Photos by Andrea Rugg
Enter Ayla’s backyard through the orange-framed door set into a white breeze-block wall, and your first question will surely be, “Where am I?” Among circular concrete pavers, sparsely planted yucca, prickly pear cacti, Cyntinus shrubs, and thyme, Ayla enthusiastically responds, “Welcome to Paaaaaaalm Springs, baby!”
She’s not kidding. An avid admirer of the desert city in California that has become a mecca of midcentury architecture and design, Ayla says she “loved midcentury before it was cool.” While she and her partner, Heidi, often travel to Palm Springs and even considered purchasing a home there, they love their jobs, family, friends, and lives here. “So,” Ayla says, “I’m bringing Palm Springs to Minnesota.”
She brought it to Bloomington, to be exact, where the perfect midcentury-style house, replete with a sunken living room and outdoor pool, was waiting for a total transformation. The yard was a disaster, a massive deck covered most of the yard, and “trees came right up to the house—lots of them,” Ayla recalls. “There wasn’t a lick of sun in the backyard.” Luckily, she met Steve Modrow, landscape architect and owner of biota Landscapes, who originally hails from southern California.
“He has it,” Ayla says of her “wild vision,” which included transforming the property into a desert oasis. “Over eight years, we collaborated to turn it into my dream resort. Quite frankly, I like it a lot better than what I see in Palm Springs.”
From the “desert,” where guests are transported to a whole new biome they don’t expect, says Modrow, a path leads past a Modrian-influenced acrylic-panel wall behind the hot tub. “The horsetail grass nearby has a midcentury vibe and is used in modern plantings,” Modrow explains. Plus, the hot tub is surrounded by faux turf so the owners can use it year round.
Around the pool, Modrow and his team planted low-growing sumac and thinned and trimmed the trees to create what he calls a “vertical, sculptural effect.” Thin, arcing jets of water and subtle lighting provide sound and movement in the evenings.
Next to the pool, interlocking shuffleboard tiles were set on a poured concrete pad to create a level playing area. At one end, an acrylic panel functions as a dry-erase scoreboard. “I’ve been obsessed with shuffleboard since I was a kid,” says Ayla. “We’d visit Florida and play all the time.”
The backyard also includes an updated gazebo known fondly as “the Pink Flamingo Bar.” Nearby, a yellow-painted wall provides a lively backdrop where the couple displays favorite cacti and decorative items from their Palm Springs adventures. In the dining area, the couple entertains family and friends every Sunday with fantastic food, lounge music, pool time, and more. “We start early, and you stay all night,” says Ayla, who, alongside Heidi, hosts massive parties of up to 50 people. “We certainly have fun with our yard. We love creating spaces that are unique and bring people together so joyfully.”
Yellow cushions and seating extend the lively color throughout the yard, including around the fire pit, which is surrounded by pea gravel. “Pea gravel is soft and squishy,” Modrow explains. “You can come out of the pool or hot tub and walk barefoot to the fire without needing flip-flops.” A hand-troweled concrete pad connects the fire pit area to the back of the glass-walled house. Throughout the property, locally sourced boulders Ayla selected add to the landscape’s modern desert feel.
“Because we both work so hard and spend a significant amount of time on the road, there’s no better feeling than coming home to our own oasis,” Ayla says. “There’s never enough time to relax, so we wanted to create the ‘resort’ feeling at home.”
And yes, Modrow confirms, homeowners can indeed create a desert oasis in the Midwest. “We not only gave the backyard a luxe vibe with a design rooted in the traditions of Palm Springs landscapes of a bygone era,” he says, “but we also created a Minnesota-hardy desert garden as part of the landscaping.”
Ayla says she’s always asked: Are you done yet? “My answer is, ‘No way!’ Done is not in my vocabulary with this yard,” she says. “Each year, we seem to add ‘just one more thing’ to make it that much more fun. There’s nothing better than waking up to this every morning.”