A Scottsdale Retiree’s Xeriscaped Garden is a Testament to Time and Tenacity
Scottsdale retiree Paul Folk’s xeriscaped oasis is a testament to time and tenacity.
By Wynter Holden | Photography by Kevin Kaminski
Nearly every square foot of the front, side and rear yards of retired shop owner Paul Folk’s North Scottsdale property is inhabited by unique varieties of aloe, succulents, cacti and other drought-tolerant plant species. Remarkably, Folk created the entire garden from scratch in just three years with grit, determination and a trial-and-error approach.
“When it was getting time for retirement, I needed something to do,” he says. “I had fallen in love with cactus and wanted to relandscape the backyard because we’d lost some trees.” After more than two decades of living in the house with his partner, also named Paul, and spending much of his time collecting eclectic wares for their store, Rustic Stuff, Folk retired in 2020 and shifted his focus from home goods to horticulture.
Once a barren and rocky plot, his front yard is now covered with hardy plants, including flying saucer cacti that produce giant orange-pink blooms; a treelike Hercules aloe; and a lanky Argentinean cactus that grows fine white hair as sun protection. Folk planted each one by hand, though he admits he’s lost more than a few specimens along the way. “Losing plants is like losing my children,” he quips. “People beat themselves up for it, but that’s part of the learning curve.” This pragmatic view on gardening has grown out of necessity and experience. Despite tending the gardens for about 20 hours a week, Folk doesn’t baby his new plants. Instead, he employs a tough-love method of cultivation that results in more resilient flora. “I like to grow things hard and let nature do the work. I lose more plants that way, but the ones that do survive grow really well,” he explains.
Past a wild-looking boojum tree and up a meandering river-rock walkway, Folk created an arched wooden door to what he jokingly calls the “forbidden garden.” Beyond lies a Saltillo-tiled patio decorated with rustic Mexican furniture, colorful glass orbs and dozens of potted plants. A nearby fountain gurgles gently, surrounded by spiky agave, assorted aloe and Alluaudia procera, a spiky ocotillo typically trained to grow straight. Folk prefers to let his plants grow au naturel, resulting in an octopuslike ocotillo with waving tentacles that droop toward the ground. “I don’t like straight gardens,” he states. “I like the architecture of spiky plants. They’re cool, almost prehistoric looking.”
The crowning glory of Folk’s three-year endeavor is his backyard, which features hundreds of drought-tolerant species, a pebble-textured pool draped by a willowy shoestring acacia and a metal tree decorated with glass hearts—one for every year the homeowners have been together. A dedicated aloe garden contains unusual varieties such as quiver tree and Aloe tomentosa, while a large, verdant green firestick plant will turn orange-red with increased sun exposure.
“If you’re not sharing, you’re not a good gardener.”
—Paul Folk, homeowner
One plant holds another secret. Breaking off a piece, Folk showcases the pencil cactus’ (Euphorbia tirucalli) creamy white sap. “Anything that has a milky substance like this is poisonous if it gets on your skin,” he notes. “I get rashes all the time.” Another focal point of the backyard is a quirky, handcrafted potting shed that the homeowner cobbled together from old barn wood and reclaimed brick. The structure serves as a plant nursery and hospital, with separate areas for each stage of care. It’s here that Folk turns small trimmings from his prized specimens into new plantings. “When I first started gardening, I wasn’t eager to give cuttings,” he admits. “But you talk to people and you learn. If you’re not sharing, you’re not a good gardener.” Now, Folk regularly donates cuttings to fellow plant hobbyists.
There’s so much to see, touch and smell in Folk’s wild landscape that it can overwhelm even the most seasoned gardener. There are hundreds of plant species and eclectic artworks collected from his store. Hummingbirds gather nectar while songbirds tweet their calls. Colorful cactus flowers bloom and fade in a single day. All of this adds up to a special kind of Folk magic. “When you hear the phrase ‘stop and smell the roses,’ there is nothing truer than that,” Folk says. “If you just take the time to sit and watch, you can experience so much. They’re little things … but life is all about the little things.”
Paul’s plant tip:
Have a cactus cutting? “Let it scab over at the bottom, just like a wound on your arm,” he says. Once the scab hardens up, it’s ready for planting!