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Eden’s Architect

2020 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Jeremy McVicars

Blending casual with contemporary, landscape designer Jeremy McVicars brings an edgy mix to Valley gardens.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Mark Lipczynski and Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser

“No matter what, it is critical to follow the home’s architecture when devising a garden layout,” says landscape designer Jeremy McVicars, owner of Refined Gardens in Scottsdale. “From there, you can tailor your vision to suit the setting.” Specializing in residential and resort landscape development, construction and maintenance, the award-winning company is quickly getting a reputation for its innovative use of plants, state-of-the-art designs, stylistic water features and overall ingenuity.

Although McVicars may be best known for his lush Arcadia gardens, the Nevada native has been delving into a more contemporary look at a brisk pace and estimates that 50% of his projects now incorporate a sleek, streamlined and sophisticated aesthetic. For this ultramodern residence on Camelback Mountain, the designer wanted to bring something unexpected to the landscape. “I think the planting scheme is one of the most defining features of the project,” he says.

Unique configurations of greenery embrace the home’s architecture and serve as works of visual art throughout the sloped grounds. In the backyard, a succession of pink ornamental grasses, low-growing shrubs, natural boulders and columnar cacti are layered one behind the other, creating an unexpected visual montage of textures. Rows of agave rosettes line the perimeter of a grassy area, serving as a dynamic form of natural edging. For added impact, McVicars massed vegetation in a way that seems more like he’s painting a picture with plants than just setting them in the ground. “I wanted to mix sophistication with casual,” he notes.

Jeremy McVicars; Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser

Framing the property’s stunning views with trees and large specimens is something he does deliberately and with finesse. “Just because you have a phenomenal view across the cityscape or mountains doesn’t mean you have to leave the space wide open. By adding a framework with vegetation, you actually draw the eye out into the distance and create a dynamic vignette.”

Always wanting to stretch the boundaries of what he does, McVicars also likes to push the structural limits whenever possible. In this landscape, he devised block retaining walls faced with artistic metal panels in a design that he describes as “the random pushing and pulling of elements.” A poolside fire pit was carved from slabs of 8-inch-thick black stone rather than traditional veneer over masonry block. And in the front yard, a dramatic water feature showcasing a trough overflowing with water that appears to spill into nowhere was inspired by the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

“We try to take a more artisanal approach to whatever we do,” explains McVicars, who applauds his growing staff of 65 as a huge component of his success. “I don’t like to be stuck in just one style. What’s unique about the Southwest and its climate is that you can create so many types of gardens that thrive year-round.”

McVicars has been bringing luxuriant greenscapes to life in the Valley for more than 18 years, and he continues to evolve in his work, with technology playing a big role. “In high school, I took several architecture classes, but what I really wanted to do was be an animator,” he admits. While studying for his animation degree, he worked for Phoenix landscape designer Jeff Berghoff, who served as a long-time mentor. McVicars eventually became director of design and stayed on for 12 years.

“No matter what, it is critical to follow the home’s architecture when devising a garden layout.”

—Jeremy McVicars, landscape designer

1. Rows of golden barrels, saguaro spears and a statement-making organ pipe cactus echo the myriad straight lines seen on the home’s exterior and fencing. Clad mostly with burnished copper and bronze accents, the residence played a big role in dictating the layout of the gardens. 2. McVicars took a novel design approach to defining the edge of a yard by placing rows of desert vegetation, boulders and rebar fencing in a tiered formation. 3. “This lot is situated on a hillside with stunning views, but because it’s sloped we needed to terrace some of the areas to make them useable for outdoor entertaining,” explains McVicars. 4. Saguaro spears placed at the corner of the pool draw the eye toward the northeast with its panoramic views of the Valley.

Ready for a fresh challenge, he started his own landscape firm in 2013 and soon after hired full-time landscape architects and designers, some of whom focus on 3D modeling. “We are creating amazing 3D animation videos and hand-drawn concepts that allow homeowners to see exactly what their properties will look like when complete,” explains McVicars. These highly realistic presentations, with visual flyovers that guide viewers through a project, are shifting the way his clients respond to new ideas that they might not comprehend if only drawn on paper.

1. “This house needed to be designed for some amount of seclusion, so it was imperative to have mature, low-maintenance plantings in the landscape,” says builder Nancy Brunkhorst, who worked on the project. “[Landscape designer Jeremy McVicars] had to deal with some very restrictive hillside regulations, and I think he did a beautiful job.” 2. In this side yard, McVicars planted agaves in masses to anchor the home’s linear architecture. “The dense layout gives a more lush feeling even though we incorporated low-water-use plants,” he explains. A trio of Hercules aloes along the house provide height and diversity in the garden, while stacked rocks make up a natural retaining wall. 3. Synthetic grass in this side yard softens the space and adds another layer of greenery to the landscape. “Jeremy has a talented eye for design, whether working on a large hillside home or a luscious acre,” says Brunkhorst. “He has been on our radar ever since he started his business.” 4. Agaves and strategically placed boulders are paired with heat-hardy myoporum, which serves as an evergreen groundcover. The fire pit was cut from black Recinto stone.

“There’s nothing quite like viewing the sunset’s glow on the rock formations around the house.”

—Jon Bernhard, architect

For a recent proposal, McVicars used a video to illustrate what a two-story wall of flowing water would look and sound like in a homeowner’s courtyard. Overhead, a catwalk that stretches the length of the space can be experienced by the viewer as though he or she was walking across it. In another animation, a design with double-layer pools—one at ground level and the other a full story up with a see-through bottom—is complete with “live” swimmers and water ripples. “These videos take a lot of time and attention to produce, but our clients are thunderstruck,” McVicars says. His company creates at least one animation per week, and the effort is paying off as it takes on bigger and more complex jobs.

Concepts are often inspired by the designer’s trips around the world, most recently to Argentina, Europe and China. “My wife, Stacy, and I love to travel, and I often notice things I’ve never seen before,” he remarks. “I like implementing these ideas into my projects and giving them my own twist.” While visiting Powerscourt Estate in Ireland, he took particular notice of retaining walls that were designed as geometric-shaped hills wrapped in grass, and he decided to try something similar with an Arizona client.

Architect Mark Candelaria has collaborated with McVicars on a number of projects. “Jeremy is always stretching the boundaries no matter the style. He is very versatile, from contemporary desert xeriscapes to lush traditional European gardens,” the 2005 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner says. Builder Tom Argue agrees. “Jeremy is a visionary,” he notes. “Regardless of the architecture and design, he and his team have the ability to truly enhance any exterior and make a house feel like a home.”

As the designer looks to the future, he only sees growth and possibility. McVicars wouldn’t mind taking on more jobs outside of Arizona beyond his projects in California and Nevada, and wants to further develop his own line of custom pots, furniture and other amenities. “I just want to create the best product I can for my clients,” he says. “Turning out something timeless, aesthetically pleasing and truly functional is what drives me and my amazing team every day.”

Architects: Bing Hu, H&S International; Will Bruder, Will Bruder Architects. Builder: Nancy Brunkhorst, Nance Custom Builders. Landscape Designer: Jeremy McVicars, Refined Gardens.

For more information, see Sources.

“This lot is somewhat unique in that we were able to create flat patio spaces in areas that are naturally slanted,” McVicars points out. With views of Piestewa Peak in the distance, the outdoor living spaces are situated to take advantage of the area’s picturesque scenery.


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