By Judith Ratliff
Photography by Amanda RockafellowWith so many features to enjoy, the outdoor living spaces at one local home provide endless opportunities.
The Mueller garden is probably best known for its abundant seasonal displays of flowers. But its charming topiaries, beautiful trees, multiple patios and shaded pathways make it a year-round pleasure for the family members, friends and neighbors who know it best.
“We moved here in 1970,” Joan recalls. “We had a house sitting on a vacant lot. Every single tree and shrub here my husband, Bob, or I planted. We designed the place together. Sometimes I won our debates. Sometimes he won.”
Actually, it was the Mueller kids who were the big winners. The back yard became an extended clubhouse for a far-flung network of their friends. There was constant activity, at first centered around a simple, rectangular pool. Then came a poolside ramada with a ping-pong table. A horseshoe pit eventually went in behind the ramada and on the other end of the yard, Bob sited a regulation size sand volleyball court complete with floodlights for night play. A lawn next to the pool looked good and provided space for yet more activities.
“We worked on things as we had the money and an inspiration,” Joan recalls. “Bob was more the planter and I was in charge of the maintenance. We weren’t garden experts. We experimented. We learned by doing. We planted things we liked the looks of.”
The garden is what it is today because the two were never afraid to change their minds, to update, to adapt. They planted lots of trees because they loved them and needed shade to enhance their outdoor lifestyle. They used an array of classic Tucson green garden shrubs to layer and define space, developing a large front yard over the same period they were adding features in back. Somewhere along the line, Joan started dabbling in creating plantscapes in pots and Bob got interested in cultivating annuals in beds.
The beauty of the landscape was always a primary consideration for the Muellers, who created interest using contrasts. By placing wispy foliaged plants next to something more manicured looking, or by using gray foliage next to green. Even various greens alternating throughout a planting bed lend a subtle charm.
“Bob was always full of ideas,” Joan continues. “He thought we should use the dirt displaced when the pool went in, so he created the berm that separates the volleyball area from the main yard. We planted a little orchard of peach trees on it and got fruit for quite a while. We also did berms along the driveway to create interest.”
The garden as it looks today came into final focus once the kids were out of college and on their own. The ramada was enclosed and improved to become a swanky pool house. Several fountains were added as focal points. The pool was refinished but not altered, its classic form still deemed an asset. And Joan one day decided she’d had it with the volleyball court, creating on a whim a striking shaded patio with a checkerboard, brick-and-synthetic-lawn floor.
“I’m not sure where the idea came from,” she says laughing. “I just wanted a change. We tried using real grass at first, but the maintenance was a nightmare. The point was simply to have something attractive to look at. We got into topiary for the same sort of reason.”
Since Bob died in 2005, Joan maintains the grounds as a tribute to her husband, but also because she loves them. “I would never leave here,” she states flatly. “I could never leave the garden.”
Walking the park-like grounds with Joan, one is struck by the pleasure she takes in every flourishing plant. Outliers beware! A magnolia tree she’s having trouble with is put on notice. “Okay,” she says, addressing the tree, “You’ve had two years. You’ve got one more to pull it together. Then you’re out.”
She throws her visitor a glance and a smile and adds, “Life’s too short.”
A Grab Bag of Joan’s Tips
Bedding Plants: Cool-season planting can be easy. Plan your beds and pots before you go to buy. Prepare your soil before you bring plants home. Purchase good quality plants from a reputable nursery and place them where they will receive the proper amount of sun. Be prepared to water properly and protect your flora from freezing.
Trees: Water your trees carefully in their youth to give them a strong start. The first two years deep water once a week during the warm season. After that, deep water about once a month, always making sure the entire root ball gets properly watered. This might mean allowing a hose to drip slowly for up to three days.
Underperforming plants: Whether a plant is not doing well or you just don’t like it, don’t be afraid to yank it out and start over. And while you’re at it, think about getting the replacement plant in a larger size than you usually buy. You won’t have to wait for years to enjoy its impact.
Pots: Great for creating focal points. Don’t feel confined to smallish pots for smallish plants. Think about uses for larger shrubs and trees in large pots. Also, consider shaping shrubs in pots to create a sculptural piece. A number of shrubs can be easily trained into balls, pyramids and squares. Boxwood (which comes in various sizes) is the classic exampl
Two favorites from a garden full of plants:
• Boetica (or twisted) myrtle is a tough, shapely evergreen that always looks good. It comes in various sizes, so it can be used in many ways. Clip the aromatic greens to take inside for the holidays.
• Cyclamen, the tuberous perennial known for flowers resembling shooting stars, does well in pots or in a special bed during the cool season. For the plants to last into warmer weather, make sure they don’t get a lot of direct sun. Cyclamen probably won’t make it through the summer in Tucson. Also, be prepared to cover in cold weather.
Judith Ratliff, MLA, is a Tucson landscape designer. She can be contacted at 577-7391 for comment.