friday in July, 2007. He had just purchased a beautiful home in the top of Santa Fe Summit, but had no yard to speak of. An enthusiast of the joy that a summer garden can add to any home, he was clearly eager to proceed with something, and before I met him he had decided that we were his landscapers for his new Santa Fe home.
What the Martins had available to make a yard out of was no typical situation. The entire length of the back of the house (80 feet) was several sections of second story balconies. The garden would have to be below, thus requiring an inviting access and a good view of it from the upper area. Below the balcony was a 30 degree sloped hill.
“Well”, I thought, “we have brought in backfill and terraced many times”, so it was my chance for another exciting project. I went home feeling happy because Dr. Martin and I seemed to see eye to eye on many landscape design issues and shared a passion for exotic and funky dwarf evergreens.
We proceeded with what was a straight forward terracing job, hundreds of square feet in multi level terraces. We struggled to find the fine line between formal clean masonry work like the crew is used to and the “custom character” that Dr. Martin asked for. We mixed in shapes and sizes and colors of rock.
The first step towards high end funky, or “custom character”, was the path. Instead of traditional flagstone we used large flat pieces of grey stone with moss on it. Nestled with character boulders and some of the special weeping and globe evergreens and ornamental trees that the doctor picked out, we stepped back to see something that we had never done before. I am hoping that saying that it has an Asian look will do it justice, but it is much more than that.
On the side of the stairs to the gazebo would nestle a major waterfall. From the top terrace below the deck and near the bedroom would be a smaller waterfall that would lead to a stream to meander to the main waterfall. The serious elevation changes made it easy to direct the flow of water.
3. John and Laura Brighton contacted me via email in the spring of 2008.
I thought I’d dealt with steep slopes, but to say that this one was extreme is an understatement. I wouldn’t have even skied down it. But John had the vision so I figured if there was a will there was a way. The city and the historic design review committees weren’t too keen on it, but it was determined that the hillside had to be retained one way or another. John gave us free license to do whatever we wanted. The trick was to blend in the expert craftsmanship that the property called for with the need for an old style feel, as they had made great efforts to preserve the classic Santa Fe charm of the house. They knew that we were the landscapers for them because they had seen some of our other work addressing similar Santa Fe challenges.
Again we brought in load after load of rock and started to build. This time the walls varied in height but there wasn’t any room to change the shape of the depth. The guys just kept building, up and up and up. We carved in a few stopping spots on the way up, and built a nook in one of the walls for a bunco, but until we reached the top, every time that we widened any flat areas, the hill behind it would get too tall, higher than the three foot limit.
Whenever we thought we would reach a stopping point, the hill above it would still look like it was too steep to do anything but fall down the mountain. We tracked down some large long rocks to work as stairs, and started setting them into the slope to give John a way to get to the top with his paints. The steepness of the slope required us to make them steep, and to make it even possible, they needed to have a lot of sharp curves, almost like many sections of a spiral staircase, almost something from a Dr. Seuss book. Then about halfway up, they turned to a long stretch across the hillside to the top area with the patio. We made sure we placed the steps outside of their kitchen window so that they could enjoy the view of their “custom funky” landscaping. Of course, the main point was to give John someplace special to retreat, someplace magical to do his artwork.
Yards without hills are obviously much simpler to deal with, but the excitement of elevation changes can be made in the form of berms and terraces, and even boulders. Raised rock walls can be built against patio walls, or merely enough backfill to slope into the natural grade on the backside. Masonry is a work of art, Stonework transforms a yard into something with year round interest. While most of the rocks may be covered with hanging vines and blooming shrubs in the summer, there is something refreshing to expose the simplicity of the rockwork after fall clean up, a timeless display of fine craftsmanship.