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Curating A Garden Art Gallery

Reshaping a mature landscape creates a dynamic backdrop for a couple’s outdoor art—and changes their views on desert living.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Chris Loomis

Twelve years ago, Canadian natives Edward and Marjorie Hutton moved into their newly built Paradise Valley home on the side of a picturesque hill. It offered sweeping vistas of some of the area’s most notable landmarks, including Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak and South Mountain, as well as downtown Phoenix. Designed by Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Bing Hu, the contemporary residence had a “beautiful presence from the street,” recalls landscape architect Russell Greey, who conceived the original garden.

“When we built the home, one of our biggest objectives was to enhance privacy and minimize visibility of the nearby roads, so we planted lots of trees, especially around the perimeter, as well as native-adapted flora to fill in,” explains Edward. But as time passed, the trees’ rapid growth began to shade the once-sunny property, slowing down plant maturity and hiding the abode’s well-crafted architecture. “They reached the point of blocking our views, crowding the house, causing too much litter in our pool and on our patios and stunting growth of the smaller plants below,” he adds.

Looking back, Edward admits that when he and his wife purchased the home, he was not a big fan of desert plants, having lived with lush landscapes most of his life. “Marjorie has always loved cactus flowers and for years pointed them out to me as we walked through our neighborhood, but it has taken me much longer to learn to love them.” So a few years ago they told Greey, also a Masters of the Southwest award winner, that they were ready to make some revisions.

1-2. “The landscape is so important to the architecture,” says Bing Hu, who designed this Paradise Valley house. Plants such as organ pipe cactus and saguaro spears mirror the vertical features of the residence, as does a sculpture along the driveway by artist John Bartolomeo. 3. Landscape architect Russell Greey designed a steel bed for a trio of Agave parryi succulents that overlooks an infinity pool and a patio enclosed with glass walls to keep the wildlife out and the views open. “I don’t like having to look through furniture to see the scenery, which is why I placed the patio lower than the main floor of the house,” he explains. To keep feet cool, Greey added misting jets in the limestone paving.

In addition to taming the overgrown flora, the Huttons decided to return the grounds to a more natural setting. “We were looking to create an enhanced plant palette using primarily greenery that is native to or compatible with the Sonoran Desert,” Edward explains. “We also wanted to expose more of the architecture of the home and bring back the varied colors that we originally had in the landscape, as we had not been replacing the desert flowers as they died off.” Finally, they sought to focus more attention on cacti and succulents.

During the landscape renovation, overgrown trees were removed so that desert vegetation that was growing beneath their canopies would get the sun they needed in order to thrive. “There is so much diversity. It looks like it’s how Mother Nature meant it to look,” notes Greey. “Now, you can actually enjoy the plant material.”

Greey began by removing some of the mature trees closest to the residence and in specific areas of the hillside. The effect was immediate. “It just brought in so much more light, reintroduced the house and opened up the views,” he remarks. Another bonus: The vegetation that once grew under the canopy of the trees began to flourish. The perimeter trees, which continued to provide privacy, were left untouched.

The landscape architect then filled in the disrupted areas with lower-growing desert flora, creating a well-manicured botanical garden brimming with unique specimen cacti. From aloes, agaves and Trichocereus of all varieties to organ pipes, totem poles, yuccas and Edward and Marjorie’s favorite, red barrels, the plants transformed the property into a living work of art. In addition, landscape contractor Chuck Landin, who has maintained the grounds since the couple moved in, added a granite walking path through the front yard. “We often thought what little use we got out of the yard, but once we had the path, it opened an amazing interaction with the plants that we had never had before,” Edward recalls.

Adding to the personality of the garden is a collection of outdoor artworks. “We have always loved art, especially colorful abstraction,” Marjorie remarks. “We owned several pieces prior to building the home and have since added several more.” Large sculptural works by such artists as John Bartolomeo, Jun Kaneko, Robert Murray and Donald Martiny enhance the property with their vibrant colors, distinctive shapes and bold materials. “Marjorie and I select and place each piece,” notes Edward. “Russ then helps us integrate it into the landscape and architecture.”

Aside from their visual allure, the decorative items also play a secondary role in the landscape. “You can’t always solve a problem with plants,” Greey points out. “Sometimes there are areas where vegetation has trouble growing.” His solution was to add unexpected elements in these locations. “Marjorie and Edward are such an art-forward couple that this just seemed like the perfect option.” In a shaded spot against the house, for instance, he placed a life-size steel ocotillo designed by Phoenix artist Kevin Caron, while a neon sign was used to dress up a bland retaining wall that kept getting stained by bougainvillea vines. One of the more striking installations is situated beneath a window. Here, Greey designed a rectangular steel bed. Inside it are LED mats that are connected to a dimmer and topped with chunks of turquoise-colored glass. By day the feature looks like a cool pool of rock; when lit up at night, it produces an intense blue glow from within.

1. Throughout the grounds, Greey created focal vignettes and opened up the architecture of the house to its surrounding landscape by removing a number of large trees that had grown too close to the walls. Here, a Yucca rostrata with multiple heads draws the eye to the home’s intriguing design. 2. “The architecture is just the backdrop for the homeowners’ incredible art collection, as well as means to carry the natural Sonoran Desert into the interior space through the large glass windows and doors,” says Hu. 3. Along the driveway, a sculpture by John Bartolomeo fills a wedge-shaped void in a shady spot where plants don’t get enough sunshine to grow. 4. A beavertail prickly pear shows off its brilliant blossom.

“We were looking to create an enhanced plant palette using primarily greenery that is native to or compatible with the Sonoran Desert.”

—Edward Hutton, homeowner

1. “I designed the landscape to be mostly a succulent garden as opposed to a tree-laden one,” Greey explains. “I like to layer with flora of varying shapes, textures, varieties and colors in progression of depth and will often choose a plant more for its sculptural look than for its blooms. If it does flower, that’s just a plus.” Vegetation here includes a specimen-size organ pipe, golden and red barrels, and a mix of perennial shrubs. Between plants, the landscape architect laid natural stone and cobble that looks like it came from the mountainside. 2. A newly added nature path winds its way down from the patio and around the front yard, where homeowners Marjorie and Edward Hutton can observe the daily changes in their garden. “The desert is so interesting, and the plants have so much character,” says Edward. 3. “I designed the landscape to be mostly a succulent garden as opposed to a tree-laden one,” Greey explains. “I like to layer with flora of varying shapes, textures, varieties and colors in progression of depth and will often choose a plant more for its sculptural look than for its blooms. If it does flower, that’s just a plus.” Vegetation here includes a specimen-size organ pipe, golden and red barrels, and a mix of perennial shrubs. Between plants, the landscape architect laid natural stone and cobble that looks like it came from the mountainside. 4. Identical ceramic heads by artist Jun Kaneko face off near the home’s entryway. “We thought that by placing one inside and one outside we would bring the outdoors into the home and create an uncertainty requiring a viewer to investigate whether one was a reflection of the other or if there might be two sculptures,” says Edward Hutton. In an area where plants have trouble growing, Greey designed a “pool” of clear-blue crushed glass.

Now, the Huttons once again enjoy unobstructed views of the surrounding Valley, but they also spend time every day marveling at the beauty of their garden. “I see the landscape as a constant work in progress,” Edward says. “Plants grow and some die while, at the same time, we keep learning and our tastes keep evolving. It just becomes more and more interesting.”

Architect: Bing Hu, H&G International. Landscape Architect: Russell Greey, Greey|Pickett.

For more information, see Sources.

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