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For The Garden

Desert Oasis

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: April, 2012, Page 76
Photos by Richard Maack

An inviting backyard area is richly planted with blooming desert flora, heat-loving perennials and cacti and succulents. The verdant spot softens the area’s hardscape and delights the eye. Extending from a covered patio’s column, a yellow-painted raised bed provides additional planting space closer to the house.


A Hacienda-Style Home’s Landscape Goes From Lackluster to Lush-Looking After a Comprehensive Makeover

“Cardinals often come to visit,” says Lynn Mullen, pointing to bird feeders in her and husband Dennis’ Scottsdale backyard. And, as if on cue, one of those scarlet visitors lights on the branch of a mesquite tree, flies down to a bush, and surveys the scene.

Feathered friends and the human variety find much that is wondrous in this Sonoran Desert oasis. Lynn, an interior designer, has added bursts of color in art, seating and other amenities to the south-of-the-border-style setting. Cozy sitting areas and spots for alfresco dining abound, and whimsical stone sculptures peek out from planted beds. According to the homeowners, these garden accents—many of which reflect their trips to Mexico—are complements to the real show-stoppers: eye-catching plants in their refurbished outdoor spaces.

Landscape designer Marc Vargas and the crew from Desert Foothills Landscape created the densely vegetated look the Mullens desired in front of their Hacienda-style home, in its enclosed entry courtyard, and throughout the backyard. When Vargas came on board, the property had “lots of hardscaping and limited spaces for planting,” he recalls. While the hardscaping remained, the addition of plants transformed the grounds into something magical.

Among those plants: Specimen cacti in fascinating shapes reflect the desert surroundings. “We used a variety of cacti, such as totem pole, Mexican fence post, blue yucca and Arizona organ pipe,” Vargas points out.

A blue agave adds drama near a path to the home’s front courtyard, while a mesquite tree (background) frames its arched entry.
The existence of brightly painted raised planting beds offered an opportunity to create a lush-looking plantscape, says Vargas. Before he applied his creative paintbrush, “The planters looked empty and tired,” he remembers. Now, they are filled with cacti and trailing flora.

Colorful pots brimming with vegetation are positioned in both the large courtyard and backyard. How do these containerized plants stay so beautiful? “A proper watering-and-drainage system is the most important aspect for maintaining plants in pots,” Vargas suggests. Choosing varieties with compatible water needs also is vital.

The Mullens say they used the outdoor areas fairly often before the renovation, but even more so now. “We spend a lot of time out there,” remarks Lynn, an avid gardener. “The new pots and plants provide the color I was looking for, and all the new specimen cacti capture the Southwestern feel we wanted.”

Her husband tallies up the success of the garden redo in this fashion: “If this was on a scale of 10, it was a two or three before. And it’s a 10 now.”

A trio of poolside pots showcases sculptural-looking desert plants.

The kiva fireplace, painted with a colorful motif by local artist Robin Ray, brings regional flavor to the sheltered patio.
Fortifying a slope at the front of the house with fill dirt and a retaining wall, landscape designer Marc Vargas turned a narrow strip of land into a wide spot for plants. An organ pipe cactus, golden barrels, agaves and a Moroccan mound cactus (lower left) add height and texture.


The homeowners wanted a “full, lush look” for the grounds, along with plenty of texture and color. This garden bed has it all. In addition to bringing in cacti, agaves and naturalistic boulders, Marc Vargas planted a profusion of ground covers. “These plants grow lush and have great color and texture,” he says. The spreading plants include purple and red lantana, vinca major and purple heart. A mesquite tree lends interesting form and shade. While some plants do not do well underneath it, Vargas planted sago palms, as they thrive in the shade, he notes.
The Saltillo-tiled front courtyard is awash in vibrant color. A trickling Mexican-style fountain is set on a blue-and-white tile “rug.” Garden pots atop
yellow-painted pillars contain desert flora, while the raised turquoise-painted planting bed is filled with columnar cacti, plus elephant’s food and purple heart plants.
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