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A Backyard is Transformed into a Family-Friendly Desert Oasis

In this lush Carefree backyard, carefully placed hardscaping, enticing water and fire features and a diverse plant palette work together to create a blissful Sonoran scene.

Native plantings and thoughtfully curated living areas give this re-imagined landscape new life.

By Carly Scholl | Photography by Michael Woodall

In the quiet desert foothills of Carefree, a newly remodeled abode Boasts a fresh, vibrant garden to match. Specimen cacti stand both tall and squat, while flickering fire features mingle with cooling water fountains. The property—much to the homeowner’s delight—is a true sanctuary amid the arid terrain of the neighborhood.

“The owner completed a large addition to the house, as well as a remodel,” explains Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Chad Norris of the new garden’s origins. “He wanted the exterior space to be as incredible as the interiors are and have continuity and flow to give the feeling of one continuous living environment.”

To achieve this goal and reinvigorate the landscape with space for gathering, entertaining and relaxing, Norris joined the team of interior designer Denise Milano, who was responsible for the home’s remodel and who carried her expertise into the outdoor living areas. “The open concept of the new interiors and the large picture windows inspired me to be very intentional with the landscape, as it could be seen and enjoyed from both inside and out,” Norris says. “I like to treat the windows as picture frames for the living art I create in the exterior.”

With a long driveway meandering up to the house from the street, Norris had plenty of room to create an impact. A menagerie of native plant species, such as yucca, agave, cholla and golden barrel cacti, were placed artfully among boulders of various sizes, creating a natural flow from the surrounding desert up to the house. “The driveway then opens up at a motor court and a courtyard entry at the front door, delivering a destination-style experience,” Norris says. “Because the homeowner also wanted the outdoor spaces to feel very secluded and private, we incorporated many trees to obscure neighboring streets and homes. Water features were also integrated around the property for a sound buffer, as well as aesthetics.”

“Some people are concerned about too many thorny cacti posing a hazard, but there are so many nonaggressive species that can really help a design achieve its true potential.”

—Chad Norris, landscape designer

1. Potted plants help to blend this rustic patio fireplace vignette into the backyard landscape beyond. 2. “I wanted to create a landscape that was packed full of color and texture combinations that look great no matter what season it is,” Norris notes. Totem pole cacti mingle with blooming annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus) in the foreground, while cozy lounge areas invite relaxation year-round. 3. A portion of the home’s perimeter wall is crafted from rebar, which provides excellent support for climbing plants and allows views into the surrounding desert environment. 4. Another burbling water feature adds a sense of serenity to the backyard. 5. Norris used the long, winding driveway as an opportunity to showcase some eye-catching specimen cacti and subtle boulder groupings.

In the backyard, Norris’ diverse plant palette continues. “We chose species that are sustainable and have a lifetime of textural and visual benefits,” he notes. “Typically for desert homes, I like the main foundation of the landscape to be made up of cacti and succulents that have natural beauty and color so that, whether in the winter cold or summer heat, they always look the way we intended. Some people are concerned about too many thorny cacti posing a hazard, but there are so many nonaggressive species that can really help a design achieve its true potential.” Interspersed with the sculptural succulents, Norris used seasonal flowering plants to soften the transitions and accent the vignettes. “That is the cherry on top, since they attract such beautiful butterflies and hummingbirds.”

While many backyards feature a swimming pool as the visual focal point, Norris blended these features into the landscape with an organic border of rocks and low-profile plants, creating the impression of an oasis bubbling out of the desert floor. “The boulder infusion around the yard played really well off these existing water features and helped give the entire design great continuity,” he notes.

Designated vignettes throughout the backyard—separated by what Norris calls “paintbrush strokes” of artificial turf—give the homeowner ample opportunities to enjoy his space. “The style of the property is definitely Southwestern,” Milano asserts. “So we strove to create an updated regional feel that allowed the home to blend into the landscape. The focus was on designing quaint, peaceful lounge areas throughout the yard, as well as on the patio and in the front courtyard.”

1.  A halo of trellised star jasmine and a mix of cacti, agave, lantana and verdant shrubbery surround a stone fountain in the front courtyard. 2. The enclosed courtyard at the front entry beckons visitors to experience the wide array of botanicals used throughout the property. ”There are opportunities for beauty around the entire home,” explains landscape designer Chad Norris. “There isn’t just a front and backyard here. All sides of the house have picture windows and view corridors that look out onto the exterior spaces.” 3. Ringed by plants of various heights and textures, including slipper plants, totem pole cacti and variegated agave, the swimming pool and spa’s organic edge is visually blurred, giving the impression of a natural spring bubbling up in the middle of the desert.

An outdoor kitchen equipped for hosting is one of the homeowner’s favorite spots in his new sanctuary. “To ensure a true-to-nature blend of elements, I selected a warm granite countertop and complemented it with a bold tile backsplash,” Milano notes. “We used a mixture of wrought iron, cast aluminum, natural stone and wicker, as these materials just harmonized nicely among the outdoor tables and pool area.” Turquoise shade umbrellas and lime green lounge chairs provide the perfect accent of color to reflect the variations of cool hues displayed in the natural surroundings.

“These types of projects are like a sculpture that is molded and changed throughout the entire process,” asserts Norris. “The original objective was clear, but the plant combinations evolved and all the different components of the landscape grew together to become a living art piece.”

Interior designer: Denise Milano, Denise Milano Design. Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs.

For more information, see Sources.

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