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For The Garden

Sculpted Landscape

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: August, 2017, Page 42
Photos by Lori A. Johnson

“Garden Embrace,” an abstract Cubist representation of an embracing couple, was carved by homeowner Rick Rosenberg. The white blossoms of a nearby night-blooming cactus play off the Carrara marble, which contrasts boldly with the rich green of the desert flora.
A local gardener curates man-made and nature-made art throughout his backyard

The aesthetic intersection of nature and art is a worthy goal for any public garden, but for one Paradise Valley couple, that ideal perfectly defines their private landscape, which has been cultivated to harmonize with its desert surroundings.

Discovering the Desert
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Barbara and Rick Rosenberg set out for Arizona soon after the latter graduated from dental school in 1976. Years later, after establishing themselves in the Valley, they came across a generous 1.29-acre lot in an equestrian subdivision. “I liked that having some space between us and our neighbors gave us quiet for sleeping and grading papers,” recalls Barbara, a former public school chemistry teacher. “I didn’t care that the outside of the property was a mess. We knew that it was something we could work on.”

When it came to choosing plants for their new landscape, the couple relied on gardening books written by local experts for guidance, along with government publications on water-wise gardening. “I was not very familiar with cacti and succulents initially,” Rick says. “I began by planting trees and bushes, such as mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, acacia, creosote, jojoba and sage, most of which started out in 1- or 5-gallon containers.” With a limited budget, he shopped for plants mostly at bargain and half-price sales.

Long and lean, like the surrounding cacti and succulents, “Treeman,” which is made of cast bronze, “represents man’s connection—and mine—to the environment,” says Rick.
Growing Tastes
A chance meeting with the then-president of the Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent Society marked a turning point for Rick’s garden. “I began attending monthly CACSS meetings and started to learn more about the world of cacti and succulents,” Rick says. “I also acquired more plants, many of which were cuttings from mature specimens.” Rick and Barbara also participated in a number of plant rescue operations around Phoenix and Tucson. “We acquired hundreds of plants—including barrel cactus, saguaro, cholla, prickly pear, mammillaria and yucca—all for the cost of a state tag,” Rick says. His only regret is he waited to start planting some of the larger columnar cacti earlier, which can be rather slow-growing.

Once he became more comfortable with cultivating native plants, Rick expanded his repertoire to include desert-adapted species from around the world, including myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and frankincense (Boswellia sacra), which are kept in pots so they can be moved indoors in the winter. “These succulents are from the area around the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Somalia. Each year my interests broaden,” he says. 

“Vegetative State” is a cast bronze self-portrait by Rick.
Artful Garden
While Rick’s ever-growing plant knowledge helped the garden evolve, so did another hobby he picked up along the way. “I started creating sculpture about 20 years ago. My inspiration was local sculptor Michael McCleve, with whom I used to trade artwork for dental services,” he explains. “I carve stone, create welded steel pieces and cast a variety of metals, including iron and bronze.” He honed his craft at Scottsdale Community College, and his work has been featured in local galleries and museums. Additionally, he is a juried member of the Arizona Artists Guild.

Rick eventually ran out of room indoors to display his work, so he began creating sculptures suitable for outdoors, which led him to experiment with materials that could withstand the elements. “Affirmation of success is when the birds poop on the artwork, adding to the patina,” he jokes. Now, his art is as permanent a fixture in the backyard as the flora. “Through the years, I have carefully placed plants and sculptures in an aesthetically pleasing landscape that creates a peaceful getaway,” Rick says. “There is always something of interest to see. At the end of the day, a refreshing drink and a pleasant stroll in my own yard provides me with an enjoyable escape.”

Clusters of night-blooming cactus (Echinopsis spp.) throughout the garden bloom in the spring, with prolific clusters of large white blossoms that only last a few hours in the morning.

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