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For The Garden

Botanical Wonderland

Author: Nancy Erdmann
Issue: November, 2012, Page 126
Photos by Art Holeman

All kinds of cacti and succulents grow under the filtered canopy of desert trees on the west-facing side of this Phoenix property. The rock-lined path leads from the front of the house to the back.



Passionate About Cacti, a Homeowner Fills His Landscape With Their Surreal FormS

Steve Gurley knows a thing or two about cacti. Ever since the Phoenix resident began filling his garden with these heat-loving plants, he has nurtured hundreds of the spiny flora to create a jaw-dropping botanical garden.

When his property was featured on the Phoenix Home & Garden Grand Tour of Gardens in 2011, participants wandered the acre-plus grounds for hours, taking in the variety of specimens and admiring their shapes, colors and quirky beauty. Packed to the brim with a combination of common and exotic specimen cacti, the yard is dense with vegetation. Everywhere you look, something catches the eye, from clusters of globular barrels to umbrella-shaped tree aloes to unusual elongated pots filled with snake-like plants hanging from trees.

Given the sheer volume of plants, one might think Gurley has been tending the garden for a long time. But in fact, the Missouri native, who shares his home with wife Melissa and two children, has only been doing this for about seven years. Having some experience as a gardener, he knew mostly about growing roses and bulbs when the couple moved to Arizona. “I’d like to say that I had a grand vision for this garden, but that would be untrue,” he admits.

With the Phoenix Mountains Preserve serving as a picturesque backdrop, this gathering spot is accessed by a long walkway that transitions from granite to flagstone. Cacti, yucca and aloes fill nearby planting beds. To keep out wildlife, a decorative wrought-iron fence was erected around the yard. Sunbrella fabrics cover the banco’s cushions and pillows. The raised fire pit is topped with flagstone.
“I was clear about the hardscape—the pathways, fireplace and fire pit—but the actual vision for the softscape developed over time. I started with a very limited knowledge of cacti and learned as the garden progressed,” he explains. Although Gurley began with a broader plant palette, he discovered that the hardiest plants were cacti, and they became the main component of his design. “There are few plants that can survive our harsh environment and blistering hot summers like cactus.”

To give shape to the yard, he divided the property into “rooms,” which are sometimes delineated by something as distinctive as walls, and other times by something more subtle, like a change in top dressing, such as decomposed granite transitioning into Mexican beach pebbles. Influenced by various botanical gardens throughout North America, Gurley incorporated Southwest, English and Asian influences as well. There is a Sonoran Desert theme in the front yard, and an English rose garden, herb beds, fruit orchard, aloe garden and bonsai in back, all tucked into a forest of cacti.

Accented with tilework, art, vibrant cushions and welcoming sitting areas, the garden serves as an extraordinary setting for enjoying the fruits of their labor, say the homeowners. “Outside of the desert, people think of cactus as little plants in pots,” remarks Gurley. “They cannot envision massive plants with a palette of colors and growth structures, which look like they came from the bottom of the ocean or from another world.”

Color abounds in the backyard, where the addition of low walls, planting beds, a beehive fireplace, poolside water feature, flagstone flooring and outdoor furniture has brought the space to life. Adding to the ambience, is the family’s English bulldog, Bubba, who enjoys relaxing on his chaise.
A mass planting of barrel cacti winds toward a stairway that ascends to the pool. “Arranging the plants is the most critical component in the visual appearance of the landscape,” Steve Gurley explains. “Some areas are symmetrical, others are haphazard. The nice thing about cactus, is that if you don’t like something, you can just move it.”

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: “I remember going to the nursery and buying what I thought were a lot of large plants for the front courtyard—five saguaros and ten potted plants. I couldn’t believe when I got home and they only filled a ten-by-ten foot space,” Gurley remarks. Plants purchased at local nurseries and area plant sales helped him fill in the garden, as did cuttings, offshoots and “pups” from existing plants that were transplanted elsewhere. • Growing in a hanging wire basket containing moss fiber and gray aquarium rock are crested red torch cacti (Echinopsis huascha). •  Situated in a corner of the aloe garden and shaded by desert trees is a small waterfall and pond. Whale’s tongue agaves (Agave ovatifolia) are tucked among rocks, while red-leafed Aloe vanbalenii grows in a weathered urn. Highlighting the waterfall are sago palms and Aloe dichotoma. • Always drawn to blue, the homeowners chose the color for the cushion and drapery fabrics on their back patio. A wrought-iron dining chandelier and lanterns hang from the beamed ceiling. Accenting the space are containers filled with unusual cactus varieties. On the table—a repurposed mesquite door from Mexico—is a crested Opuntia sublata in a bonsai pot. Nearby, oversized containers hold heavily branched Euphorbia royleana plants.

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