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For The Garden

Naturalistic Desert Garden

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: July, 2013, Page 102
Photos by Richard Maack

Landscape designer Marc Vargas replaced a sprawling tree that once obscured the home’s Territorial-style architecture with this iconic Southwestern scene, complete with weathered wagon and statuesque saguaro. The metal horse was there when the homeowners purchased the property.



A Revamped Landscape Merges With the Surrounding Sonoran Desert

While planning to relocate from Southern California in 2006, Jon and Sonja Hanlon made multiple trips to view homes in north Scottsdale. On one visit, Jon and their realtor toured 17 houses, but none excited him. Luckily, number 18 was the proverbial charm. “When I walked through the door and saw the incredible desert, mountain and city views, I knew this was it,” he recalls.

Much of the property had been left untouched in accordance with Scottsdale’s NAOS (Natural Area Open Space) regulations. However, the couple found the flat landscape surrounding the home uninspiring, consisting of several mesquite trees and pieces of Western-themed garden art that the builder added after construction. “We think desert plants are gorgeous, but what was here didn’t do justice to the setting,” comments Sonja.

The Hanlons wished to redesign the landscape in keeping with their new home’s Territorial architecture and stunning desert location. Although Sonja enjoyed gardening in California, she and her husband were not sure where to begin with the desert plant palette. Driving around to gather ideas and visit nurseries, they came upon a Desert Foothills Landscape crew tending an attractive yard. This serendipitous encounter led them to Marc Vargas, a landscape designer with the company.

Vargas understood the Hanlons’ vision. “To achieve the naturalistic landscape they wanted, it was essential to mimic the property’s desert surroundings,” says the designer. Vargas accomplished this transformation in stages over the years, bringing in 100 tons of fill dirt to shape gradual hills and elevation changes that extend the appearance of the natural desert’s topography. He also strategically positioned almost 50 tons of boulders to mirror the area’s geology, further blurring the line between the grounds and nature.

The Hanlons used their teak furniture from California for their Arizona patio. They appreciate that it withstands the desert’s extreme environment and blends with the surroundings.
Carefully chosen boulders add character to the desert landscape, according to the designer. “I hand-select each boulder for color and shape to match native rocks. They should look like they’ve been sitting in that location forever.” He also seeks out boulders that are proportional to the specimen plants he installs. “A small rock near the base of a towering saguaro just doesn’t work visually,” observes Vargas.

“Over the years, we have asked Marc to continue creating focal points around the landscape, and he designs wonderful vignettes combining varied plants with boulders and art,” comments Jon. The homeowners set Vargas loose to work his magic without constraints. “When you find someone as gifted as Marc is artistically, you do yourself a disfavor by trying to direct them,” Sonja advises.

The smooth transition between the landscape and the surrounding desert has created extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities, such as a bobcat stalking an oblivious rabbit, a family of deer resting beneath shady tree canopies and a javelina gorging on the evidently tasty flowers of an Argentine giant cactus. A resident Gila monster that lives in a boulder pile, has been spied catching a few rays on the patio.

The Hanlons are as enthralled with the desert’s beauty now as they were when they first moved to Arizona. “We love to walk about at the end of the day with a glass of wine to see what new bloom has popped open,” says Jon. Sonja adds, “It’s like discovering little Christmas presents around the yard.”

The couple enjoys tucking items with a Southwestern motif, including this cow skull, around the landscape to happen upon during their daily stroll.

While placing a massive boulder, Marc Vargas noticed that it featured slight creases and a grade perfect for water to flow over. “I immediately phoned Sonja and asked what she thought about a water feature. She loved the idea, so I converted the boulder into a naturalistic water feature.” Trickling water spilling over its surface offers a soothing sensory element within earshot of the patio.
“We asked Marc to create focal points around the yard that would ultimately blend with native vegetation and retain the sweeping views,” says Jon Hanlon. Boulders fill a structural and artistic role in the garden. They also provide habitat for lizards, including chuckwallas and Gila monsters. Statement-making plants include blue yucca, ocotillo and a multi-armed cardon.


In a corner of the patio, Aloe ferox and silver torch cactus in cream-colored pots complement a saguaro skeleton’s weathered ribs.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: An old wagon wheel adds classic Southwestern ambience. Rosy buds on the Argentine giant cactus open into fragrant white flowers that attract night-time pollinators. • A walkway of Mexican pavers is bordered by plant groupings placed to look good from multiple directions, according to the landscape designer. The adobe-style wall, with its arched entry and cutout for an old bell, leads from the driveway to the front door. On the right, a cardon cactus peeks out from behind a metal canteen. On the left is a columnar San Pedro cactus. • “Desert plants offer such amazing color and variety,” observes Sonja Hanlon. In this grouping, low-growing mounds of golden barrel cactus, blackfoot daisy (white blooms), claret cup cactus and Agave parryi lead the eye toward the spiky upright forms of ocotillo, desert spoon and blue yucca. Bright-pink Parry’s penstemon flowers are hummingbird magnets. • Whimsical iron gunslingers serve as markers for underground utility access. One fellow moved with the Hanlons from California, and they rounded up his compadre in Arizona.

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