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For The Garden

Garden of Inspiration

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: April, 2013, Page 98
Photos by Richard Maack

Boulders, desert plants and a naturalistic water feature highlight this gated entry courtyard. “We wanted it to be a secret garden,” says homeowner Anne Silver.



A Michigan Couple Creates a Magical Oasis in the Desert

Digging in the dirt since she was old enough to hold a shovel, Anne Silver has toured myriad gardens with her mother in the U.S. and Canada. Two years ago, she reluctantly agreed to leave the lush landscape of Michigan behind when her husband, Cary, proposed a move to Arizona. And today, while their garden is the showpiece of their neighborhood, Anne is quick to admit the transition to dusty terrain was not easy.

“I can appreciate now that there are a lot of shades of green and brown,” she reflects, “but we moved here the summer we had all the haboobs. There was dirt everywhere, and all I saw was brown. My mother was a flower nut—she had beautiful gardens and did the flowers for our church. One year, I weeded her garden as a Mother’s Day gift and I took out all sorts of things that weren’t weeds. She passed away before she was able to see our garden, but she was truly our inspiration.”

Sparse with plants and covered “wall-to-wall with flagstone,” the grounds offered little charm when the Silvers purchased their north Scottsdale property. So they called on Marc Vargas of Desert Foothills Landscape to create the “amazing garden of their dreams.”

Landscape designer Marc Vargas created this water feature to add sound and  movement to the once-bland backyard. He says he set containers filled with heat-loving plants in the water to “give the illusion that the pots are floating.”  A cardon saguaro behind the painted seat wall is one of several specimen cacti on the property. The fountain’s tile mural was custom-made in Mexico.
In addition to a lot of color and texture, the couple wanted a look that would draw interest, and spaces that would function as an extension of the residence. But before starting the renovation, the homeowners removed walls inside the home that obstructed views and enlarged windows that eventually would frame various outdoor focal points. Then work began on the exterior spaces.

The first hint of the remarkable garden comes just inside the front gate. Vargas transformed the area into a welcoming courtyard where wind chimes jingle in the soft breeze and fish swim lazily in a boulder-strewn water feature. The sheltered environment is rich in plantings, from fragrant star jasmine and roses to bristly organ pipe cactus.

The backyard was designed with comfort, privacy and beauty in mind. Flagstone pathways lead to inviting and stylish spaces, including a hummingbird and butterfly garden, a fireplace with banco seating and an aloe garden. The grounds incorporate a variety of colors, textures, heights, shapes and fragrances, with specimen cacti, succulents and flowering plants thriving under dappled sunlight. Vibrant mosaic pottery and tile murals custom-made in Mexico add to the charm.

To make the outdoor space as inviting as an indoor room, cozy furnishings and thoughtfully selected accessories were brought in. “I wanted this to be a magical oasis in the desert, which is why there are crystals, minerals, bells and little surprises adding sparkle throughout,” Silver says.

Because the yard is so functional and inviting, it’s no surprise that it gets used daily. “We are happy to share our garden but we are not huge entertainers; we really did this for us,” remarks the homeowner.

“I received the ultimate compliment a few weeks ago when some neighbors were over and asked if I was a floral designer because of all the arrangements inside and out. One of the ladies said, ‘Don’t you know? She’s the flower lady!’

“My mother is smiling.”

A Chilean mesquite tree provides dappled shade in this hummingbird/butterfly garden. According to Anne Silver, the flowering bower vine on the
wall offers a delightful fragrance.

Red outdoor fabrics enliven furnishings on the back patio. Here, a senita cactus reveals its maturity, with spines at the tops of the stems longer than those at the bottom, giving the plant a gray, fuzzy appearance.
A flagstone pathway and arched entry draw visitors to the front courtyard. The planting bed includes a towering Joshua tree, golden barrel cacti and a blue agave.


A Cantelavera-tiled bench (a combo of cantera and Talavera) is flanked by San Pedro cacti. Landscape designer Marc Vargas built the seat to complement the custom-made mural above it.
A vibrant Mexican-style painting of flowers was added to the fireplace. Golden barrel cacti, purple verbena and angelita daisies flourish in the garden bed. Variegated agave and red-blooming ocotillo fill terra-cotta pots perched on pedestals.


A blue palo verde tree, plus Mexican fence post and senita cacti thrive in the backyard’s sunny setting. A custom tile mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings color to the space, which boasts a variety of roses. Homeowner Cary Silver says he has discovered a new passion: tending to the garden on a daily basis. “I didn’t know a thing about gardening, but I learned from Anne’s mother and really enjoy being outside after all those years working in an office,” he remarks. “I’m out here every day fritzing with something.”

Choosing Plants for the Desert Garden
Pick flowers that are going to thrive in their environment, suggests Anne Silver. She also warns homeowners, especially those who are new to the desert, to “beware of the pokeys”—that being all the thorns and spikes cacti tend to have.

Plant selection is crucial, notes Marc Vargas. “Select the right plant for the area, making sure there is adequate sun or shade.” The expert also says proper pruning is essential. “You want to keep plants under control, particularly groundcovers, so that they don’t encroach on other plants.”

“Select an assortment of plants for year-round color as well, ensuring that something is always in bloom,” recommends Cary Silver.
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