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Inside This Dreamy Desert Garden

Visitors to Bill and Suzy Repko’s welcoming home enjoy a verdant retreat just outside the creeping fig-covered guest casita. Cheerful yellow bells and Barbara Karst bougainvillea make great companions for morning coffee. In the evenings, the courtyard is ideal for dark sky viewing while gathered around the fire. Suzy especially likes the variety of cacti, including monstrose apple, totem pole and golden barrel, that fill this intimate spot.

A palette of vibrant blossoms and textural greenery reinvigorates a desert landscape.

By Shannon Severson | Photography by Art Holeman

As lifelong East Coasters, Bill and Suzy Repko were more accustomed to flora and fauna of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states than they were with the cacti and yucca of the Southwest. But when they decided to relocate to Arizona and build a new residence, access to the outdoors from as many rooms as possible and a desert-friendly landscape were at the top of their priority list.

About six years ago, the Repkos found the perfect double lot in the exclusive community of Silverleaf. A dramatic rock crag rises behind the gently sloping property, while the front offers wide-open vistas of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. “We wanted to capture as much of that view as we could from the first and second floors,” Bill explains.

At the time, the abode, with its blend of Mediterranean and Southwest styles, served as a vacation home for the Connecticut-based couple. The lot’s gentle grade results in varying elevations, through which stairs and stone pathways climb and curve throughout the landscape, leading to new vignettes and ever-changing perspectives. “There is a balance between the view and our desire for a southwestern-facing space for the main house. Every outdoor area represents another room that we can live in. We have different perspectives of the crag or the preserve, and we can sit and watch thunderstorms that are 25 miles away,” says Suzy.

Adds Bill, “We took the risk of building our infinity edge pool next to the street so we can look out to the preserve. It paid off; we can go days without seeing a car drive past.”

Over the years, Suzy and Bill took time to become acquainted with the cacti, local vegetation and flowers that bloomed throughout the year, noting plants that struck their fancy. When it came time to relocate permanently to the Valley, they had about a year-and-a-half of planning and dreaming to draw upon to give their landscape a fresh, updated look.

“When I first met the Repkos, they were in the process of selling their Connecticut home and living full time in their Scottsdale house,” says landscape designer Peggy De La Garza, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “They initially wanted us to do a refresher, a face-lift, on the property. I began with bringing in boulders and adding some contouring and ‘shelfing.’” This design element involves stacking boulders to create new areas of elevation throughout the grounds. De La Garza then added foliage to each layer, essentially generating shelves for plants. “I put in an armed saguaro and salvaged some existing species; I basically ended up changing the whole thing,” she adds.

1. A large blue urn serves as a cooling water feature in an intimate plant vignette. 2. The look of the front drive motivated the entire project. Landscape designer Peggy De La Garza filled plants beds with lush greens, bright blooms and plants in a variety of textures and heights for visual interest. Mexican fence post cacti and agaves speak to the surrounding desert, while brilliant bougainvillea and potted geraniums add fun splashes of color.

“There is a freedom that comes with mixing all the colors that makes me happy.”

—Suzy Repko, homeowner

Bill acknowledges that what began as a simple renovation along one side of the driveway soon snowballed into an expansive, whole-property undertaking that transformed the grounds into a verdant oasis. “The project kept expanding,” he exclaims. “I’d show Peggy other areas of the property, and she would say, ‘I can improve on that!’ We had a wonderful time, and Peggy created an environment that changes with the weather and seasons. We are thrilled with how it turned out.”

Cacti, succulents and flowering plants, both in-ground and potted, in a variety of shapes, textures, heights and colors create a dynamic visual flow, while trees with green canopies filter dappled light on the terrain.

“I took an area where the plantings were unexciting and put in color, as well as lots of vertical plants,” De La Garza explains. “I incorporated Yucca rostrata to frame the windows of the garage, added some agaves and planted Alexandra bougainvillea to give the setting a pop of magenta.” The designer notes that this climbing plant is a compact cross between the ‘Purple Queen’ and ‘Torch Glow’ cultivars with flowers that are hydrangea-like in structure. “When it’s blooming, it’s like a big puff of color,” she says.

1. Vibrant red and pink geraniums are relatively heat-resistant. The soft edges of yaupon holly ‘Stokes’ contrasts texturally with spiky Yucca rostrata and Agave parryi truncata. 2. In the front yard, saguaros, prickly pear, golden barrels and yuccas are softened with gold mount lantana and toothless desert spoon succulents. “I like to use the element of boulders and then add elevation with plantings; it allows the eye to really see the layering of plantings,” says De La Garza.

That surprise shot of vibrancy is echoed in brilliant red geraniums that ring the entry courtyard’s fountain; a lush, verdant ivy-covered wall in the backyard—a nod to prestigious Ivy League universities back East—and eye-catching potted perennials displayed throughout the property. Groupings of delicate white roses soften the rainbow of hues.

“Peggy isn’t scared of color,” Suzy points out. “She has a unique way of combining yellow daisies, purple and pink bougainvillea, and white roses. There is a freedom that comes with mixing all the colors that makes me happy. I walk outside and see this profusion of shades, and it brings a smile to my face.”

In addition to revitalizing the plantscape, De La Garza enhanced the outdoor entertaining spaces around the pool, balancing the slate decking and setting the stage for the scenic vistas.

“We have a loggia outside of the kitchen, living and dining area that we consider our outdoor living room,” Bill says. “It has a number of seating arrangements, and we spend a lot of time out there with guests. One of the reasons we love Arizona is because when the house is open, it’s really open. We also use the ramada and fireplace on the other side of the pool. In the late evening, the sunset is behind you; between it and the fire, there’s this very distinct light that illuminates the surroundings.”

1. A towering Barbara Karst bougainvillea creates an explosion of fuchsia above the backyard’s sparkling blue pool and spa. 2. The homeowners say there’s a special glow that lights up the ramada during the evenings. The area is surrounded by colorful plantings, including Mexican fence post and blue myrtle cacti, blue elf aloe and Agave lopantha. Alexandra bougainvillea and Yucca rostrata line a low wall at the rear. 3. The loggia is the center of the action for cooking, dining and lounging during the many temperate months in Arizona, a welcome treat for these former New Englanders.

An alfresco grilling and eating space and a second-floor terrace with views of the city—the Repkos favorite spot for sunset cocktails—provide additional destinations for relaxing. Adjacent to the guest casita is an idyllic water feature that the couple refer to as their “river pool.” It wends past a fire pit seating area, accented by plants of all heights and boulders large and small. “In the evenings, the cacti are lit very softly,” Suzy says. “The dark sky, the crag and the light from the fire offer a cozy, wrap-yourself-in-a-blanket feel.”

Now that Bill and Suzy have settled into year-round Sonoran living, their thoughtful planning and De La Garza’s graceful touches have turned their former part-time home into a pocket of paradise. They’re consistently delighted and surprised by the beauty and diversity of the desert.

“You would think there wouldn’t be much more than cactus here,” Bill remarks. “But we enjoy every bit of our yard, and we now send photos of flowers to our friends in Connecticut. The house feels joyful because of all the color that surrounds it.”

Landscape designer: Peggy De La Garza, Trademark Landscape Inc.

For more information, see Sources.

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