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A Desert Highlands Home Initiates a Dialogue With its Surroundings

A canopy of native trees shades a collection of agave and specimen cacti in the home’s courtyard.

A Desert Highlands home initiates a dialogue with its surroundings.

By Lauren Tyda | Photography by Austin LaRue Baker

Situated among a constellation of boulders in the Desert Highlands, a humble hideaway blends into its natural surrounds. “Everything about this house is nestled and protected,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Donna Winters. “You feel like you’re entering into the scene versus already knowing the story, like you’re meant to discover the house among the landscape.”

The entry to the courtyard is framed by a canopy of trees that dapple sunlight onto the stone-paved driveway. Pull a wooden dowel on the gate to enter the courtyard, where the ceiling of trees continues, creating its own microclimate in hotter months. “You feel like you’ve come into a special place,” Winters states. “That’s just one of the trademarks of this house—it feels like you’re under a roof that just happens to be the trees and different forms and textures that play off of the wonderfully massive walls.” Boulders and cacti lead up to a display of potted plants beneath Moroccan-style light fixtures and rain chains that open into the home’s entry.

Wander over to the side of the house, and there is a walkway of stone pavers that leads to the back, where floor-to-ceiling windows create a quiet transition between the interiors, the poolscape and gardens. “As you get closer to the architecture, we placed pots with various kinds of cacti and succulents,” Winters says. “It has that very inside-outside feel to it.”

The vessels themselves blend with the Pueblo Revival-style architecture of the home, which was intentional. Winters originally worked on the property in tandem with fellow Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Lash McDaniel, who thoughtfully crafted the dwelling with discretion in mind, respecting the nature of the property. “The home is not something man-made or imposed on the site but, rather, it is of the site,” Winters explains. “Those are the things that really attracted me to this place and to enhancing it. It’s more about how the vegetation plays against the structure and the form, the shadows and the textures.”

After several years of falling into disrepair by prior owners, the gardens received a much-needed refresh when seasonal residents Ann and Brian Balusek purchased the home in 2018. “They totally love the naturalness of the Sonoran Desert,” Winters states. “They appreciate the cacti and the different forms in this habitat and are not trying to make it be something it’s not.”

Winters and her team reconfigured the existing plantings, added new ones and expanded the array of pots. “She took many of the plants out of the landscape and laid them in the driveway and split them into pieces and redid the yard with those existing plants, which we found fascinating,” Ann says.

1. The courtyard leads up to a grouping of potted plants, sculpture, Moroccan light fixtures and a rain chain, which together create a calming effect. “I love this area,” says owner Ann Balusek. “It’s like a secret garden.” 2. Owners Brian and Ann Balusek filled a pot they sourced from India with brightly hued floating flower petals. 3. ISaguaro and agave Americana bring texture to the front of the home. 4-5. The owners savor morning coffee and lunch  by their home’s poolscape during milder months. A Euphorbia ingens towers up to the second story seating area, where another  fireplace and views of the golf course await.  “I love our fireplaces,” Ann says. “People don’t think you need those in Arizona, but we use them all the time. I enjoy our chilly winter nights.”

Now that the enhancements are complete, the couple enjoys discovering new cacti and succulents for their gardens, as well as entertaining the various visiting wildlife. “I love when spring hits where everything is blooming, and we see all the different butterflies and birds coming in,” Ann says. “And it’s right outside our window.”

Brian agrees: “The fascinating part of the gardens is that from almost anywhere in the house you see cactus and feel like you are in the desert. We like to garden, and it’s mesmerizing to be in an environment that is different than anything we have ever known.”

“You feel like you’re entering into a scene versus already knowing the story, like you’re meant to discover the house among the landscape.”

—Donna Winters, landscape architect

1. A seating area and fireplace on the back patio are framed by an array of potted plants. “The pots create comfort by making the space feel contained,” Winters says. “You’re never just surrounded by brown, stucco walls. You feel like you’re sitting in a beautiful cactus garden.” 2. A composition of toothless desert spoon (Dasylirion quadrangulatum), Hercules aloe (Aloidendron ‘Hercules’), candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), golden barrels and artichoke agave (Agave paryi v. truncata) add interest to the front landscape. 3. “Pots become part of the furniture and fabric of the site,” Winters says, “but they’re never too contemporary or out of context with the home’s Pueblo Revival style of architecture. And, again, you have a ceiling with the palo verde tree, which pushes calming energy down to where you are sitting.”

Architect: Lash McDaniel, Lash McDaniel Design, Phoenix, Landscape architect: Donna Winters, Enchanted Garden Landscapes Inc., Phoenix, Assisting landscape design: Austin Schroeder, Container plant designs: Patricia Rossi,


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