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A High-Desert Home’s Landscape Complements Its Unique Ecosystem

Landscape designer Chad Norris updated a North Scottsdale garden, balancing aesthetics and the high-desert environment. In the back, he opted for a more natural look, with saguaros, ocotillo, yuccas and golden barrel cactus. The pool deck was expanded to include a spot for a fire pit. Elevating it above the level of the rest of the patio gives the effect of floating above the desert floor.

Chad Norris renovates a landscape to complement the home’s architecture—and to flourish in the high desert’s sometimes extreme ecosystem.

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Mark Lipczynski

From most parts of the Valley, the drive to Judy and Andy Bala’s house is a trek. It sits at the northernmost point of Scottsdale, at the edge of the Tonto National Forest, with Apache Peak and Continental Mountain as backdrops. From the couple’s back patio, State Farm Stadium in Glendale, some 40 miles southwest as the crow flies, is a shiny silver dot on the horizon. At 3,100 feet in elevation, their 2.5-acre property can get the occasional dusting of snow. Mule deer regularly peer into Andy’s home office window, and squadrons—or herds—of javelina cruise up and down the two washes that bisect their land.

When the Balas asked landscape designer—and Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest—Chad Norris to renovate their landscape, he had to balance their desire to create a modern look that would complement the architecture of their abode with installing a garden that could withstand temperature extremes and munching mammals. “My plant palette for this elevation is different from what I can use in Paradise Valley,” explains Norris. “I also have to use plants and planting strategies that wouldn’t be lost to javelinas or other animals.”

Judy and Andy, who are suburban Chicago natives, had lived in this community for several years, enjoying golf and retirement. Norris had done the landscape for their previous Mediterranean-style home. Wanting a change, the Balas contemplated building a contemporary dream home, but when the current house came on the market, they jumped. “This is what we would have built anyway,” explains Judy, “and we didn’t have to go through the whole process.” To personalize the abode, the couple decided to update the bit-too-natural landscape into something more edgy and modern and oversee some minor changes indoors.

The residence was completed several years ago as a spec home by builders Dick and Joe Lloyd and architect Jessica Hutchison-Rough. “We were influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright with this home’s design,” explains Hutchison-Rough, “with horizontal lines, glazing under the roofline and corner windows for the views.” Set on a sloping site, the two-level house is approached by a long drive and opens in back onto a pool patio with seemingly infinite views.

1. A fountain built into a stone-clad wall defines one end of the pool. A cross-section of wood crowns the setting. 2. A Hercules aloe is a sculptural element under the entry trellis. 3. Another Hercules aloe shares a small patio seating area with a Euphorbia rolyeana, a large, shade-loving succulent. 4-5. Playing off the existing saguaros that flourish in the wash, Norris used a limited palette of plants to reflect the home’s architecture and define the driveway.

After they bought the house, the couple asked Hutchison-Rough to help with the interior renovations and to add a fire pit to the backyard. “Most of the original back patios are in the shade,” says the architect, “so the Balas asked for something in the sun, since they are here mostly in the cooler months. We extended the patio off the pool for the fire pit and elevated it, so it seems like it’s floating above the desert.”

With the hardscape set, Norris planned a garden that played off the simple lines of the house. “It was all about pattern and repetition here to create a modern look,” says Norris. “I didn’t use a lot of different kinds of plants—it was all about grouping.”

Before he came up with a planting scheme, Norris walked the property front to back, methodically taking pictures left to right. He also viewed the landscape from inside, noting views from the windows. “I can then visualize the look in my mind,” he says. “I do a written proposal that’s more like a narrative of how the landscape will look, rather than just a lot of drawings.”

“It was all about pattern and repetition here to create a modern look. I didn’t use a lot of different kinds of plants—it was all about grouping.”

—Chad Norris, landscape designer

1. At the home’s entry, the landscape designer chose vertical and sphere-shaped plantings to stand out in relief against the angular, taupe-hued walls. The Argentine toothpick cactus at far right is hardy enough to withstand higher-elevation freeze zones. In the background, a circular metal mobile greets guests, while artwork by Eric Gonzales is visible through the window. 2. Looking toward the road, the home’s curving drive and stone-clad garden walls are marked by patterned plantings that are spare and modern. 3. A side view of the residence reveals the sloping site, the home’s two levels and the extended pool patio. Riprap channels help direct rain runoff to one of the washes below.

Wanting to craft an “intentional” style for the landscape, Norris removed much of the shrubby undergrowth and started layering the site with boulders first, then worked in vertical elements, such as saguaros. Spiky forms, such as agaves, and spherical shapes, such as golden barrel cactus, finished the setting.

For the driveway, which dips down toward the house, Norris created a focal point at the street, using boulders, organ pipe cactus and agaves, removing some existing trees that hid the house. He lined the drive with a patterned grouping of agaves and golden barrels and flanked the garage doors with sentinel-like
saguaros for visual interest. Next to the front door, the landscape designer used a specimen Hercules aloe for its dramatic, sculptural form.

In back, near the pool, Norris opted for a more natural desert look where the property starts dropping down into the washes. “Because the house was already built, and the drop-offs are steep into the washes, everything we did in back had to be brought in by hand,” Norris points out. “We couldn’t bring any equipment back there.”

Playing off the existing saguaros that flourish in the wash, Norris used a limited palette of plants to reflect the home’s architecture and define the driveway.

While the new plantings stand out in organized relief against the home’s deep-taupe walls, Norris was tuned into the local microclimate and ecosystem. The saguaros he added augmented those that were naturally occurring on the site. “We used toothpick cactus here because it’s hardier than fencepost cactus,” Norris says. “Using a lot of ironwoods at the periphery of the property wouldn’t work here because there aren’t that many ironwoods at this elevation.” As with all his projects, Norris makes sure the plant materials flourish long after they’re initially installed and watered. “We keep an eye on all our plants to make sure they’re thriving,” he says.

When it comes to getting along with desert critters, Norris explains that the larger, mature plantings such as the saguaros, ocotillos and yuccas that were installed in the Balas’ landscape are not of much interest to local snackers. “Javelinas, though, like to dig up agaves to chew on the agave pups, so we use large rocks around the plants to prevent digging.”

Now completed, the garden has survived heat, monsoons, cold, snow and desert fauna. The Balas have settled in, enjoying the desert setting with their adult children, grandchildren and friends. “I’m not a gardener, so this desert landscape does me well,” says Judy. “Chad gave us exactly what we wanted—it’s linear, clean and modern.”

Renovation architect: Jessica Hutchison-Rough, Urban Design Associates. Builders: Joe and Dick Lloyd, Dick Lloyd Custom Homes. landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs.

Architect: Jessica Hutchison-Rough, AIA, UDA Ltd., Scottsdale, Builders: Joe and Dick Lloyd, Dick Lloyd Custom Homes, Scottsdale, Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs, Phoenix, Interior designer: John Martin, Turner/Martin Design, Scottsdale,
Patio furniture:


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