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A Uniquely Sonoran Landscape Welcomes Newcomers

Succulents of all shapes and sizes, including Agave horrida and Santa Rita prickly pear, flourish on this mountainside property designed to look like a botanical garden.

Beguiled by the desert’s beauty, an East Coast couple sets their sights on a landscape that reflects the region’s distinctive flora.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Art Holeman

Location is everything when it comes to real estate, and Heather Zechman and Scott McKay knew they found a gem in the rough when they purchased a spec home near the base of Camelback Mountain in 2017. Although the property is situated adjacent to a busy street and close to neighboring houses, it offers breathtaking views of the mountain and its iconic Praying Monk formation. “The setting is definitely unique,” admits Scott, who notes that he and Heather have lived all over the country, from Virginia to Washington, Florida to Pennsylvania. “We not only have easy access to world-class restaurants, entertainment and services, we also have the desert in our own backyard, and we’re less than a mile from mountain and nature trails.”

While the newly built house met the couple’s needs, the surrounding terrain left much to be desired. Consisting basically of dirt, it featured a large retention basin in back, making a third of the space unusable. To turn their dreams of the Southwest outdoor lifestyle into reality, the couple reached out to Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Russell Greey. “When Heather and Scott moved here, they were coming from a place with green lawns and lush yards, but they immediately became enamored with the desert and knew they wanted an Arizona garden,” Greey recalls.

“There is just so much to love about the Valley,” Scott explains. “We enjoy the topography, the weather, even the heat.” They also appreciate the local flora and found inspiration for plants and design at Desert Botanical Garden. “We fell in love with the cacti and desert trees and wanted native vegetation that mimicked the look of DBG,” Scott adds. “We’re both very outdoorsy, and we wanted to express that in our landscape.” The couple relied on Greey’s innate ability to create a natural environment that suited the setting.

Throughout the property, Greey placed more than 400 plants of varying species to create a botanical collection for the homeowners. “Scott is drawn to all different kinds of cacti and succulents and had the best time going out and selecting the ones he liked,” Greey notes. “We kept more of the wild native vegetation out toward the perimeter of the property and, as we got closer to the house, we used softer grasses, groundcovers and shrubs.” One of the showiest specimens is a soaring organ pipe cactus in the backyard, which serves as a dynamic focal point, while massive ocotillos, yuccas, old man cacti and saguaros add to the vertical drama. In a nod to contemporary style, rows of deer grass line a planting bed anchored by a trio of palo verde trees.

1. The unusual shapes and textures of a flowering Argentine giant cactus, desert milkweed and toothpick cactus draw the eye toward the organic-style water feature in the background, where lusher plants abound. The sound of the water also helps mitigate traffic sounds. 2. The sheer surface of the pool’s water acts like a mirror, reflecting the beauty of the desert trees and shrubs. “It looks like a giant work of outdoor art,” notes Greey. Sculptural garden chairs, molded to resemble stones, provide a fun spot to rest. 3. Deer grass that has been cut back into low haystacks serves as an understory plant for a row of palo verde trees. 4. A Yucca rigida is just one of the many specimen plants that play a starring role in the garden.

When Greey suggested adding a pool, the couple initially said no. “We’re just not pool people,” Scott remarks. “Most of our recreational water activities happen on rivers and lakes, and we didn’t think it was a necessity.” The landscape architect, however, talked the couple into incorporating a water feature that doubles as a pool. “This just made more sense to them,” Greey says. The resulting amenity is a four-sided zero-edge raised pool with a dark bottom that is situated to perfectly reflect Camelback Mountain in the surface of the water at sunset. Built in a wedge shape with the wider end near the house, it points directly toward the Praying Monk.

“We used stacked quartzite on two of the walls, and water cascades over their edges and into basins below, producing the sound of soft rain. The other two walls are a sleek black porcelain,” Greey recounts. “When the water feature isn’t running, the pool mirrors the mountain. At night, when the pool lights are on, the water reflects the trees and cacti, which then become the focal point of the garden.”

Notes Scott, “While we initially resisted adding the pool, we use it much more than we ever thought we would. We spend many evenings watching the beautiful colors of Camelback Mountain at sunset as it reflects in the water surrounded by our own desert botanical garden.”

“There is just so much to love about the Valley.”

—Scott McKay, homeowner

1. Landscape architect Russell Greey took the flat, dirt-laden backyard and gave it shape and definition with the addition of terracing, boulders, specimen plants and a curving pathway. 2. The garden path and its surrounding flora draw all kinds of birds, lizards and rabbits who like to forage for food. “We put out quail blocks and really enjoy watching them flock to our yard,” says homeowner Scott McKay. 3. The landscape architect’s plan for the grounds included depressing the backyard to alleviate drainage issues and make room for a dramatic water feature. Built by Jose Palomar, who the homeowners say contributed many ideas to make it a great design, the pool includes sun shelves, a spa, a self-cleaning system, an automated chemical management and a natural filtering capability. 4. To make it easier for homeowner Heather Zechman’s elderly mother to venture out into the garden, Greey added a paver walkway. To the right, sour orange trees and prickly pears line the property’s perimeter.

Adding to the parklike ambience, a granite path winds its way around the backyard, offering accessibility to various points of interest, including a fire pit, sitting area and spectacular planting beds. “We frequently stroll the trail, observing the native desert flora as it flowers and grows,” Heather says. “We are amazed at its ability to survive and thrive in the relentlessly hot and dry desert.” Birds, rabbits, lizards and other small animals also share the environment, although concrete walls keep the larger fauna out. Greey also created a paver walkway for Heather’s mother, who has mobility issues, that provides her with easy access to portions of the yard.

While the backyard is the main focus of the landscape, the smaller front yard was designed with the same vibe. “Initially, the front was just a paved auto court,” Greey recalls. To create a more welcoming first impression and to make the most of the space, which is mostly used as a thoroughfare to and from the main road, he filled it with flowering desert trees, bougainvillea, oleanders and Mexican ocotillos. “This softens the hardscape and also visually connects the front and back yards,” he notes.

Scott was so taken by the transformation of the property, especially the desert flora, that he helped design a business sourcing specimen cacti so that other homeowners can find what they are looking for. He notes, “Heather and I marvel at the decades of time it took for the organ pipes, saguaros, old man cacti, yuccas and ocotillos to achieve their grandeur. Now I can help others enjoy that, too.”

Landscape Architect: Russell Greey, Greey|Pickett.

For more information, see Sources.

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