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Botanical Beauty

An intimate sitting area off the breakfast patio at this Scottsdale home comes to life at night with a gas fire feature and spectacular cactus specimens illuminated from below.

A passion for the Southwest inspires one couple to turn their garden into a vibrant showcase for Sonoran Desert flora.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Steve Thompson

For someone who loves to garden and has done so in many areas of the U.S., taking on the challenge of a rocky, boulder-strewn hillside lot in the Sonoran Desert is something that Carey Bertsch relishes. “I was born in Scotland but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. My husband, Robin, is from Indiana. We have always loved everything about the Southwest. The sunny, arid climate; the lifestyle; the flora; the fauna—they all resonate with us,” she remarks.

As such, the couple, who are based in Colorado, decided to purchase a part-time residence in Arizona. They found a Santa Fe Territorial-style home that’s tucked into the base of a steep slope in North Scottsdale’s Estancia community. Populated with natural boulder outcroppings, the property’s landscape was rudimentary at best. “But we saw the potential and knew it could be so much more,” recalls Carey. She and her husband lived in the house for several years before making any major changes; they recently completed a total exterior remodel.

A newly added gate, a wall of Congress stone and groupings of specimen cacti redefined the home’s front courtyard. Landscape designer Chad Norris interspersed small agaves between boulders native to the site, making them appear as though they’re growing out of the rock.

“Everything came together so beautifully, and we were able to stay true to the Southwest feel.”

—Carey Bertsch, homeowner

“We replastered the house, changed up the driveway, expanded and upgraded our outdoor living spaces and resurrected the garden,” remarks Carey. “There are city views we wanted to capture, along with wonderful spaces for enjoying sunrise and sunset. The garden needed to be more of a reflection of the Sonoran Southwest.”

Landscape designer Chad Norris, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, understood their vision. “Carey and I worked closely together on this project as she was determined to get the details just the way she imagined them. She was so passionate about it all,” he remembers. “It was important that every area be unique and special and that the yard be landscaped with indigenous plants that look good year-round. There were also all the boulders and the sloping lot that we had to contend with.”

Luckily, Norris thrives on challenge. “It allowed for a level of creativity that I don’t always get,” he admits. From front to back, he created dramatic arrangements with spectacular desert flora that meanders around the natural rock or is placed in ways to draw the eye toward the best views. “Chad took advantage of the boulders and added multiple layers of plantings,” says Carey. “Everywhere you look you see another beautiful garden setting.”

“Each vignette features spherical, vertical and spiky elements. This creates visual interest as well as the continuity necessary to make a composition work,” Norris explains. “For me, good landscape design starts at the driveway where it sets the expectation for what’s ahead.” In this instance, a show-stopping organ pipe cactus tucked among smaller but just as dynamic desert plants signals that the magic is about to unfold.

One of the most eye-catching areas is the entry courtyard. “Originally, it was open to the front yard and offered no privacy. It also lacked presence,” says Carey. “We decided to enclose it with a gated wall, and Chad filled it with amazing specimen cacti and succulents.” Paved with upside-down Saltillo tiles that lend a rustic, textured finish, the space retains an old-Mexico feel that was enhanced with the addition of low walls made from rock mined in Congress, about 20 minutes north of Wickenburg. “We had to find stone that would match an existing wall nearby in the front yard that was built years ago,” recalls Norris. A Spanish-style Cantera wall fountain with a French antique spigot brings the soothing sound of water to the inviting space.

While the entire landscape was revamped, the biggest change was the addition of a backyard ramada. Designed by architect Ron Brissette, it was carefully positioned to sit within the confines of the boulders and placed at a higher elevation than the house in order to take in the city views. “It definitely was a unique site to work on,” Brissette recalls. “The idea was to nestle the structure in to make it part of the whole outdoor experience and have a seamless design that matched the architecture of the residence.”

The structure’s plaster walls are finished in a 3D claylike texture that mimics stucco and suits the character of the setting. Extensive beam work in the ceiling resembles rays of sun coming out of the sky, while Spanish-style iron window grilles were custom made to perfectly replicate an old iron remnant that Carey had picked up. “Every clavos, every element was lovingly hand-hammered to perfection,” she remarks. “I love the architectural interest the grilles provide.” The same design was also used for the couple’s gates and fences.

1. Inside the courtyard, a Cantera water fountain with a stone trough was designed to fit the aesthetics of the Santa Fe Territorial-style home. 2. This dynamic cluster of cacti and succulents is the first image of the garden visitors see before entering the property. 3. The ramada patio looks south to the pool and the city views beyond. Norris said he had to install a temporary road behind the pool to bring in the oversized cacti and trees. 4. “Every area had to be unique and special,” Norris remarks. Here, two organ pipe cacti and a blue Yucca rostrata provide the verticality needed to visually elevate the landscape.

“Each vignette features spherical, vertical and spiky elements. This creates visual interest as well as the continuity necessary to make a composition work”

—Chad Norris, landscape designer

A breakfast nook just off the home’s kitchen is one of the Bertsches’ favorite settings. “We opened up the original back patio and created a cozy spot that extends to an area tucked within the boulders,” Carey notes. Norris installed an invisible gas fire line at the base of the stone; when it is lit at night, flames appear to emanate from the boulders. “This is where we love to watch both the sun and the moon rise. It’s a very charming but protected space, and it’s accented by cereus, organ pipe and senita cacti that often flower while it’s still dark out.”

In fact, desert bloomers of all kinds, such as Argentine giant (Trichocereus candicans), Argentine saguaro (Echinopsis terscheckii), monstrose apple cactus (Cereus Peruvianus ‘Monstrose’), San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) and claret cup hedgehogs (Echinocereus triglochidiatus), can be found throughout the landscape. They’re highlighted with an extensive illumination system. “It’s so magnificent at night,” notes Carey. “There are even lights that hang down from the limbs of the trees.”

“Everything came together so beautifully, and we were able to stay true to the Southwest feel,” she adds. “The entire yard is like a work of art.”
Landscape Designer: Chad Norris, Desert Foothills Landscape. Ramada Architect: Ron Brissette, Brissette Architects Inc.
For more information, see Sources.

1. Architect Ron Brissette designed the upper-level ramada with exposed beams for an earthy, textural ambience. Creating a natural breezeway between the outdoor dining and living rooms, the open windows frame picturesque planting vignettes throughout the garden. 2. Separated from the ramada area by a gate, the pool patio offers its own unique view of the hillside lot and showcases the multiple layers of vegetation that Norris installed. “All of the plants were chosen precisely to pull in the natural colors of the landscape and complement the boulders,” he explains. 3. An enormous mesquite tree provides filtered shade around the pool’s existing boulder water feature. “We went back and forth on whether or not we should keep the tree, because it sheds a lot and its roots may eventually cause problems,” Norris says. “But we eventually decided it should stay. I can’t imagine the garden without it.” Cacti, succulents and a single sago palm were tucked among the rocks to soften the hardscape. Paving is upside-down Saltillo tile.


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