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Celebrating the Sonoran Landscape

Situated near the base of Mummy Mountain, the property offers a panoramic view of the McDowell Mountains to the northeast. In the foreground, native vegetation was planted to mimic the Sonoran Desert. “It feels like you’re in a preserve,” observes landscape architect Donna Winters.

Wildlife, pets and plants flourish in a secluded Mountainside setting.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Mark Lipczynski

Rarely does a day go by when Stephania Williams can’t be found wandering around her property with a wide-brimmed sun hat perched on her head, a set of pruners in hand and a smile on her face. Carefully tending to her beloved plants and admiring new ones that recently sprouted up, it’s clear that she has a strong appreciation for the unparalleled beauty, tenacity and unexpected seasonal drama of the natural desert. 

Stephania, who was born and raised in lushly vegetated West Virginia, and her husband, Bruce, who grew up on the Oklahoma plains, became proud converts to the Southwest lifestyle when they moved to Arizona more than three decades ago. “It didn’t take us long to become enamored with the desert and local wildlife,” Stephania recalls. So when the couple bought a dated home in Paradise Valley—one that was surrounded by picturesque mountain views but landscaped with grass and Aleppo pines—they realized they could create their own paradise from the ground up.

“The house was out of code, and it just made more sense for us to demolish it and build something more suitable to our tastes,” Bruce explains. Designed by architect Shelby Wilson and constructed by Craig Hazeltine, the residence is organic in nature yet contemporary in style. “The inspiration for the house was Grand Canyon lodge rustic, which translated to massive stone support walls, Saltillo tile paving and wood vigas,” explains Hazeltine. “Shelby has a wonderful ability to use natural materials in a fresh and open format.”

Although existing desert vegetation was salvaged whenever possible, the landscape was ready for a makeover. “We knew we wanted a native xeriscape but with lush plants that were not the usual choice,” says Stephania. “We envisioned a desert version of an English garden, with groupings of plants that all complemented each other.” 

The late Nancy Wagner, a landscape designer renowned for desert preservation and promoting the use of indigenous flora, filled the property with a broad mix of hardy low-water-use shrubs, trees, cacti, succulents and unusual plant varieties. Later, another designer began enhancing the plantscape, introducing additional varieties not often found in residential landscapes, including anacacho orchid trees and squid agave, and designing a tortoise yard complete with a ground-level drinking fountain and several water troughs connected to the couple’s irrigation system.

1. The entry walk leading to the courtyard is lined with mature yucca specimens and fresh transplants. Yellow-flowering butterfly vines climb over the privacy wall and front gate. The white bloomer is a Texas olive tree (Cordia boissieri). 2. Gated rebar fencing keeps the tortoise habitat safe from intruders without blocking the area from view. 3. The landscape architect chose plants—including Creme Brulee agave and red-flowering crown of thorns—in a mix of low and mid heights and contrasting forms and colors to visually ground the planter. “The ponytail palm integrates with the architecture to transition heights from the wall to a more human scale,” she explains.

“It is my hope that seeing a garden like mine will encourage people to adopt xeriscape landscaping into their own yards.”

—Stephania Williams, homeowner

Over the years, Stephania became an expert gardener and pruner, caring for the plants with a dedication that continues to this day. She is in her yard year-round, even in the heat of summer, amending the soil, taking plant cuttings to fill in empty areas and always pruning. “I never prune anything completely to the ground, as I like the look of a mature landscape. But I want to keep the plants looking their natural best,” she notes. She also tends to a screened-in vegetable garden that often bears volunteer plants, including nasturtium and lavender.

A few years ago, the Williams’ decided to add a guest casita to their backyard and were happy to again retain the services of Wilson and Hazeltine, as well as landscape architect Donna Winters, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “Shelby and Craig were both so in sync with the property and were able to beautifully integrate the new structure with the style and character of the existing home,” says Winters, who was tasked with revegetating where necessary, revamping the front yard, designing meandering paths and creating a series of outdoor rooms with the addition of rebar fencing.

“There definitely is a lot of fencing, but we did that by design,” explains Bruce. Winters strategically placed rebar to delineate the borders of several areas, including a dog run (the couple has five lively canines), a private casita patio, an inner pool area and a tortoise habitat. 

1. inters describes the lot as a “beautiful enclave in the mountains.” The house was designed by architect Shelby Wilson, and its soothing tones and rustic stonework blend artfully into the setting. “It looks like the house grew from the ground up rather than being plopped on top of it,” says homeowner Stephania Williams. 2. Bruno, a Sonoran Desert tortoise, comes out for a bite to eat.

A true nature lover, Stephania volunteered with the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center for 15 years; it is where she adopted her first desert tortoise. “The tortoise sanctuary used to be located in the gated entry of our house, which ended up being a bit iffy, as we had to make sure the gate was closed and that didn’t always happen,” she says. “So when Donna came on board, she enclosed the habitat with new fencing and its own gate.”

The landscape architect and her crew harvested many materials onsite, including native stone and several mature senita cacti that they relocated on the property as construction of the casita took place. “We created stacked stone stairs and path walls and moved the senitas to the front yard,” Winters explains. “Because there already was such an incredibly diverse plant palette here, we tried to continue with the legacy of this beautiful garden by following in its footsteps.”

From whale’s tongue agave, Madagascar ocotillo, Hercules aloe and pine cone prickly pear to such bloomers as queen’s wreath, plumbago, bulbine and Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight,’ Winters added her own unexpected elements to the garden. “There continues to be a wonderful balance of native and exotic plantings with a surprise around every corner,” she notes. 

These days, Stephania enjoys showing off her garden. “I think visitors are surprised at the diversity of the vegetation and how lush a desert landscape can look. It is my hope that seeing a garden like mine will encourage people to adopt xeriscape landscaping into their own yards.”

Architect: Shelby Wilson, Shelby Wilson Architect Ltd. Builder: Craig Hazeltine, Heritage Master Builders. Landscape Architect: Donna Winters, Enchanted Garden Landscapes.

For more information, see Sources.

1. Layers of lush desert vegetation envelop a latilla covered patio in the backyard. The bold plant in the foreground is an Agave guiengola ‘Creme Brulee.’ 2. The patio off the newly constructed guest casita feels secluded without being walled in due to the addition of rebar fencing. Used throughout the landscape to delineate various garden rooms, rebar—or “sticks in the desert” as builder Craig Hazeltine likes to refer to it—is a nonintrusive option that is both earthy and minimalist. 3. “When the house was first built, the neighbors referred to it as the ranger station, because of the broad overhangs and generous patios that unite the home to the site and capture the views,” says Hazeltine. The airy canopy of a palo brea tree softens the setting.


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