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Hidden Potential

This stunning view greets guests as soon as they walk in the front door. Visible through enormous windows, the backyard setting is the key point of the landscape.

A large, unusable yard gets a complete change-up with unexpected touches and a nod to desert living.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Art Holeman

Fifteen years ago, a Southern California couple moved to the Valley and found the ideal house in Scottsdale with a large backyard, flat terrain and plenty of grass that was perfect for their young kids to safely play and enjoy the outdoors. But the existing layout and landscape provided little else in regard to gathering spaces or places in which to relax and enjoy the view.

“It was a spec home with an average landscape, but nothing extraordinary,” says the wife. “We kept talking about doing an upgrade as our kids were growing up, but it took us a number of years before we finally moved forward with it.” The pair had come across the work of landscape designer Chad Norris in Phoenix Home & Garden and liked what they saw. “Chad just has this way of grouping plants and pulling a look together that resonated with us,” the wife adds. “He took us around to look at different plant specimens so we could give him an idea of what we liked. From there, we pretty much left it up to him.”

While the homeowners were open to whatever Norris envisioned, they did include a few items on their must-have list. Tops was the addition of more livable spaces within the yard. “We wanted to exploit every bit of the terrain, meaning we didn’t want there to be areas of non-interest or non-use,” the husband explains. “A particular challenge was our free-form-style swimming pool that looked as though it had randomly landed in the yard. We felt that the pool should be encased somewhat in its own space.” Even though the yard is large by Arizona standards—almost 2,000 square feet—the couple also wanted to create a sense of intimacy and privacy from neighboring properties.

“For years, the yard served its purpose, but by the time the homeowners came to me, it was this flat, dry lot, and there really was no reason for anyone to go out there,” recalls Norris, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. In addition, there was grass—and lots of it. “It was great for our three boys when they were young, but they are grown and out of the house now,” says the husband. “I got tired of the mowing and the high water bill.”

To achieve a much more aesthetically pleasing look and design a sustainable landscape, Norris followed his tried-and-true formula. “I like to create high-impact focal points, in different scales and with drought-tolerant vegetation, in various locations throughout the yard,” he says. “Then, when you view it all together, each area plays off the other, creating one big vignette.”

1. The 1.5-acre property offered plenty of room for landscape designer Chad Norris to create multiple planting spaces that echo the surrounding desert. 2. Serving as a dramatic focal feature behind the newly rebuilt waterfall, this specimen organ pipe cactus functions as a visual stopping point and draws attention away from neighboring houses. 3. One of the many view corridors the landscape designer conceived for the yard, with each providing a picturesque vignette that can be admired from windows throughout the couple’s home.

Choosing plants that look good year-round was key, and since the homeowners wanted mostly indigenous flora, Norris shaped the garden by first creating view corridors that would draw attention from inside the house to out. “The idea is to create a visual stopping points,” he remarks.

One dynamic example is visible from the home’s foyer and through the living room windows where a massive organ pipe cactus can be seen growing from an outcropping of boulders at the edge of the pool, the design of which now connects cohesively to the rest of the landscape. “We elevated and rebuilt the pool’s boulder water feature so that it’s higher than any other hardscape element in the yard, and then we added this amazing specimen,” Norris describes. Surrounded with various desert shrubs, cacti and succulents, it serves as the backyard’s centerpiece while also drawing the eye to the McDowell Mountains in the distance.

Planting opportunities were established throughout the grounds, including garden beds along the pool’s edge and linear planters set within pavers that visually divide one space from another. Raised garden beds also were erected for growing vegetables and herbs. “My husband calls himself a hobby gardener, and he really enjoys tending to his tomatoes, peppers, beets, zucchini and herbs. Then he hands them over to me so I can cook him something,” the wife says with a laugh.

1. Flowering lantana and salvia, along with a rich mix of cacti and succulents, including a large-leafed Agave americana, create a tapestry of textures and hues among artfully placed boulders. 2. The existing free-form pool was resurfaced and various planting beds were added around its perimeter. 3. “A rebuild of the waterfall added height and interest with additional boulders, plant life and better use of the movement of water,” the husband points out. Norris brought in 40 tons of boulders in order to elevate the area, which resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing sound as the water flows down into the pool. 4. Norris created a checkerboard pattern out of synthetic grass and travertine pavers in a corner of the deck to break up the hardscape and create transition to the planting area beyond. 5. Norris took a naturalistic approach to his poolside garden beds with cacti and succulents tucked among large rocks, just as they would be found in the desert.

With the addition of a fire pit, an in-ground fire feature, a new barbecue/bar area, expanded hardscape areas that make room for lounging and dining, and synthetic turf that showcases some artistic elements, such as a checkerboard design, the backyard feels fresh and new. “I really like the variety of plants used and the colors created,” the husband comments. “I’m also fond of the clean lines and the absence of clutter in the space.”

Once a week, the couple’s sons and their families come over to enjoy the new backyard, where they swim, play  games and hang out on the patio to enjoy a barbecued meal. “The yard is so much more conducive to entertaining, and it has a much better flow. It now feels like it’s an extension of our house,” says the wife. “And all of the indigenous plants make it feel like a real Arizona garden.”

Landscape Designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs.

For more information, see Sources.

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