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For The Garden

Drama in the Desert

Author: Nancy Erdmann
Issue: January, 2012, Page 112
Photos by Art Holeman

Only a few years ago, this Tucson garden was mostly void of vegetation. However, when homeowner/landscape designer Tom Black purchased the property, he knew exactly what he wanted: a dramatic desert botanical garden to go with the breathtaking views.


A stunning hillside garden echoes the majestic beauty
of the Sonoran Desert


Maybe it was the 12-acre parcel with its Hacienda Ranch-style house that caught Tom Black’s attention eight years ago. Or perhaps the 360-degree views, the sense of privacy that encompasses the hilltop lot, or its proximity to his Tucson-based landscape design business were the draw. But one thing is for certain, the open slate of land—with its jumble of weeds and crude planting palette—was enough to convince him to buy the property. And top on his to-do list was designing the garden of his dreams.

Black, who has been in the plant and landscape design business for more than 30 years, was thrilled with the prospect. “This is what I live for. This is what I do. Finally, I had the space to create a desert botanical garden of my own,” he recalls.

A well-known expert on exotic cacti and succulents, Black set out to transform the grounds one section at a time. Wanting to create what he calls a “hacienda botanical garden,” he immediately began bringing in specimen cacti to fill the main areas around the house. From towering saguaros and multi-armed senitas to massive organ pipes and clusters of golden barrels, the cactus collection has awed more than a few visitors to his home.

“The biggest challenge was figuring out which plants would endure freezing temperatures along with extreme heat, and which would not attract wildlife,” Black says. “Javelina and rabbits are especially common here, and they can devastate a garden.” Some of his favorite cold-hardy, wildlife-resistant plants include yucca, senita, golden barrel, Indian hawthorn, Carolina jasmine, and Mediterranean and sago palms.

Sometimes described as spiny upside-down carrots, the unusual-looking boojum tree
is highly prized by gardeners for its bizarre appearance. The four pictured here are prime examples of how the Sonoran Desert native grows in the wild.
To soften the desertscape, Black and his crew from Plants of Distinction created garden spaces well-suited for growing tropical varieties and cold- and heat-sensitive vegetation. An entry courtyard and several enclosed patios now offer protection from the elements and foraging animals. “In winter, I love to grow geraniums, alyssum, snapdragons, pansies and petunias in these areas,” notes Black. “In summer, I grow vinca.”

Over time, paths were added, trees planted, boulders positioned and planters built. Flagstone, which is used throughout the grounds, was chosen because it fits the style of the adobe house, says Black. Iron furniture, oversized pots, decorative stonework and flower-filled pots add to the hacienda feel of the property.

With views of the Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains, a home that suits Black’s architectural preference, and a garden designed to his satisfaction, this Tucson property is a dream come true. 

A flagstone-paved pathway meanders through the sprawling desert garden.

Tom Black and his crew built a rock-faced planter/seating wall around a mature mesquite tree on this south-facing patio. The designer often uses the top of the planter for potted plants that prefer filtered light. Bowed-iron fencing keeps wildlife out of the enclosed space.
Golden barrels, Mexican fence post and prickly pear cacti form a verdant backdrop for a stone sculpture.


The home’s front courtyard is accessed through gates from India that date back some 70 years. Rocks found on the property make up the stone surround.
Mexican fire barrel cacti show off their red spines.
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