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Garden of the Year: This Paradise Valley Home’s Landscape is Both Lush and Sustainable

An arc of bougainvillea frames the home’s composition of euphorbia royleana and Pachycereus weberi.

A Paradise Valley couple transforms their greenscape into a smart, sustainable desert paradise.

By Lauren Tyda | Photography by Michael Woodall

Through vined trellises, beyond a lemon arbor, just past a serene herb garden, surrounded by radiant bursts of ruby-red bougainvillea is a most spectacular mise en scène.

Butterflies and hummingbirds saunter among a bright menagerie of cacti, succulents and ground covers. Rope swings sway beneath mature trees. Floaties drift lazily around the pool.

On mild evenings, the family of seven who dwells in this 2.5-acre estate enjoys entertaining guests—at one point, as many as 500 for their annual Halloween party (though quiet tête-à-têtes by the firepit are equally sublime).

This idyllic setting has been a five-year labor of love for both the owners and landscape architects Russell Greey and Clayton Miller. “The former residents brought a European-style, English garden estate into the desert, and while beautiful, it’s just not sustainable,” says the wife, referring to the layers upon layers of thirsty boxwood hedges, annuals and lush lawns that once occupied the grounds. “These huge lots require a lot of water and maintenance, and it doesn’t stay true to the Arizona desert feel.”

Greey, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, and Miller began by tackling the entry courtyard, replacing a boxy, coffinlike fountain with a stylish sundial water feature and swapping annuals with captivating compositions of succulents, aloes and cacti.

The front door, once made of solid wood, became a glass artifice that opens the space into the interior and allows a view through the home into the backyard. “The family loved what we did with the courtyard so much, we created a master plan for the whole property and have been executing it piece by piece ever since,” Greey explains.

In the front yard, the team traded annuals for a collection of aloes and installed what they lovingly refer to as the “totem pole cactus forest,” a raised rectangular steel planter with a sculptural mix of towering tubular plantings.

1. The home’s unique lemon arbor. 2. Landscape architect Russell Greey calls this vignette an “interesting ah-ha moment.” The homeowner recalls, “I told him I wanted to do something off the front of the house that is quirky, weird, sustainable and interesting. So we came up with this idea of a totem pole cactus forest.” 3-4. A towering pivot door leads into the courtyard, where Greey and fellow landscape architect Clayton Miller added a sundial fountain, along with thoughtful compositions of cacti and succulents. 5. Emerald planters with tall slipper plant (Pedilanthus bracteatus) and purple heart (Tradescantia pallida) line a perimeter of the courtyard. 6. The home’s unique lemon arbor leads to a small herb and vegetable garden with a washing station for pickings. A wall trellis of  pots blanketed in podranea vines adds a whimsical element.

To create a showstopping entry point for guests off of the auto court, Greey and Miller added trellises, including the aforementioned lemon arbor that in springtime explodes with softball-size fruit. “They’re massive and delicious,” the wife explains. “It was Russ’s idea to put the lemon arbor in to create more of a constricted space, and then you open up into the yard, and it has a sense of arrival.”


—The Homeowner

1. The date palm-lined poolscape is now surrounded by a sustainable oasis of  speciman cacti and succulents. 2. A trellis of star jasmine and pink Passiflora vines that bloom at different times. “That way, the owners can get longer color out of them,” Greey explains. 3. Bougainvillea lines the outdoor staircase, which is accented by ‘Chocolate Drop’ euphorbia. 4. The bougainvillea provide a joust of luscious rouge among an array of xeriscape plants. 5. “Clayton and I are plant geeks,” Greey jokes. “We love finding interesting succulents and cacti.” Here, they used agave, Hercules aloe, cereus peruvianus monstrose, silver torch cactus and elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra). 6. The home’s unique lemon arbor leads to a small herb and vegetable garden with a washing station for pickings. A wall trellis of  pots blanketed in podranea vines adds a whimsical element.

The team decided to keep many of the mature trees on the property, including the craggy olives with gnarled, knotty trunks, and added a vegetable and herb garden surrounded by sour orange hedges and a trellised wall of pots. Several specimen cacti and succulents were then craned in to occupy spaces around the pool, creating moments of greenery and texture using visually arresting compositions of desert plants and ground covers.

“Russ and Clayton really understood what I wanted,” says the wife, a homemaker and avid art collector, who envisioned the “garden rooms” around the property becoming more sustainable desert oases. “I’m very particular about what I like and what I don’t like,” she explains, “and I wanted the house to feel interesting. When I walk around my home or my yard, I like for my eye to rest on things that are not necessarily beautiful, but interesting. I want it to be unique and eclectic.”

Greey and Miller are currently reimagining the north lawn, installing terraces that will lead to a sunken art installation of desert plants. “It’s going to be very distinctive when it’s done,” Miller says. “There will be an arc of saguaros that wraps around the patio, so you feel nestled among the walls of cactus.”

After that, the wife intends to carve out a more intimate dining space for smaller groups and replace lawns in the backyard with water-wise xeriscaping or synthetic turf. “I think this a perfect example of how gorgeous and green we can get with a sustainable landscape,” she reflects. “We’ve put a lot of intention into the yard in making it beautiful. I think it just has a nice organic feel to it.”

Today, the only English parts left in their landscape are their two bulldogs, Joan and Newman, who enjoy chasing each other around the yard and occasionally romping on the playground’s in-ground trampoline. Next month, the retreat will come alive as the family welcomes some 50 guests for Thanksgiving.

“I don’t know how we could ever move now,” says the wife, smiling and peering out at her private desert botanical garden. “This house and the yard have grown with us and the kids. It’s like a living and breathing thing that is always evolving. I love that it doesn’t look like it did when we bought it nine years ago. It feels like ours.”

1. The duo replaced the once solid-wood front door with a glass to provide a clear sight line through the house into the backyard. 2. Hercules aloe, totem pole cactus, Madagascar palm and various mammilaria bring sculptural texture to an area off of the master bedroom.  3. A ravishing display of cacti and succulents, including Pachycereus weberi, San Pedro, organ pipe and ocotillo, line a pathway near the pool. 4. “In the fall, my girlfriends and I like to cozy up to the fireplace in the courtyard with blankets,” says the wife. “It feels very cozy and ‘Arizona.’” Greey and Miller incorporated shades to protect the plants in harsh summer heat. 5. Yucca rostrata, prickly pear and dwarf ollie add drama to the backyard pergola.

Landscape architects: Russell Greey and Clayton Miller, Greey|Pickett, Scottsdale, Landscape installation: Aaron Mitschele, Mitschele’s Landscaping, Phoenix, Cactus placement: Alex Greey, Arizona Specialty Cactus, Phoenix, (602) 694-3496.


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