Garden Makeover: A Condo's Petite Patio Becomes a Desert Oasis

tucson patio
The Acacia tree and umbrella provide shade. Balfour Walker
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    Small Yard, Big View

    tucson patio
    Everything was designed to take in the view. Balfour Walker

    While the desert view beyond the low walls of John and Sara Long's condominium in Tucson, Arizona, goes on for miles, the couple's actual yard is a limited 1,000 square feet. Built in the 1970s, the couple bought the condo around 2008 as a second home when they fell in love with the area after their daughter started attending nearby University of Arizona. Residents of coastal Washington, they were attracted to the warm climate, desert hues, and proximity to the school.

    Landscape designer Kathryn Prideaux of  Prideaux Design was fully capable of tackling the project: her background includes designing all-inclusive interiors for luxurious Lear jets. She can pack a punch into a small space. Prideaux is a fan of Midcentury modern design, especially ceramist/artist Eva Zeisel, and infuses the fluid shapes, forms, colors, and sensibility into many of her designs—something unusual for the Southwest.



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    spa on patio
    The spool is a water feature and a small pool. Balfour Walker

    "The Longs had quite a wish list!" says Prideaux. On that list for a new yard: an outdoor retreat with a spool, a fire pit, outdoor kitchen, dining area, living room/deep seating space, lounge/sunning area, and a bench for taking naps. "They weren't concerned with how much space they have, but how that space would be used."



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    Before: Lost in the 1970s

    before photo of yard
    The yard was nice but in need of an overhaul. Kathryn Prideaux

    When she consulted with the Longs, Prideaux took a look at the mostly hardscaped yard of their 1970s-built townhome. With shared walls on both sides and a few neglected cactus (yes, that can happen) the space was in dire need of a remodel. It was evident that previous owners tried to repair the existing flagstone patio, but it was poorly patched and in sad shape. A built-in bench and planter that ran along the back wall also needed to be torn down.

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    Prideaux's Plan View

    plan view of garden
    Prideaux's plan view shows details for the remodel. Kathryn Prideaux

    Located in Tucson's Ventana Canyon, the condo is part of the Golf Villas development. Sometimes referred to as patio homes, yards of this type of home are mostly concrete or hardscape and, in this case, overlook a golf course.

    The existing patio was about 24 x 48 feet, with the overall backyard measuring just under 1,000 feet. In addition to their wish list, the Longs wanted to watch the golfers on the course (which meant no high walls) and keep a mature mesquite tree, which helped to provide shade for the yard. Prideaux presented the Longs with a complete remodel—a modern interpretation of a traditional hacienda—and they were on board. 

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  • 05 of 18

    The Jewelbox Project

    water feature
    A closeup of the waterfall feature in the spool. Balfour Walker

    The Longs provided multi-colored fabric as inspiration for the space that included turquoise, light blue, oranges, reds—a vibrant palette that intensifies the soft hues of the surrounding landscape. The small size of the project and the beautiful colors contained within became known as the Jewelbox Project.

    Recipient of an APLD 2011 International Merit award, Prideaux's design has garnered lots of praise. After she completed the Longs' landscape, two other homeowners in the development enlisted her design services.

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    Design Strategy

    desert garden design
    Textures and materials echo the natural landscape. Balfour Walker

    Prideaux describes the design process for this project as similar to "putting the pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle together on a tiny tray table." Her solution came from the shared use of space: the spool's walls also define the adjoining outdoor rooms. Each space functions separately but can be enjoyed at the same time.

    "The centerpiece of the design is the pool," says Prideaux. Both literally and figuratively. "We had to think about the setback requirements of the pool from the two next-door properties, so the pool was centered in the space."

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  • 07 of 18

    Low, Wide Bowls

    desert landscaping
    Low, colorful bowls hold succulents. Balfour Walker

    Since space was limited and the designer was working with several activity zones, plants were incorporated into the design via colorful pottery and include healthy, sculptural succulents and cactus.

    Walls and divisions of the space were kept low, allowing guests and their conversations to flow freely. Accessories like these colorful, low, wide bowls are also placed strategically, mindful of not obstructing views.

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  • 08 of 18

    Working with Walls

    outdoor dining table
    The table includes a built-in bench. Balfour Walker

    Using a low wall of the spool, Prideaux nestled a built-in dining bench with upholstery and pillows that repeat the brilliant blues, oranges, dark pinks, and reds of the design and surrounding landscape. The other side of the spool creates a wall for the conversation/fire pit space.

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  • 09 of 18

    Outdoor Kitchen

    condo outdoor kitchen
    A tile backsplash delineates the outdoor kitchen. Balfour Walker

    With condos, townhomes, and apartments, common walls are a given. Prideux's solution: a vivid tile backsplash that creates walls for the Longs' outdoor kitchen, adds color, and gives the homeowners something way more appealing to look at than their neighbors' stucco wall.

    The kitchen includes a built-in grill, side burner, sink, sealed storage, countertops, and lighting.

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    Consistent Materials

    spa and kitchen
    The same materials were used for the spool and kitchen. Balfour Walker

    A good designer subtly repeats shapes, forms, materials, etc. for a cohesive space. For the Jewelbox Project, Prideaux used ashlar to face the outdoor kitchen, spool, and wall—tying together various elements.

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    Spool and Fire Feature

    spa tile
    Rectangular tile is sometimes called subway tile. Balfour Walker

    Prideaux chose an ice blue subway tile to reflect the sky and convey a sense of coolness when the desert heats up. As the sun goes down or during the winter, the subtle fire feature—that rectangular space that is built into the other side of the spool and features blue fire crystals—is turned on for warmth and a colorful light show.

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    Spool Steps

    spa steps
    The spool step risers are accented with orange tile. Balfour Walker

    A quick lesson with steps or stairs: treads are the part that you walk on, and risers are the back space that "rises" to the next level. Prideaux used rectangular glazed subway tile in varying oranges as a decorative and safety accent for the spool steps—a striking and smart touch. Those orange tiles are the same ones used for the kitchen backsplash.

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    Environmental Design

    desert landscape
    Pottery placed on pedestals doesn't block the view. Balfour Walker

    Integral to the project was an awareness of the environment and practicing sustainability. Prideaux had a new drip irrigation system installed which provides only enough water specific to each plant. A cactus barrier (near the low wall) uses passive water harvesting via the roof runoff that is diverted under the patio and into the native desert beyond the wall.


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    About That View

    desert design
    The lounge chairs provide a view of the distant mountains. Balfour Walker

    Overlooking a golf course, the townhome is in Ventana Canyon. The view stretches beyond to encompass the Sonoran desert, Santa Catalina Mountains, and lights of downtown Tucson.

    The Longs wanted a place to soak in the sun. These lounge chairs take in views of other parts of the yard and beyond without interrupting the flow of traffic.


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    Pretty Pillows

    outdoor pillows
    Pillows continue the accent colors of blue and orange. Balfour Walker

    The upholstery of the poly-wicker deep-seating set is a neutral tan, which is a smart choice for outdoors. Things really kick up with throw pillows in oranges, sky blue, and other colors seen throughout the Jewelbox Project. All cushions and pillows were custom made by Primadonna Linens.

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    Deep Seating

    outdoor seating
    A deep seating set allows the homeowners to relax and enjoy the view. Balfour Walker

    Faux wicker deep seating furniture from Brown Jordan is comfortable and casual in a desert setting. Unlike real wicker, the resin type should last for years, is easy to maintain, and is weather and insect resistant. Like any outdoor furniture, it's a good idea to store it under cover, indoors, or at least put the cushions away during months when not in use.

    Since residents of the desert use their outdoor spaces year round, they may need to replace their upholstery and pillows more often, or use zippered pillow covers when outdoor pillows being to fade. 

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    agave plant
    An agave is surrounded by white rocks for contrast. Balfour

    Planted in one of the low, glazed ceramic bowls is a single hardy agave. Agaves are native to Mexico and the Southwestern United States and are succulents, not cactus. While container specimens stay smaller, agaves growing in the desert or in a home garden can get quite large and create "pups" from runners, which can be propagated. The bowl pots accentuate the structural form of the agaves.

    All of the plant selected for the project survive throughout the four seasons, with winter and spring being their most beautiful display. 

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  • 18 of 18

    Built-in Nap Bench

    tall planter
    Built-in seating and a tall planter repeat the space's colors. Balfour Walker

    A tall planter containing a succulent stands next to a built-in bench that the Longs requested Prideaux design for naps on the patio. Cushions are in the same vibrant striped outdoor fabric that was used on the dining area bench.