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For The Garden

Acclimating in Arizona

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: February, 2017, Page 48
Photos by Joseph Boldt

Homeowners Deb Thalasitis and Tom Ganser painted the block wall in their backyard gray with a hint of lavender, which offsets the burnt adobe brick of their house. Accessories in rust and turquoise contrast with the verdant hue of the artificial turf lawn.
Adjusting to the unique demands of a desert garden inspired an out-of-town couple to dig right in

When a couple from the perpetually rainy Seattle area relocated to Tucson, they were surprised to find that they had  a lot to learn about water. As newcomers to the desert, they had to rethink everything they knew about maintaining plants and a landscape. “We had a different kind of garden in the Northwest—and a lot more weeds,” jokes Deb Thalasitis, about her and her husband, Tom Ganser’s, English-style garden in Washington. A reformed relationship with water was inevitable.

After settling into their classic 1963 burnt adobe house in northwest Tucson, the couple’s first task was to learn best practices for water conservation on a property that was essentially a blank slate for gardeners. They installed two cisterns to channel rainwater from the roof for a total of 1,600 gallons of storage. Gutters help distribute stored water to the backyard, while a passive water-harvesting system consisting of berms, basins and swales maximizes water distribution in the front yard. Both the front and back yards already had an equal number of large plant specimens—four saguaros and a sizeable mesquite each, with a bonus Myrtillocactus geometrizans in the back—but not much in between. With the new rainwater-harvesting systems in place, planting began, and a true desert garden started to take shape.

Tom and Deb enjoy spending time outdoors with their rescue dog, Doby, a white German Shepherd/Akita mix.
Re-education and Renovation
In addition to learning about water in the desert, Deb and Tom also needed to get familiar with the region’s plants, so they promptly joined the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society and began volunteering at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Soon after, Tom became a staff member at TBG, and while there he brought home many cuttings, cast-offs and rescues. The couple also took advantage of plant rescue sales through the TCSS and acquired several acacia trees as saplings through the Trees for Tucson program.

Following the adoption of their rescue dog, Doby, Tom and Deb were inspired to finally tear out a patch of Bermuda grass in the backyard and replace it with a faux lawn. “We put it in mainly to keep Doby from digging—it’s like carpet, and he loves to come out here and lounge on it,” Deb notes. The artificial solution also prevents unwanted critters, including gophers and ground squirrels, from digging in the yard, and the low-maintenance turf is another expression of the property’s water-wise sensibility, since Tom no longer needs to water the lawn.

The couple also installed drip irrigation lines in both the front yard and backyard to supplement the existing water harvesting systems. “We used a trencher out front where we could, and hand-dug the rest around all the existing stuff. And like idiots, we did this in August,” Deb laughs. “But without the drip system, we would not be able to maintain our plants.” Tom adds, without drip irrigation “there are so many plants, you have to have a hose on all the time. Having this irrigation system has made life a lot easier. Plus, it’s better for establishing plants.”

Originally, the front yard was dominated by a gravel driveway encircling an island of cacti. Deb and Tom enlarged the cactus bed and filled it with numerous rescue plants. A passive rain harvesting system makes the yard virtually maintenance-free.
A Team Effort
The couple’s propensity for adopting rescues, whether plants, pets or garden art, is a running theme throughout their property. Tom is quick to credit his wife for the overall design direction of the yard. “Deb drives any real style we have in the yard, and I’m more of the plant guy,” he says. Garden art in hues of turquoise, rust and green, much of which Deb finds at local flea markets and street fairs, adds some artistic touches around the property. It’s only fitting that this color scheme echoes the sparkling blue hue of the pool, completing water’s circle of influence on this pair of transplanted desert dwellers.

Deb enjoys collecting colorful pottery that she finds at local flea markets and vintage stores. A night-blooming Echinopsis in a terra-cotta pot sits in front of a rustic blue bench the couple brought with them from Seattle.

A terracotta fountain in their backyard is one of a few pieces of the home’s original hardscaping that Deb and Tom chose to incorporate.
Deb painted an old highboy in her favorite shade of blue and moved it outdoors to the covered patio to store garden supplies. Above it are license plates representing each state in which the couple has lived over the years.
Several night-blooming Echinopsis hybrids planted around the yard bloom throughout spring, contributing pops of color to the abundant green of the cacti.


When Tom and Deb resurfaced the pool deck, the pavers they chose raised the area by nearly an inch. To compensate, they installed decorative metal panels along the top of the pool wall, which add both height and privacy.

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