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Desert Flora Blend With Rare Plants in This Hauntingly Beautiful Hillside Home

With its picturesque view to the north, this “gallery” garden—situated between the residence and pool house—includes a small turf area, which plays an important role in the desert landscape. "It reduces water runoff and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as mitigates the heat," explains landscape architect Michele Shelor.

Nestled into a native Sonoran Desert landscape, a hillside property is a showcase for sustainability, diversity and pure visual delight.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Caitlin Atkinson and Marion Brenner

Before Lauri and Eric Termansen moved to Phoenix 25 years ago, both envisioned the city as a brown, dry landscape filled with dirt and rocks.  “I grew up in Houston, worked in New York and Eric was raised in Vancouver, so we weren’t sure what to expect,” Lauri says. “It took us a while to acclimate, but then we began to realize there really is a lushness to the desert.”

Although their previous house on the south side of Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley was void of native plantings, the couple chose to revegetate the grounds at their new home on the north side of the mountain. “When Lauri and Eric bought the lot, it was surrounded by aging oleanders and brimming with non-native, water-intensive shrubs and grass,” says landscape architect Michele Shelor, who redesigned the grounds. “They wanted the property to reflect their deep appreciation for desert plant life and advocacy for conservation and sustainability.”

Shelor, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner—an honor shares with her business partner, Allison Colwell— took the Termansens to the Desert Botanical Garden early in the design process. “We selected plants that were rare, visually delicious and easy to maintain,” Shelor recalls. “We wanted the landscape to be just as unique as the architecture of the home, yet complement its architectural, bold forms without competing with it.”

Nicknamed the “Ghost Wash” property by architect Darren Petrucci, who designed what he refers to as a climatically responsive modern house, the site is flanked by two desert washes that move stormwater from the top of the mountain and to a valley below. A third conceptual wash—the ghost wash—runs down the center of the site. “The ghost wash is an architectural landscape that starts at the auto entry court on the north side and passes through the residence, culminating at the pool house on the south side,” he explains. It is made up of cascading terraces of alternating patios and garden planters, notes Shelor. “The last terrace is a steel box cistern capturing all of the roof water and storing the runoff,” she says.

1. Filled with an abundance of native flora on the perimeter, the mostly xeric gardenscape offers a cornucopia of wildflowers, prickly pear and barrel cacti. “The idea with the planting palette was for it to feel as if the mountain landscape was cascading down onto the property, yet more colorful and textural,” Shelor says. 2. Creeping fig vine scrambles up the back wall of the master bedroom courtyard, serving as a backdrop to purple heart, agaves and a white-blooming orchid tree, which creates a shady oasis for the owners. “The idea was for it to feel like a sanctuary from the hot desert landscape surrounding the house,” notes Shelor. “We wanted it to feel calming and lush, like a dark canyon, but sculptural and playful.”

Because the Termansens wanted a mature landscape from day one, the revegetation process began four years before the home was complete. Surprisingly, much of the property’s design takes its cue from English gardens. “They typically have a formal, ornamental feel closer to the house and then they start to blend into a wild natural habitat further away,” Shelor explains.” There was this idea that it needed to feel like a garden gallery and each gallery encases a rich interplay of like or complementary plant species from arid regions around the world. Collectively, the gardens provide a year-round show of marvel cascading through the landscape.”

“Many of the cacti and succulents start to feel like costumes or dresses in the garden.”

— Michele Shelor, landscape architect

A sculptural Queen of the Night cactus, the twisted form of an ironwood tree, a field of vibrant shades of blue and aqua succulents and white glowing cacti have transformed the site into a spectacular celebration of awe-inspiring desert plant life. “We used a lot of native wildflowers such as globemallow, brittlebush, penstemon, desert marigold and verbena, with native prickly pear and barrel cacti placed throughout,” Shelor points out. “We also started to introduce some rarer cacti, such as the boojum tree, which is primarily found in a small area in the Baja of Mexico.”

Once established, the majority of the specimens thrive on rainwater and require no fertilizing or pruning. The only non-desert vegetation is a grassy area in the backyard for their daughter, Elsa, and their Labrador retriever, Anders, to play on, and a small citrus grove with Meyer lemon, blood orange, and ruby red grapefruit trees that the couple harvests regularly.

“I thought I would really miss the bougainvillea that we had at our old house, but I don’t,” Lauri remarks. “There is so much going on here. The cactus bloom at different times of the year and it’s just amazing to see.” For Eric, the pandemic played a role in his growing appreciation for the gardens. “My love of the landscape grew immensely during the lockdown. While the world swirled with tragedy around us, the calming beauty of the ironwoods outside my office kept me centered.

1. A cantilevered covered patio overlooks the north-facing yard, where a rusted-steel box contains a rainwater retention garden for capturing and storing rain runoff. 2. Brickwork plays a significant role in the hardscape, with five patterns shaping their character, Petrucci says. In the entry courtyard, walls were meticulously constructed in a herringbone pattern and “feel as if they had been sculpted out of native red sedimentary sandstone,” Shelor describes. A foothills paloverde tree shows its brilliant springtime color behind the stepped planter where blue torch cacti play a starring role. An octopus cactus drapes over the wall at right.

“The Ghost Wash house is not a house in the desert, but a house of the desert”

—Darren Petrucci, architect

“When we conceived the home design, we had a clear vision of using the landscape to edit and improve on the already stunning views,” he continues. “We love to see the architecture and landscaping and how they were meant to live together. It’s all like a big work of art when the sun rises and when the sun sets.”

1. A floating steel roof hovers over the center of the home, which is part of the ghost wash, as is the small lawn area surrounded by masses of native desert wildflowers, ironwood trees, and in the foreground, yuccas and aloes. “Just like in the desert, the roof acts like a nurse tree protecting and nourishing what’s under it,” says architect Darren Petrucci, who designed the house and hardscape. 2. Floor-to-ceiling windows bring the views into the house, making the line between indoors and out almost indistinct, Shelor points out. “The master courtyard is so amazing in the morning,” enthuses homeowner Lauri Termansen. “It’s a beautiful piece of art just for us that’s literally growing. It’s like a snapshot of art from inside.” 3. Located outside of Lauri’s office and below the dining deck, a small patio is surrounded by yellow-blooming medicinal aloe and brittlebush, along with variegated agave and purple heart. “This is where the gallery gardens meet the native landscape,” remarks the landscape architect. “All of the views out to the gardens needed to be choreographed so that they complement each other.”

Architect: Darren Petrucci, AIA, Architecture–Infrastructure–Research Inc. Landscape architect: Michele Shelor, Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture.

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