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The Cowgirl Designer by Marlene Holmquist

We had no idea what lurked below the surface of our humble patio. Turns out, no shovel could infiltrate the wall-to-wall underground bunker of palm tree roots, and the vine-covered patio wall directly outside our French doors hid a multitude of sins. The battle had just begun.

Forty-foot palm trees look great against a skyline, but the only way to view them in our 14-foot-deep patio was lying down. They took up way too much real estate, so a couple of grenades took care of those two bad boys! Next, we attacked the 7-foot by 35-foot wall with blistered stucco as rough as an old tree trunk. It is now a surface as smooth as the finest sand. The addition of black bamboo above the wall now camouflages the revealing black iron fence. The darker value of the bamboo places more emphasis on the lighter wall below. The once ugly backdrop to our patio was now a blank canvas, screaming for a focal point.


  1. FOCAL POINT: A focal point can be the hero of your exterior. Let it lead the charge and dictate the first move. Easy to create using size, color, and/or contrast, it is a target where your eye first lands. Build your design around it.
  2. FLOOR PLAN: Consider the multiple functions of the yard and allot the amount of space needed for each. (i.e., entertaining, children, pets, vegetable garden). Create a functional floor plan just as you would in any room of your house.
  3. REPURPOSE & REUSE: Out-of-the-box thinking can lead to a victory for your pocketbook.
  4. VIBE: Pick a concept and stick to it. If chaotic, simplify by repeating elements, or reduce the number of different elements. If boring and uninviting, ramp it up with scale or intensity of hue.


Artistic, colorful, airy, and little bit of sophisticated tropical was my goal. I knew the center of the wall would be my focal point from the very beginning, but I had no idea how. I scoured Amazon for ideas, choosing three vertical, galvanized steel wall planters (in three colors with 18 square pockets in each one), and filled them with floral foam and dozens and dozens of faux succulents. A single row of flagstone now frames the top edge of the wall. Four types of flowering vines drape downward, keeping the vibe more intimate.

Photo: Courtesy of Marlene Holmquist

With its curved inside corners and ends, the new raised flagstone planter at the base of the wall creates interest and depth. Budget-wise and eco-friendly, the large planter was repurposed entirely from the ground tiles. A new umbrella from Costco was our only furniture purchase.

After months of searching, I finally found four (perfect!) large terra cotta planters at the Jalan Jalan showroom, new to the Laguna Design Center. Uniquely adorned with a Maichore silver metal detail, they are handmade by the Touareg Tribe in Morocco. I had found the perfect finishing touch!

Marlene Holmquist, ASID, owns Luxury Ranch Interior Design, a full-service interior design company specializing in remodels for residences and small businesses. An avid equestrian known as “The Cowgirl Designer,” she is a member of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition and Las Vaqueras Women’s Riding Club. or

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