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2014 Master of the Southwest Scott Calhoun - Landscape Designer

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: March, 2014, Page 136
“I try to travel by bicycle to job sites whenever feasible, as it gets me better oriented with the neighborhood at human scale,” says Scott Calhoun. He built this bike based on one used in the 1940s by French newspaper carriers. It is designed to hold papers in front, but works well for plants, too.

Scott Calhoun’s Plant-Diverse and Color-Infused Landscapes Salute the Desert Southwest

How does a young man graduating from the University of Utah with an English degree evolve into one of the Southwest’s most talented landscape designers? “During college, I didn’t consider working with plants as a career,” recalls Scott Calhoun, owner and principal designer of Zona Gardens in Tucson. “Born and raised in Mesa, Arizona, I loved hiking in the Superstition Mountains and examining native plants as a kid. But I hated yard work, especially mowing the lawn.”

It wasn’t until Calhoun and his wife, Deirdre, began landscaping their Utah home in the early 1990s that his passion for designing with plants ignited. Seeking Great Basin Desert species, the young couple hit a roadblock—local nurseries didn’t sell native plants because few customers wanted them at the time. Undaunted, they kept searching, often in unusual or far-flung locales. “We bought from a state penitentiary where prisoners grew plants for revegetation projects,” Calhoun remembers. The catalog from High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, created by horticulturist David Salman, a Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest, was so inspirational that the pair drove 600 miles to Santa Fe and loaded their small car with plants.

It was the couple’s move in 1999 to Civano, a new Tucson housing development incorporating sustainable living concepts, that propelled him further toward his career with plants. After designing and building their adobe home—and performing a chunk of the labor—Calhoun immersed himself in creating the ideal Sonoran Desert garden. “I hung around Civano Nursery so much that they hired me,” he jokes. “It was the right timing because xeriscaping and native plants were gaining popularity.”

Scott Calhoun likes to use recycled steel—an element that holds up better than wood under desert conditions. In this Tucson Botanical Gardens 2013 GrowDown! installation, which won the People’s Choice award, he created steel partitions that double as shelves to bring intricate plant specimens and ceramics up to eye level. The garden’s color scheme is complemented by expired Sonora, Mexico, license plates that emphasize the cross-border nature of the region’s plants.
As the nursery’s general manager, Calhoun enjoyed helping people design gardens and in 2005, he decided to open his own studio, Zona Gardens. His first book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand (Rio Nuevo Publishers) was published the same year. This detailed and witty account of the building and landscaping of their Civano home received the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award. Five other books followed, including Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2007), which Garden Writers of America presented with a Silver Book Award.

“Scott is very plant-focused,” comments Greg Corman, an award-winning Tucson landscape designer and artist who team-teaches with Calhoun at Tohono Chul Park. “He’s always on the lookout for new varieties and testing them in his yard.”

In addition to a diverse plant palette, Calhoun’s landscapes often feature exuberant color and an imaginative repurposing of unlikely materials. “Scott’s gardens are fun,” states Corman. “He recycles stuff, transforming it into something creative and contemporary, but he’s always sensitive to the owners, helping them explore options to make the garden their own.”

Calhoun’s other passions—hiking, biking, and eating street tacos—also inform his design, writing and speaking careers. “Hiking boots are my best design tool because exploring wild spaces teaches me a lot,” he states. “I want people to enjoy the same sense of wonder within their gardens as I do when I find columbine hanging off a remote canyon wall.” He also bikes sections of the 820-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail stretching between Mexico and Utah, studying the diversity of Arizona’s plant communities.

As for his passion for tacos, call it research. Calhoun is writing a series on unusual Sonoran foods. “My college professor told me I should write about people, plants and food. I’ve led a very zigzag career track, but that’s where I’ve landed.”

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Sculptural plants and geological specimens contribute a regional sense of place in desert gardens, notes Calhoun. “People around the country are jealous of what we can plant here, such as arborescent yuccas and agaves,” he remarks. “Other than trees, they provide the most impact in the garden, and their form creates interest even when not in bloom.” • “To stand up to the Sonoran Desert’s intense sunlight, we can use strong colors that other regions of the country can’t get away with,” Scott Calhoun points out. He suggests taking a leaf, flower or chile pepper to a paint store and having it color-matched to get a paint color that integrates hardscape with plants in a fun way. Here, his client color-matched wildflowers—superb penstemon pink and Mexican gold poppy orange—for paint to use on Adirondack chairs. Growing in the foreground are Arizona blue bells. • This garden highlights sculptural plant specimens, such as clusters of bishop’s cap cacti and large arborescent yuccas that act as exclamation points. Custom rock and steel planter beds were designed to bring smaller cactus specimens closer to eye level. • Calhoun preserved a view of the Tortolita Mountains while creating an enclosed garden protected from rabbits and javalina. Purple-flowering Greek germander (Teucrium aroanium) adds a blast of rich color.

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