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For The Garden

Going Native

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: January, 2014, Page 68
Photos by Art Holeman

A friend helped Heidi Riggs (pictured) build waist-high raised beds, which make tending vegetables a snap.

Heidi and Douglas Riggs Create a One-of-a-Kind Landscape

Although Heidi and Douglas Riggs were raised on family farms and gardening has been a favored activity throughout their marriage, they were out of their horticultural comfort zone when they moved from Connecticut to north Scottsdale in 2005.

“I didn’t know enough about native plants and desert growing conditions to even have any goals,” Heidi Riggs recalls. “It just seemed that many of our landscape’s plants, such as ficus and palm trees, didn’t look right with the home’s architecture, which includes elements of Santa Fe and Territorial styles.”

Undaunted, the couple started to reinvent the backyard and its expansive water feature to create a more inviting and natural appearance. “Our soil and the surrounding desert were rocky, the water feature was surrounded by boulders, and the patio and steps added considerable hardscape,” describes Riggs. “Douglas suggested that we soften the overall harsh appearance by filling every vacant spot with desert-adapted plants.”

Enjoying weekend drives and visiting nurseries along the way, the plant enthusiasts were captivated by the array of unfamiliar, exotic-looking options and couldn’t resist carting home loads of species, even if they were not sure where they would be able to fit them into the landscape. “I’m more of a grower than a designer, but we started with vertical plants, such as candelilla, desert milkweed, giant red and yellow hesperaloe, lady slipper and ponytail palm, to draw the eye up and away from the hardscape,” Riggs recalls.

To rejuvenate the circular driveway garden, the homeowners removed a dead tree stump, relocated boulders and transplanted a variety of cacti. Ironwork and latilla insets in the courtyard walls and doors add Santa Fe ambience.
To incorporate varied shapes, textures and colors among the upright plants, they added chuparosa, octopus agave, sugar bush (Rhus ovata) and globe mallow in every flower color they could find, including cerise, dark red, lavender, orange, pink, rose and white. Over time, the two began tying areas together by repeating plants that had been performing without fuss. These include Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, firesticks (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Rosea’) and lady slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). Native brittlebush, chocolate flower and desert marigold were allowed to “sneak in” to cover more ground with mounds of color.

It took about six years to complete the backyard, which entailed such projects as removing boulders and revamping irrigation and lighting. The homeowners transplanted some specimens multiple times until finding ideal locations for them to thrive and display their characteristics within the painterly plant compositions. “Don’t be afraid to move plants,” advises Riggs. “Each year we had fewer failures, which I saw as a positive,” she jokes. “Somewhere along the line, we mastered the learning curve of what tolerated the site’s hot southern exposure and what we liked visually.”

When it leafs out fully, the courtyard’s mesquite tree provides summer shade for succulents, such as the yellow-blooming Aloe cryptopda. A band of colored rock near the edge of the sidewalk draws the eye around the space.
Rejuvenating Citrus
A previous owner had planted full-size grapefruit, lemon, lime and orange trees in grass with a shady northern exposure, which are unfavorable growing conditions for citrus. The neglected trees were in desperate need of fertilizer. Despite those negatives, the citrus lined a secluded space offering views of the McDowell Mountains and their evergreen foliage and the small patch of grass cooled the area. Rather than a major renovation, the homeowners decided the space had potential and set about refashioning it into a tranquil outdoor room with a view.

Riggs credits her enrollment in the University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer program for learning how to rejuvenate the citrus with appropriate water, fertilizer and pruning. Her efforts turned the trees into excellent producers. “We harvest loads of fruit to eat, juice or cook with,” she says. “It’s a special treat to walk out and harvest a lemon or lime when making dinner.”

To expand the orchard, Riggs added a ‘Black Mission’ fig tree and ‘Big Jim’ loquat as well as honeysuckle vines for fragrance. She also experimented to find understory plantings (those that thrive under the canopy of bigger plants) to tolerate the citrus roots, existing soil, lawn watering and the area’s seasonal exposure changes from summer sun to winter shade. She came up with a visually stimulating mix of tough performers, including Agave desmettiana, green spider agave ?(A. bracteosa), aloes, bulbine, manfreda and stapelia.

The Hornblower is positioned to greet visitors. She sits near 30-year-old native mesquite and palo verde trees, along with a variety of prickly pears.
Courtyard update
The entry courtyard’s multi-trunked ficus tree was an ongoing problem—freezing, turning brown and dying back on three occasions. “It would begin to rebound, and we’d experience another cold winter and the tree would freeze yet again,” Riggs recalls. “We decided to replace it with a native mesquite, which also looks better with our home’s architecture.”

When their landscape was featured on the Master Gardeners’ Real Gardens for Real People Tour in 2012, visitors expressed delight at the red granite rocks that “paint” long curvaceous designs on the courtyard’s mulched surface, encouraging eyes to travel through the space. Riggs explained to visitors that it was their son Nathan’s idea and an inexpensive technique they could repeat to add a little artistic pizzazz. “I appreciate that we’re not constrained by any specific style in Arizona, which allows freedom of expression with art in the landscape,” she comments.

When they moved from Connecticut, the couple had transported their favorite outdoor sculptures to Arizona and integrated them into the desert with a simple coat of paint. For instance, artist Richard S. Rothschild’s buffalo—built with reclaimed barn wood—was made over to evoke colorful Mexican folk art. The Hornblower, an oversized metal musician, has moved with the couple multiple times. “We painted her a terra-cotta shade to meld with our architecture’s adobe finish, and we think she looks best here of all her homes,” observes Riggs.

After creating a landscape of abundance and diversity, husband and wife now spend surprisingly little time on maintenance. Riggs says that topics covered in the Master Gardener program, which include adjusting controllers seasonally to water effectively, repairing irrigation, and pruning selectively, have helped them grow healthy plants, which ultimately saves time. “It only takes us about an hour and a half weekly to tidy up, and there’s always something new to see—a pileated woodpecker, cactus spines sparkling in a particular light or a bloom that just popped open. We love to be outdoors to appreciate these surprises.” 

The Master Gardeners’ Real Gardens for Real People 2014 tour will be held March 22. For ticket information, see

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Twin-spined white mammillaria (Mammillaria geminispina), red hesperaloe, an Argentine giant cactus ready to bloom and orange firesticks create an artistic tapestry of color, form and texture. • The pads of an Opuntia vulgaris variegata ‘Joseph’s Coat’ are edged in red and display an unusually bright-yellow hue. • Chairs near the pool and spa provide a restful spot to enjoy views looking east to the McDowell Mountains. Behind the pool, the homeowners created a more natural appearance around a concrete water feature by removing palms and invasive grasses, and adding reed-like plants and others with overhanging foliage. Artemisia, candelilla, desert milkweed, red hesperaloe and slipper plant take the summer heat and look appropriate along the water’s edge. • Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) and yellow variegated agave (A. americana v. striata) share the same color palette. Bougainvilleas grow in the background.

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