Filled with rare specimens and carefully crafted compositions, a remodeled landscape is a study in verdant allure.
By Shannon Severson | Photography by Scott Sandler
For most homeowners, their yards are places of beauty. Whether being enjoyed outside or viewed through windows from the interior of the house, they serve as living works of art. Landscape designer Chad Norris understands how a well-conceived yard can enhance the Southwest lifestyle. “All painters have a canvas. Mine is the landscape,” says the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. As such, he knew just what was needed to turn the gardens of Dan and Kaye Lyon’s North Scottsdale home into breathtaking views that command attention.
When the couple purchased their winter home—a tract house in the shadow of Pinnacle Peak—the front and back yards were the stuff of standard builder-grade. That is, nothing to truly capture and delight the eye. They quickly embarked on a major renovation that paid full attention to both the house and the landscape and created a luxurious, resortlike environment and a garden that features rare and unusual specimens placed for maximum effect.
Because the home and gardens were renovated simultaneously, the exterior landscape is designed to harmonize with the architectural elements. An elevated, pitched central roof and angular lines alternate with rough-hewn concrete columns and copper-lined beams. Large picture windows throughout the home frame an outdoor canvas that is constantly changing and growing.
The broad street-facing landscape impresses the moment the property line comes into view, with a large Argentine saguaro setting the tone for a series of visual vignettes anchored by carefully placed boulders and accented with outcroppings of smaller plants. Each arrangement interplays vertical plantings or stacked boulders with spiky, spherical, colorful and soft elements, building drama as guests approach the house. Some boulders serve as a backdrop for the shadows of plantings that are illuminated by strategically placed lighting when evening falls. The effect flows so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the careful detail that goes into each one.
“Even though the focal elements in every vignette may differ, there is accent material that is consistent throughout,” says Norris. “Boulders, agaves and golden barrel cacti are the threads that pull it all together. People don’t always understand why the arrangement looks so remarkable. I’m primarily using specimens that are common throughout the area, but I place them in a way that is uniquely attractive.”
Norris creates a story of sorts for each project he executes, beginning in one corner of the front yard and weaving the botanical tale from front curb to back fence. “The entire property is appreciated, from corner to corner,” says Norris.
An oversized glass front entry door, flanked by graduated heights of Mexican fencepost cacti, afford a view through the home to a striking, arrow-shaped wall in the backyard that is the backdrop for a massive, rare cluster of golden barrel cacti. The wall was originally intended to serve as a water feature, but the Lyons weren’t keen on the upkeep, and Norris figured he could find something spectacular to replace it. Indeed, nature served up a true masterpiece in a mass that boasts at least 30 individual barrels. A 90-ton crane was employed to transfer the cluster and all the other large plants, boulders and trees into the yard.
We’re in Arizona to be outside. The covered pergola and fireplace allow us to fully enjoy our outdoor spaces, even when it’s wet or cool.”
-Kaye Lyon, homeowner
“We wanted golden barrels that we could enjoy now, not 30 years from now, and Chad delivered that,” says Kaye.
“This type of grouping is quite rare,” says Norris. “I get one or two a year that are this size. All the large specimens in this project are salvaged from around the Valley. We have a full-time crew that locates plants, trees and cacti for projects like this one.” This dedication, combined with Norris’ design style, produces landscapes that would customarily take 30 years or more (in the case of saguaros) to grow on their own. Many homeowners—particularly those whose Valley homes serve as vacation destinations—don’t have the time to wait that long.
In the backyard, the remodel team began with a confined patio with just enough room for a couple of lounge chairs. An 18-inch-high boundary wall was moved to expand the size of the yard and its height was raised to enhance privacy. The outdoor living space is defined by a large covered pergola anchored by custom-cut octagonal pillars. Copper-encased heaters are subtly incorporated above the dining and seating areas. A large fireplace echoes the arrow motif of the barrel cactus backdrop.
“We’re in Arizona to be outside,” says Kaye. “We wanted a place where we could utilize the yard with shade, warmth and shelter from the rain. The covered pergola and fireplace allow us to fully enjoy our outdoor spaces, even when it’s wet or cool.”
A sunken spa, fully encircled by decking and a rich array of cacti, agaves and flowering plants, has a picture-postcard view of Pinnacle Peak. “The hot tub is wonderful after a day of golfing,” says Kaye. “It’s our little oasis that’s tucked away. Because of the higher walls, it’s protected from a nearby path. The feeling is one of total privacy and seclusion. It’s a great spot to go read a book.”
“All painters have a canvas. Mine is the landscape.”
— Chad Norris, landscape designer
At the edge of the decking, an extremely rare crested organ pipe cactus stands among an arrangement of boulders that mimic the mountain beyond. The specimen wasn’t in the original plans for the space, but when Norris found it, he knew that plans had to change. “I’ve never seen one like it before and haven’t seen one since,” he says. “The crest is a deformity, but it’s usually confined to one arm. To have all three arms crested and then to have those split and crest again is even more unusual.”
From every vantage point, no space looks incomplete. Undulating levels of plantings give visual interest. Brass fixtures with varying degrees of illumination cast a perfect glow at night. Beyond the back wall, giant native multiarmed saguaros were planted in the wash and are lit for richer visual depth.
“This is the perfect place to entertain year-round,” says Kaye. “The backyard can be used in sun or rain, and it’s beautifully lit and warm in the evenings. There’s always something new blooming, and the surprise of what will grow and thrive in the desert is of constant interest.”
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