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For The Garden

Color in the Garden

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: April, 2014, Page 74
Photos by Art Holeman

Landscape designer Marc Vargas softened the look of this accent wall with a Southwest vignette of cacti and other desert-friendly plants. To the left of a chartreuse gopher plant is a large concrete wok pot with a striking golden torch cactus. The smaller pot framed in the wall’s cutout contains a Hohokam agave.



A Scottsdale Couple Paints Their Landscape With the Colors of the Sonoran Desert

Like many who have followed the sun to Arizona from colder climes, Mary Lynn and Thomas Crowley fell in love with the Sonoran Desert and saw beauty in its multiple cactus varieties and rugged rocky vistas.

Their north Scottsdale home is surrounded by open desert, and their garden beds—boulder-strewn and dotted with cacti and other arid plantings—look as if Mother Nature herself had painted them during an especially creative mood. But this was not always the case. When the Crowleys purchased their home some years ago, the landscape was overgrown, says Mary Lynn, and they could neither enjoy the natural desertscape beyond nor the “borrowed” green of a nearby golf course. A rear patio and front courtyard lacked the wow factor that the homeowners now experience.

Further, not all the vegetation that did exist was doing well. “Some of the plants and trees were not thriving, partially due to placement, species and age,” says Mary Lynn. “Because we are at 2,300 feet in elevation, we are exposed to cooler temperatures than Scottsdale center and Phoenix. We needed expertise with new plants, design and utilizing color with the intent of having a pleasant place to be outside in fall, winter and spring.” All of these issues have been remedied.

A painterly arrangement of boulders and low-water-use flora draws the eye to this concrete address-marker. Plants include organ pipe and golden barrel cacti and blooming yuccas.
The transformation of the outdoor spaces—both front and back—evolved in phases since 2000, with landscape designer Marc Vargas of Desert Foothills Landscape planning some of the latter projects. “We landscaped the front areas a few years ago and recently revamped the backyard patio to nestle it into the surrounding desert,” he notes. Here and throughout the property, such varieties as cardon saguaro, Arizona organ pipe, totem pole, Mexican fence post, Cereus peruvianus ‘Monstrosus’ and blue agave are focal points and were chosen for their hardiness, texture and color, Vargas explains.

A goal of the homeowners was to have color in the garden throughout the year. Toward that end, Vargas says, “The cacti and succulent colors in this landscape are greens, yellows, blues and grays, and the blooms of plants are white, pink, green, purple and yellow.” Here and there, flora in well-irrigated pots with proper drainage add to the rainbow of color. Before the back patio’s renovation, accent vegetation existed in concrete pots and was problematic, recalls Vargas. The containers lacked drainage systems, so water that emptied from them would puddle on the flagstone patio, causing stains and deterioration. The solution? The old pots were replaced with in-ground planters.

The naturalistic-looking garden beds now appear to mimic the rise and fall of the desert. This was accomplished by mounding, or adding extra fill dirt to the existing terrain. Vargas employed this method “to accentuate areas where the focal cacti were being planted, for extra height. I often use this technique to redirect water flow—or drainage—for example, or to block unwanted views, give privacy, or simply add interest to existing garden areas,” he comments.

The phased-in landscape remodeling has enhanced the Crowleys’ Arizona lifestyle and the outdoor entertaining they love. “We do brunches, birthday parties, family gatherings, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres,” Mary Lynn states. “But most of all, I enjoy coffee in the morning on the rear patio, and a sunny spot in the front courtyard in the afternoon.”

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: A small statue of St. Francis overlooks this tranquil courtyard scene. The pot beneath the figure brims with geraniums and petunias. Star fire and Arabian jasmine climb the walls, providing a lush backdrop for a thriving sago palm and Cereus peruvianus ‘Monstrosus’ cactus. • A potted cacti arrangement outside the courtyard “endures extreme heat and sun,” says Marc Vargas. • A tucked-away spa area was refreshed with containers of pink petunias and squid agaves, as well as golden barrel cacti. • Untamed vegetation once blocked the view from this charming patio. The offending plants were cleared and the space replanted, resulting in a landscape that merges the natural desert with the yard. In-ground patio beds replaced leaky pots.

Tips from Marc Vargas

To maintain plants at a certain size without destroying their structure and beauty, choose only those that will fit the area once they mature.

Consider the hardiness of a plant and how well it will endure local weather conditions before buying.

Add surface-select boulders to define garden beds. Used in conjunction with mounding, they blend nicely with the surrounding landscape and outcroppings. They also add character.

A pathway of flagstone pavers, flanked by a wall covered in Lady Banks’ roses, leads to the “secret” spa.

The back patio, with its beehive fireplace, invites with cozy warmth and a bountiful mix of greenery and cacti, both in pots and garden beds. Growing on the column is a vining star jasmine. Against the far wall, white-flowering pyracantha bushes await their seasonal reddish-orange berries.
A hollowed-out log planter is a quirky home to a trio of golden barrels. Old Man cacti flourish in the bed below.


The proper kinds of succulents, the proper kinds of cacti, and the proper placement of plants are among the reasons the homeowners no longer have to frequently redo their landscape, notes Mary Lynn Crowley. Near the built-in grill, an in-ground bed offers a colorful, thriving composition of lady slipper plants, cacti and red geraniums. A twisty Cereus peruvianus ‘Monstrosus’ cactus is visible in the foreground.
Now an integral part of the landscape, the flourishing mesquite tree once was obscured by overgrown plants. On the patio level beneath it is another eye-pleaser—a quartet of pots overflowing with pretty annuals and succulents.
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