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desert gardening basics
urban gardener wendy stiles
Urban Gardener Wendy Stiles
September, 2012, Page 59
Photos by Art Holeman
Only a few years old, this drought-tolerant, low-maintenance landscape at a central Phoenix property established itself quickly. Clay pavers in two colors provide a unifying pattern on the driveway and front walk.
Wendy Stiles Transforms Her City Garden Into a Charming Southwest Setting
After Wendy Stiles contemplated a landscape renovation for her Willo Historic District property in 2009, her vision was to re-create Tucson’s Southwestern ambience in urban Phoenix. “Tucson has many quaint areas and unique gardens, and I’ve always loved its native desert vegetation,” she states.
Stiles knew the elements she wanted, including a fountain for its soothing sounds of water, a small barbecue area, and a fire pit with permanent bench seating. “I also wished to include a mural as a focal point and a sliding gate to separate the property and provide backyard privacy.”
Although the homeowner had her basic wish list in mind, she wasn’t sure how to achieve it within a coherent design. “I consider my landscape part of my living space, so it was worth the investment to have a designer work with me,” Stiles says. After a thorough search, she chose Thomas Park of Xerophytic Design Inc.
The rock-filled gabion wall separates the landscape from the walkway, creating a secluded front entry. The raised planter holds a mesquite tree and other low-water-use vegetation.
Stiles enjoys visiting public gardens and finds them to be a source of inspiration. For example, Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix featured an idea she thought could work for an area between her home and a driveway that was too narrow to accommodate most plants. She had admired the protected display beds at DBG that are filled with tiny mammillaria cacti. “I thought the strip along the east side of my house would be a good microclimate for these cacti because they would be shielded from intense sun,” she recalls.
“Thomas heartily agreed and suggested we embed attractive rocks in the strip and tuck tiny cacti amongst them.” The pair went plant shopping at one of DBG’s semiannual sales to select plants for this rock garden.
The spiral stacked-stone entry garden at DBG provided another creative inspiration. “I love the look of the stone, and Thomas suggested we could create something similar that would be less expensive than using the spiral stacked stone,” recalls the homeowner.
Park built a raised planting area with a circular gabion perimeter wall in the front yard. He extended the gabion cage in a serpentine shape with height changes. The wall curves in two directions, creating the idea of a privacy wall that divides the desert landscape from the walkway to the front door, explains Park. “I like that the different elevations add variation to the front yard scene without obscuring the home,” adds Stiles.
Ocotillo branches and rusted metal hung on a pumpkin-color wall serve as Contemporary artwork and function as a garden trellis as well.
As for the plant palette, Stiles already was a fan of the ocotillo, with its distinctive shape; creosote for its scent after rain; hedgehog cactus for its vibrant blooms; and mesquite trees for their distinctive gnarly bark. “Thomas introduced me to other plant options, such as hesperaloe, which I really like for the pointy texture it brings to the scene.”
To divide the front and back yards, Park designed a unique sliding gate built from rusted salvaged steel that is cut to resemble mountain peaks. Perforated aluminum, which does not rust, flows through the scene, evoking shimmering water in an arid land. In keeping with Stiles’ fondness for ocotillo, real branches were incorporated into the gate. “They call to mind living ocotillo fences common in Tucson, and the spaces allow visibility and airflow,” notes the homeowner. The mountainscape theme is repeated in the alley’s access gate.
A blank garage wall served as the perfect “gallery” space for the mural that Stiles wanted. “Thomas had the idea to frame the mural with stone, and the artist and I collaborated on the scene,” she recalls. The Tuscanylike structure painted in the mural complements her home’s stucco walls and tiled roof. Also, the artist noticed a copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting in Stiles’ house and suggested incorporating it.
“In addition to the mural, I wanted other artistic points of interest in the yard, but I wasn’t sure what, so I gave Thomas free range,” says Stiles. “We didn’t start out with rusted metal as an integral part of the design, but it came together over time with the gabion wall, the various gates, a fountain and three metal panels that serve as sculptures.”
Lit with a spotlight at night, this sculptural metal panel casts intriguing shadows on the home’s wall. Greenery helps soften its sharp edges.
Park built the fountain from stacked rusted-metal wheel parts, with water trickling down a corn picker repurposed from an old tractor. The three panels came from a scrap yard. Called “drop sheets,” they are sheet metal remnants from a factory. Park situated them in a row in front of the home’s wall and lit them with FX Luminaire spotlights.
“At night, their shadows cast really cool shapes against the wall,” says Stiles. “I’ve received so many compliments from neighbors, and I enjoy using the yard as I had envisioned.”
FINDING A DESIGNER
Wendy Stiles offers the following tips for choosing a landscape designer:
• Compile a file of landscape pictures that appeal to you. Decide which plants and/or hardscape elements are at the top of your list.
• Obtain recommendations. The general contractor who remodeled Stiles’ home provided names of landscape companies.
• Do your homework. The Internet offers a wealth of information, including photos and descriptions of a firm’s previous projects.
• Determine what you want from the collaboration. “I wanted the same person to work with me on design, installation and maintenance, as I felt that would keep the original design intent and I would be able to expand on it as needed,” Stiles says. She eliminated companies that did not perform all three functions.
• Interview candidates. Make sure the designer is on board with what you want to achieve and that you are comfortable discussing options. “In our first meeting and walk-through of my property, Thomas knew exactly what I was talking about,” remembers Stiles.
Many of her windows look out to this wall, so Wendy Stiles asked the designer to cover it with vines. A metal trellis makes an attractive support.
Rusty metal and motifs of mountainscapes and ocotillo ribs are repeated throughout the landscape and in this driveway gate. It separates the front and back yards, providing privacy from the street.
Recycled wine bottles embedded in mortar were used to construct a base for a barbecue island. LED rope lighting woven between the bottles provides nighttime illumination.
Coral fountain plant and a prickly pear cactus draw the eye to this Tuscan-themed mural painted on a garage wall.
Thomas Park repurposed an interior screen into an outdoor gate that allows a glimpse of the patio behind. The design of a moon and wavy lines were plasma-cut into the overhead arch to complement the main panel’s exploding sun.
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