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For The Garden

Natural Desert Garden

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: April, 2013, Page 74
Photos by Art Holeman

Purple prickly pear and golden barrel cacti create dramatic impact along a flagstone walkway at this Carefree, Arizona, home.



Inspired by its Desert Site, a Mature Arizona Landscape Delights With Visual Surprises

As in years past, coyotes, bobcats and other desert creatures trek across two old animal trails on this rural property. The wildlife, often seen in front and back of the home, is among the many pleasures of living there, says the homeowner.

She remembers the first time she saw the sloping lot. “It was magical,” a wonderland filled with massive boulders, saguaros, palo verde trees, an astonishing mesquite tree that was more than a century old, and a natural wash.

Landscape architect Donna Winters, too, recalls being charmed by the undeveloped site as she walked it more than a dozen years ago with architect Allen F. Tafoya. It was then that the two Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest discussed the architect’s concept for “marrying” the Southwestern home with the site.

Built by Craig Eckhardt, the residence is “artfully nestled into the setting without altering its natural characteristics,” notes Winters. Existing mature vegetation, the boulder outcroppings, and a large wash, with its thick stands of mesquites, were left undisturbed and included in the design plan. These works of nature are complemented by thoughtfully conceived man-made enhancements, such as the pool and streamlike water features, patios, and a guest house.

Yellow flowering Santa Rita prickly pear cacti accent the garden and speak to the Sonoran Desert’s unique beauty.
Working in conjunction with Tafoya and Eckhardt, the landscape architect and her staff brought more magic to the rustic site, installing low-water-use desert plants in naturalistic garden vignettes. “The areas within the garden are accented by agaves, prickly pears and various mixed cacti and succulents, which provide form, texture, drama and color,” Winters states. The perimeter of the property reflects a continuation of what is seen in the desert’s native palette, with plantings of chuparosa, creosote, turpentine bush and Yucca baccata. 

Winters speaks of her landscape design as a series of visual surprises. “Along your journey of discovery, you are greeted with native desert shrubs and trees interspersed with color as well as sculptural cacti and succulents. Everywhere you turn is another journey, another experience, another patio on which to rest that is quite delightful yet different from the last patio area.” The homeowners, who entertain often and held their daughter’s wedding on the property, would agree. “I move people around, for cocktails at the pool, up to the outdoor family room for dinner; then up to the top deck for dessert,” explains the lady of the house.

The guest house, located at the base of the slope, is another of the surprises waiting to be discovered. It is a “special retreat,” the homeowner says, and its centerpiece is that century-plus-old mesquite. Under its low bowers, Winters has added an array of plants in a soft-looking configuration. From their rooftop deck, the couple can see their landscape’s many lovely garden venues, as well as grand views of mountains and desert beyond. “It is like living in a treehouse,” the wife comments. And, just as she felt upon first seeing the virgin site, she adds of the current landscape, “It is magical!”

In the front yard, an Argentine giant cactus and a cluster of golden barrels grow beneath a Chilean mesquite tree, while red-flowering salvias lend perennial color. Rebar fencing seen on the home’s roof deck is also used around the perimeter of the yard.

Located off the family room, the upper patio is anchored by a stone fireplace and comfortable seating.
Mega-size boulders, left in place when the house was built, define the lower backyard patio. A man-made stream is part of a network of linked water features that includes a spa and pool. Pots filled with cacti and succulents are easy-care embellishments.


The entry gate—designed by builder Craig Eckhardt—is made of reclaimed wood scaffolding and wrapped with an aged hammered-steel frame accented with rivets.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Under the branch of a native mesquite tree and backlit by the sun, Euphorbias and other succulents highlight this desert setting. The back of the pool is visible in the distance. • This outdoor shower is defined by a sculptural wall and mottled slate tile that blends with the natural setting. • In the backyard, a naturalistic pool and spa are situated next to a wing of the home that is covered with moss rock. Stone vessels contain heat-loving succulents. • Water flows over a rock-clad wall of the negative-edge pool and into a basin, where it is recirculated.

Desert-Adapted Plants
Landscape architect Donna Winters offers these tips for creating an attractive low-water-use landscape:

Use accent plants that lend form and texture, such as cacti and succulents; these pull the viewer through each layer of the garden.

Aloes offer form, texture and seasonal color in shadier locations; they also attract hummingbirds.

Cacti and succulents provide visual rest for the viewer when interspersed with softer foliage.

In locations where irrigation is unavailable, containers filled with drought-tolerant cacti and succulents offer easy-care, low-maintenance solutions.
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