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Homepage / Landscape + Garden  / A Tranquil Stream Meanders Through Natural Rocks and Desert Flora in This North Scottsdale Respite

A Tranquil Stream Meanders Through Natural Rocks and Desert Flora in This North Scottsdale Respite

Native to the Sonoran desert, a cluster of agave parryi sits nestled by a stream in the backyard of an Estancia home. Landscape designer Chad Norris chose a plant palette that celebrates the true beauty of the desert.

A home is transformed by the desert’s design.

By Michelle Jacoby | Photography by Melissa Valladares

Ask any California-to-Arizona transplant: The prospect of trading dewy sea breezes and glistening ocean views for endless desert skies and an expanse of wild, rugged terrain is drastic a change. 

But for one adventurous couple, moving from an idyllic coastal abode in San Diego to a hilltop home perched above the rolling fairways of the Estancia Club in north Scottsdale ignited a want—a need, almost—to surround themselves with the most lush, abundant and native landscape befitting such a distinctive desert dwelling.

The custom-built home sits atop one of the highest points in the master-planned community, affording the owners a breathtaking, nearly panoramic view of the surrounding desert. And while the view alone could have won their hearts, it was the lush landscaping and abundance of plant life that sealed the deal.

“We found this beautiful home with all these established plants, and we said to ourselves, ‘Oh my goodness, this is just incredible,’” says the wife. “There was so much already in place. We just wanted to enhance the beauty of it all.”

No strangers to desert-inspired living (they previously lived in Austin, Texas, and Palm Desert, California), the couple felt the need to stay true to the native landscape that surrounded their new home. At the urging of friends, they visited the Desert Botanical Garden, where they were introduced to an infinite array of plants native to the Sonoran Desert.

“The cactus, the trees, the flowers, everything—we were incredibly inspired,” says the husband.

Fortunately, the home’s landscaping already contained a vast array of plant life, from full-grown specimen trees and mature cacti to native outcroppings and years-old boulders. For the couple, it wasn’t a matter of razing the land or undertaking a full demo. Rather, they had the enviable task of using what they already had and improving the overall design with more thought and intention.

To assist with their vision, the homeowners enlisted the expertise of Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Chad Norris. Having designed other projects in the neighborhood, Norris was familiar with the home and had visited it before the couple purchased it.

1. The home’s front entry is framed by native plants, including a trio of Mexican cordora cacti, a yucca rostrata and mountain laurel. 2. Cascading from the swimming pool, concealed water features create calming spaces throughout the backyard. Here, a secluded oasis reveals lush greenery with elephant’s food, aloe ferox, Parry’s agave and trailing rosemary. Providing shade and seclusion, an ironwood tree completes this tranquil setting. 3. A multi-armed Argentine toothpick and cluster of Argentine giant flourish at the base of a towering saguaro, while claret cup hedgehogs (Echinocereus coccineus) embrace a large boulder, blending seamlessly with the desert floor. 4. A fence post cactus stands sentry at the steps leading to a quiet corner surrounded by yucca rostrata and an Argentine saguaro. The scene is completed with a fire feature, adding a modern touch to the natural setting. 5. A trio of chaise lounges beckon for relaxation. Amid the quiet beauty, a fence post cactus stands tall, while a euphorbia royleana and Caribbean agave add charm to the setting. 6. A tranquil stream meanders through natural rocks and desert foliage. 7. A cluster of Mexican fire barrel cacti commands attention with its fiery red hues and striking silhouette.

“Considering how much already existed, potential buyers didn’t know what to do with the landscape,” he says. “There were discussions about doing such things as filling in the pool, flattening the elevations and removing plants. But that would have changed the character of the home. There are so many unique attributes about the property, such as the nearly 20-foot-tall Hercules aloe at the entryway. These are things you can’t just do from scratch.”

To say the home is “at one” with its surroundings is an understatement. Tucked back and away from the street, it’s nearly hidden from view, creating a feel of complete serenity and seclusion. A long driveway leads to a circular motor court where a towering paloverde tree greets guests. That welcoming feeling extends to the home’s elevated entryway, where strategically placed vignettes of various cactus and desert plants add a natural yet polished look to the exterior.

While the front of the home creates an undeniable sense of arrival, it’s the backyard that shows off more of the exceptional qualities of the home, from the stunning multilevel pool with whispering water features, to tucked-away spots for quiet reflection and hidden spaces to feel in sync with nature.

“The landscape engages all the senses. You can hear it, you can feel it, you can sense it. ”

—The homeowners

1. A sweet acacia tree, clusters of salvia greggii and crown of thorns, and a mesquite tree paint a picture of vibrant desert life. 2. A display of cacti creates a unique backdrop in the home’s backyard. 3. A picture window offers a glimpse of the desert landscape beyond. Among natural stones and boulders, an ecosystem of desert flora thrives.

“All the nooks and crannies—planting pockets, as I like to call them—created so many little opportunities,” says Norris. “Individually, they have to create an experience on their own, but still collectively all work together.”

Elevation played a significant role in the design, as well. Built on a hillside, the home has a Santorini-like feel, complete with narrow walkways connected by stone steps leading to different destination points throughout the backyard. But rather than views of blue-domed, white-washed buildings and the sparkling Aegean Sea, sweeping desert skies and incredible sunsets welcome the homeowners every time they step outside.

It’s these multiple levels that Norris says posed one of the more memorable aspects of the backyard design. “There’s this seemingly random arrangement of plant material that cascades from the top down to the bottom,” he says. “It’s like using a paint brush, adding strokes of textures and colors that appear random but are still cohesive.”

Norris brings that artistic approach to the design as it’s viewed from inside the home, which has expansive windows throughout. “While there’s a lot of emphasis on the outdoor living experience, 90% of the time, it’s viewed from the inside looking out,” he explains. “If rooms just had painted walls, you’d hang a piece of art or a sculpture. It’s the same with thing with windows, so I put a lot of importance on framing this living piece of art.”

Upon completion of the four-month-long project, the homeowners have settled comfortably into desert living, an easy task considering the oasis they call home. “Every day, we enjoy every single corner of our home, every tree, every cactus, every single plant,” the wife says, “essentially, everything we’ve created with Chad and his team.”


Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs, Scottsdale,


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