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Former Hawaii Natives Trade Tropical Plants for Cacti in a Dreamy Paradise Valley Backyard

The backyard at this home in the Casa Blanca neighborhood of Paradise Valley was transformed from a water-loving tropical setting to a lush desert oasis.

From the lush tropics of Hawaii to the arid desert of Arizona, one couple thrives in their new surroundings.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Mark Lipczynski

Eight years ago, Julie and Bill Yarbrough made a major transition in their lives.

Having lived in the tropical paradise of Honolulu for more than 40 years, they were ready for a change. “We visited a good friend in Paradise Valley, fell in love with the desert and decided to make it our home,” Julie says. “It definitely was different from living on the ocean and changing from tropical plants to cacti, succulents and boulders.”

The couple bought a home in Paradise Valley and designed a landscape filled with specimen cacti and succulents reminiscent of a botanical garden. “Bill spent a lot of time finding the plants and building up our collection,” Julie remarks. Seven years later, they moved a few miles away to the gated Casa Blanca neighborhood. Ironically, the new property was filled with tropical flowers and shrubs. Loving the low maintenance of their former yard, they made an agreement with the home buyers that would allow the Yarbroughs to take their desert plants with them. “It took a good 10 days to transfer everything over, but it was well worth it,” Bill says.

Built in 2000, the Casa Blanca house already had a putting green, a sports court and an infinity-edge pool with four water features. Working closely with landscape designer Chad Norris, they reworked the grounds into a lush desert oasis by removing several messy trees, as well as a number of high-maintenance tropical plants and flowers. In their place, Norris revegetated with saguaros, agaves, yuccas, barrel cacti, euphorbias and other low-water-use vegetation. “The idea was to integrate vertical, spiky and spherical plants into the rest of the landscape,” the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner explains.

1-2. Plants in various sizes, textures and colors were combined into picturesque vignettes. 3. One of three guest suites, each with a different theme, the exotic room is outfitted with a black four-poster bed accented with Balinese fabrics and an ethnic purse from Turkey. The red vessel is an antique Tsunodaru ceremonial sake bucket. 4. A custom stained-glass window offers privacy without blocking the light. The ceremonial carved wood stool is from Africa.

With nearly an acre of land, there was plenty of room to add a second putting green and a pitching area for Bill that was more suitable to his liking. “Our two dogs love it,” Julie enthuses. “The problem is, when my husband chips, one of our dogs invariably intercepts the ball before it has a chance to land.” To bring more focus to the pool, which was well-hidden by iron fencing and hedges, Norris removed everything obstructing its view and reworked the walkway to open up the area and re-imagine the outdoor living space.

1. Once invisible from the patio and inside the house, the view of this stunning pool was opened up when landscape designer Chad Norris removed wrought-iron fencing and a thick hedge. He then revegetated with less water-thirsty plants. 2. At the far end of the pool, a raised sun deck overlooks a tiled spa that doubles as a water feature. 3. The homeowners found this stone Hindu figure in Indonesia. 4. A putting green is one of two on the grounds. 5-6. Norris says he wanted to blend the lush grass and trees of the Paradise Valley property with a sustainable desert plant palette to minimize water usage. “The yard had a lot of messy trees that we ended up removing,” he remarks. “We selectively salvaged mature cactus specimens from Bill and Julie Yarbrough’s previous home and integrated them into their new landscape.”

Inside and out, the four-bedroom residence, which includes an attached casita, was brightened up with lighter shades of paint so that plants and interior art would stand out. With the help of their friend, architect Robert Miller, who built two of their previous homes, they constructed two large guest suites from what originally was four rooms. Julie, a retired interior designer, then created different themes for the bedrooms, including traditional, Western and Oriental with contemporary mixed in. Dark furnishings can be found throughout the house. “I have always loved homes with white walls, to show off the art, and dark furniture,” she says. Flooring throughout is a deep shade of hand-chiseled walnut, which grounds the interiors and adds warmth.

1. In the front entry, an antique fish kettle hook called a Jizai Kagi hangs from a bamboo pole over an antique wood hibachi. The Japanese Tansu chest features intricately designed forged-iron hardware. 2. Julie’s eclectic style comes to life in the living room, where treasures from around the world unite. Adorning the wall is an antique Japanese silkscreen. Carved wooden doors on either side of the cantera fireplace open to storage. Flooring is hand-chiseled walnut. 3. Next to the dining table, a Japanese chest in cinnabar red is paired with three Chinese pots with lids. Above it are old Chinese story-telling paintings on rice paper.

Julie’s eclectic design style seems to come naturally to her, as does a flair for mixing the couple’s 59 years’ worth of furnishings and art collections. “I don’t care about trends,” she admits. “I buy what I love and am constantly adding new finds. However, I always try to make sure that everything works together as a whole.” Having traveled all over the world, the Yarbroughs have a diverse collection of pieces from China, Korea, Japan and Africa, as well as those with a more traditional, contemporary and Southwest aesthetic. Julie also likes to browse consignment stores, and one of her favorite local shops, Tierra Del Lagarto, is her go-to place for items from India, Indonesia, Morocco, Mexico and Turkey.

Her artistic sensibility can also be seen in the master bathroom, where she had a stained-glass window commissioned by Scottsdale artisan Chris Powers for over the Jacuzzi to create privacy from the yard without losing light. “Originally there were curtains, but I wanted to brighten up the room,” she explains. Reminiscent of something that might be found in a cathedral, the opaque design was also replicated in four additional niches in the room.

Throughout the house, animals are a recurring theme and can be found in fabrics, art and accessories. Live animals, as in their 6-year-old Shih Tzu, Coco, and 5-year-old Havanese, Bandit, also play a role in the design. “We have eight dog beds and one tepee for them to sleep in,” Julie says with a smile. In the master bedroom, an antique wooden chicken coop from Korea doubles as a coffee table and a cozy dog bed, which sits inside the coop. “They really do have it made,” Bill remarks. As the Yarbroughs’ love of the arid Southwest continues to grow, so does their flourishing garden and their well-nuanced collection of treasures from around the globe.

House renovation: Cullum Homes. Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs,

For more information, see Sources.

1. “Everything we do is intentional,” notes Norris. “It’s about creating functionality, impact and a calming, soothing environment.” 2. At the front entry, creeping fig vine covers much of the home’s facade. The spacious courtyard showcases the original poured-concrete paving. Although the interior is eclectic, the exterior has a Santa Barbara-style flair. 3. Reflecting the couple’s South Carolina roots, Julie went for a Southern traditional design for this guest quarters. The painting above the bed is by their nephew, Chris Snedeker, who is known for his low-country landscape imagery. imagery. 4. The armoire is a French antique. Sitting atop the low chest are beaded African figures. 5. The casita bedroom is all about the West with its hand-carved bed, blanket-covered throw pillows, Indian-print leather pillows and a bull skull. 6. Blue-and-white printed fabrics—Julie’s favorite color combination—provide ethnic touches in the traditionally styled master bedroom. Atop the bed is an Indonesian throw, along with the couple’s dogs, Bandit and Coco. The coffee table near the fireplace is an old chicken coop that houses a dog bed. 7. A casual dining area off of the kitchen opens up to the much-used family room, where a pet teepee allows Bandit to be part of the action while sitting in comfort. A trio of African masks hangs on the wall near comfy couches accented with woven Turkish pillows. On the mantle sits an antique wood sculpture of two African animals.


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